Connecting cities: how can we form networks for sustainable urban development?

A summary of the second webinar in the City-to-City Learning series

On May 7, we continued our webinar series on City-to-City (C2C) learning. This means exploring how cities can learn from and with one another, specifically when it comes to sustainable urban development. The three-part webinar series is aimed at enhancing the understanding and implementation of how cities learn translocally through being part of networks. In this second edition our focus turned to network leadership: speakers Matthew Bach (ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability) and Corina Angheloiu (GRP – Global Resilience Partnership) shared their experiences regarding C2C learning network implementation. Additionally, discussants Sandra Marin Herbert (IURC) and Aline Roldan (UN-Habitat) provided key takeaways and examples to spur discussion. In this blog, we summarize the key takeaways of the session.

5 Reflections for Effective C2C Learning 

The project presentations and the insightful Q&A session that followed inspired some important reflections on C2C learning processes, the importance of collaboration, and the role played by communities and stakeholders.  

  1. Role of communities of practice  

When it comes to C2C learning, communities of practice can constitute an important platform for transdisciplinary learning – especially given that urban professionals typically come from many different backgrounds (like architecture, engineering, etc). Although communities of practice have often previously been concentrated within singular organisations or sectors, communities today are inviting professionals from various other areas. This demonstrates the increased potential communities of practice have to bridge knowledge gaps, as well as build interpersonal connections, between professions/sectors. Corina Angheloiu, Strategic Learning Lead at the Global Resilience Partnership, argued that members of communities of practice develop a shared identity; and furthermore, that a feedback loop is created, as members funnel information and insights back into their own organisations. Besides this, it is important to consider the purpose of a community of practice, and which platform is best suited to match its aims. Platforms like LinkedIn allow for breadth but less depth – networks can reach more people, but on shallower and less interpersonal level than when it comes to more localised or in-person knowledge exchanges (for more detail on scale as a factor, see our next point). 

  1. Scaling learning up and down 

Designing and effective learning process must be specific to the people involved: the design that is most effective for 10 participants is different from the design for 10,000 participants. Aline Roldan, who is a Programme Management Officer at UN-Habitat, emphasised that it is vital to consider not only who, but how many people are involved/targeted by a learning process: scaling up or down becomes an important consideration. We also tend to associate learning with a “classroom” environment that involves absorbing lectures in a conventional way; but this model has been criticised. Aline highlighted the need to respect the autonomy of learners more and use spaces for knowledge exchange platforms to encourage connection and collaboration above all.  

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel  

It is crucial to work with existing resources, stakeholders, and organizational structures. Adapting or enhancing strategies already in use within communities often leads to greater success. Matthew Bach, the Head of Justice, Equity, and Democracy at ICLEI Europe, explained this concept through the collaboration between DRIFT, a research institute at Erasmus University, and ICLEI. DRIFT supported ICLEI by facilitating just sustainability projects and initiatives, and evaluating current strategies and organizations, clustering this information into 17 domains. This process involved understanding existing approaches to sustainable and just cities, identifying drivers of urban injustice, and determining the types of governance, innovations, and interventions that can support this work. The distilled information was then organized into the 17 domains. Corina Angheloiu also discussed this need to “go with the energy” that is already there; tapping into and increasing awareness of small initiatives that already exist, while connecting people to one another. 

  1. Person-to-person learning and public participation 

Most people desire direct and personal connections with others, making the C2C learning process more effective at a person-to-person level. Corina Angheloiu emphasised that personal relationships are an “underrated way for learning to take place” and that these relationships need more facilitation and care. Matthew Bach elaborated on this in his presentation as well, noting both the benefits and challenges of enhancing public participation. For example, public participation often relies on individuals rather than city initiatives and can be unpredictable. While active outreach can boost public involvement, it is crucial to recognize that participating is an additional responsibility for many people, which can be a barrier. However, this added responsibility also tends to attract those who are particularly passionate about the cause. 

  1. Consider the role of formal and informal collaborations 

It is also important to consider who forms these collaborations, how, and who gets to have a say in setting the standard. When it comes to informal organisations, keeping the momentum going can be challenging. Elena Marie Enseñado, a PhD candidate at the Erasmus University Institute of Housing and Urban Development Studies and coordinator of the webinar series, noted the importance of individual characteristics and the resources provided by the organizations. Sandra Marin Herbert, Team Leader at the International Urban and Regional Cooperative (IURC), referred to her experiences in IURC when answering the question of retained momentum in informal organizations. The IURC programme has different “phases” in which the participants of the network are always involved through thematic clusters. Participants are invited as speakers, but there is a difference between those who are the “lighthouse”, emboldening people to explain their challenge and look for solutions they can adapt to their communities, and those who receive inspiration.

Curious to learn more? Read on to see what each speaker had to say! 

Speaker #1: Matthew Bach (ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability Europe) 

Matthew Bach, the Head of Justice, Equity, and Democracy at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability Europe, was our first webinar speaker. ICLEI is a network of 2,500 local and regional governments that promotes cross-regional learning to address challenges related to biodiversity, water, air, circular economy, governance, justice, equity, and democracy. At the European level, ICLEI facilitates knowledge exchange among its more than 170 European members through collaborative projects, consultancy services, event organization, advocacy on urban policy and other key issues, and fostering a connected and collaborative network of members. 

 Matthew discussed several examples to highlight the role of networks in C2C learning, including:  

  • Fair Local Green Deals: this initiative facilitates a participatory process within the European Green Deal that enables equitable and fair implementation. This arose as a response to attempts to steer the transition in a more technocratic direction. This initiative focuses on person-to-person learning to encourage collaboration and the sharing of experiences among individuals within networks, demonstrating the role of networks in participatory processes. 
  • NATURVATION project: in this initiative, locations designated as Urban-Related Innovation Platforms (URIPs) shared information after implementing nature-based solution projects. This network exchange influenced how members perceived effective implementation strategies, highlighting the importance of shared experiences. 
  • European Green Capital Network (EGCN): this network provides a space for previous winners and finalists of the Green Capital award to share inspiration, best practices, and challenges to sustainable implementation. The EGCN exemplifies how a network can enhance knowledge sharing and contribute to sustainable development across different cities. 

Key Takeaways  

  1. Translocal learning: experiments help facilitate innovations; it is beneficial to try different strategies in different contexts. 
  2. Avoid “copy and paste” mentality: implementors need to take a deep look at how to restructure something to make it meaningful in a different context.  
  3. Importance of site visits: talking to people in their space and seeing exchanges take place provides valuable information 
  4. Best learning happens person to person: find different forms of collaboration that enable learning and combine different ways of learning together to be most effective.  

Discussant: Sandra Marin Herbert – International Urban and Regional Cooperative (IURC) 

Sandra Marin Herbert, Team Leader at the International Urban and Regional Cooperative (IURC) was the discussant for the first part of the webinar. Sandra discussed the importance of considering the type of network during implementation. She also detailed the various phases, roles, and responsibilities of membership, highlighting what members can realistically achieve and do within a network. Sandra emphasised how collaborations across countries can lead to fascinating new insights, as there are many different approaches to tackling problems depending on the cultural context. Getting out of the “box” of Europe allows for access to completely new perspectives that might not have emerged otherwise. Using examples from several types of networks, including those led by municipalities, governments, and private non-profit organizations, she concluded that smaller and medium-sized cities particularly benefit from network participation, which can significantly impact them compared to larger cities. 

Speaker #2: Corina Angheloiu – Global Resilience Partnership (GRP) 

Corina Angheloiu, our second speaker, specialises in knowledge brokering for urban resilience professionals at Global Resilience Partnership (GRP). As an organization, GRP involves 82 partners working together to advance resilience in various ways across the globe: specifically, they work to investigate ways in which we can create a fundamentally inclusive world that can cope with shocks and change, and which remains within planetary boundaries. GRP was established 10 years ago to drive investment in resilience innovations that aim to tackle the world’s most demanding problems.  

Corina described several key points of focus for the work the GRP does, and examples of lessons learned regarding networks from two communities of practice

  • Three “opportunity areas” for resilience innovation: GRP categorises these areas into (1) food (regenerative and equitable food systems), (2) finance (reimagined finance flows and structures), and (3) communities (communities at the heart) 
  • Resilience Evidence Coalition: this first community of practice investigates “evidence” of resilience across different scales, explores what resilience looks like in various contexts (from households to market-based or socioecological systems), and considers what this means for cities. Coalition work involves curating an online inventory of resilience solutions and tools, as well as peer to peer learning and knowledge exchange activities. 
  • Urban Resilience Dialogues: this second community of practice focused on creating a knowledge exchange platform for solving problems and sharing learning within a more informal setting.  

Key Takeaways 

  1. Feedback loop: participants in communities of practice often take insights back to their own organisations and implement them there. 
  2. Balancing breadth and depth: structuring a platform requires considering whether it is more important to reach as large a network as possible, or to facilitate in-depth knowledge exchange. 
  3. “Non-professionals” are important: we need to consider how we can integrate their (often local and traditional) knowledge into urban resilience processes.  
  4. The “Global South” gap: there is a lack of “evidence” surrounding the topic of resilience that is global South-led, and it is important to fill this gap.  
  5. Focusing on “know-how”: beyond just technical assistance, it is also important to train professionals in how to solve the interpersonal problems that may arise when working with groups of people. 

Discussant: Aline Roldan – UN-Habitat (United Nations Human Settlements Programme) 

Our second discussant, Aline Roldan of UN-Habitat, responded to Corina’s presentation by addressing several points. She highlighted the need to design learning processes in an intentional and thought-through way, by considering scale and collaboration across sectors as factors. This process also involves exploring alternative models of education that do not involve a typical “classroom” setup and are more focused on bringing people from different backgrounds together. Aline gave an example of a learning process on the micro-scale of a workshop she participated in. In the session, professionals from different backgrounds were asked to show the trajectory of illegal logging using Legos, essentially creating a story from the moment a tree is cut down to when it is sold/used. Each professional had a completely different interpretation of this system and how the narrative unfolded, and the simple, playful activity of using Lego allowed them to bridge their differing contexts and understand one another’s perspectives.  

Menah Marleen Wellen

Webinar Background Information 

To watch a recording of the second “City-to-City Learning on Climate Change Policies” webinar, visit the Vital Cities and Citizens YouTube page or use this link . The three-part webinar series on “City-to-City Learning for Urban Sustainable Development” is a collaborative effort of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Vital Cities and Citizens’ JUSTRA Cities Network, Closer-Cities, and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).  

Visual Harvester Reflection 

Throughout the course of the webinar, illustrator and visual notes artist Menah Marleen Wellen completed a live visual summary representing the themes and topics discussed during the event. Her work is included above. 

Upcoming events and more information 

  • More information about ICLEI:    
  • Organised by ICLEI: 10th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns (conference in Aalborg, Denmark taking place on 1-3 October 2024)  
  • Organised by UN-Habitat: the Innovate4Cities Conference (conference in Montréal, Canada, taking place on 10-12 September 2024) brings together urban stakeholders, academia, business and civil society, aiming to advance the conversation on local climate action and inform key climate processes, including the IPCC Special Report on Cities and Climate Change (a key resource for cities worldwide!)  
  • 3rd and final webinar in the C2C Learning series: Fall 2024, stay tuned for more information! 


Fiona Sosnowski, JUSTRA Intern, Vital Cities and Citizens 

Lina Le Pelley, JUSTRA Student Assistant, Vital Cities and Citizens 

More information

Vital Cities and Citizens 
With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC) Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes: 

  • Inclusive Cities and Diversity 
  • Resilient Cities and People 
  • Smart Cities and Communities  
  • Sustainable and Just Cities 

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). 

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