For the first time, the majority of the world's population lives in a city. By 2050, urban citizenship is poised to increase to 70 per cent of the world’s population. Agglomerations are crowding into cities worldwide. Urban is the new Rural. Techno is the new Agro. This is the century of the City.


With the rise of city migration and the advent of the global village there has developed a coupling practice—a municipal ménage-a-deux—known as twin towns or sister cities. There is no precise definition of it, neither in law nor in culture. Theories tend to dictate that this type of complex relationship must be long-term, open, and inclusive in character. Finding harmony in another city is an act of mutual benefit, understanding, and peace.


The Second World War proved a catalyst in the development of twin towns. The idea was simple: repair damaged relationships between France, Germany, and the UK by finding towns that suffered during the war. Pair them up and foster friendship between former foes as an act of reconciliation. That’s why Coventry, UK, twinned with Stalingrad and later Dresden, all of which were inflicted with heavy bombing.


The rate of towns twinning accelerated rapidly during the Cold War, and to date there are over 10 000 partnerships throughout Europe, bolstered by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions funding program, valued at 12 million Euros annually.   


In 1956, the concept of sister cities migrated to the US, where President Dwight D Eisenhower proposed people-to-people citizen diplomacy. An association aptly named the National League of Cities was established to this end, which eventually became Sister Cities International, a not-for-profit citizen diplomacy network. This organisation currently boasts over 2 000 partnerships in over 150 countries.


Twinning cities can be geographic, oriented towards commonalities in place, territory, and scale. This is how Vancouver and Los Angeles hooked up back in 1986, even though on the scales of culture and population, Van city is not as endowed as LA.  


But geography is not required of a good partner, for twin towns destabilize spatial arrangements by encouraging border-crossing and extended networks.


Sister cities can come together culturally, sharing history, language, or tradition.


But comparable demographics does not necessarily translate to compatibility. When Toronto rejected Lisbon as a partner despite very strong community and business relationships, it was because of Toronto's numerous relationships in the region, stating, “One more European city in an already unbalanced international portfolio is not recommended." Toronto definitely has a type, and just can’t help being polyamorous with so many eligible candidates.


Toronto, however, is committed. Its oldest partner is Chongqin, in southwest China. They have been in a relationship since 1986. The coupling seems an unlikely match. Chongqin is 10 times larger, with 31.4 million residents. The city serves as the economic capital of the region, with the country’s largest aluminum plant as well as considerable mining, steel, textiles, food, and auto industries. For Toronto, this relationship is business above all else—an entry point into the Chinese market.


Partners need not even share much in common for, as they say, opposites attract. Abstract notions such as urban citizenship and localism can generate a nice, warm fellowship.


Twinning can provide avenues for engagement and participation in city politics concerning the rights of peoples in other places. Rights claims and political decisions are increasingly made at the local level. In 2013, Milan and Venice broke up with twin town St. Petersburg due to the city’s ban on “gay propaganda” and the increasing violations of LGBTQ+ rights in Russia.


The mobility of urbanism, think-tanks, media, professors, and other forms of technical assistance can also enhance the intimacy of divergent places. That’s how Nottingham, UK, and Karlsruhe, Germany, got it on. When Nottingham decided to install a tram network it consulted experts from Karlsruhe, a city with extensive and highly efficient tramways. They’ve been building together ever since, and have recently welcomed a new tram route into the family.


The relationships between cities are as diverse as those that populate them. There are successful couples, entertaining couples, sexy couples, and then there’s the town of Boring, Oregon, who decided to court Dull, Scotland.


Despite differences and similarities, every city has its soulmate. Sometimes it’s just about the right pickup line.

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