8 April 2024

GMF Cities ‒ Cities of Tomorrow


As part of the “Cities of Tomorrow” series, Philea spoke with Paul Costello, the German Marshall Fund of the US, to learn more about the objectives of the programme; the approach adopted by the foundation in this field; and what progress has been observed as a result of this work.

Many of the global challenges we face play out at the level of cities. These complex, interconnected and dynamic ecosystems are where many social, economic, environmental and political factors converge. This series, curated by Philea’s Funders Forum on Sustainable Cities, showcases philanthropic initiatives that aim at making cities sustainable.


What is GMF Cities about? The programme:

  • Aims to further the role of cities in addressing global challenges by helping cities learn from, build on, replicate and scale innovative initiatives, policies and practices.
  • Works with and for transatlantic cities that further and fortify democracy; see that there is agency for all; promote social, economic and climate justice; and drive enterprise and entrepreneurship towards social good.
  • Connects city-level actors in North America and in Europe to share and learn from scalable and replicable practices and policies that address global challenges and have a transformative and innovative potential, through a series of transatlantic gatherings, peer-learnings, and applied research initiatives.
  • Supports public, private sector and civil society actors in cities to develop their leadership skills and policy expertise, and to build cross-sectoral transatlantic networks.

The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a non-profit, transatlantic organisation headquartered in Washington, D.C., with offices in Ankara, Belgrade, Berlin, Brussels, Bucharest, Paris and Warsaw. GMF strives to champion democratic values and the transatlantic alliance by strengthening civil society, forging bold and innovative policy ideas, and developing a new generation of leaders to tackle global challenges. GMF delivers hope by upholding the dignity of the individual and defending freedom in the spirit of the Marshall Plan.

CityCities from the North America and Europe
Primary constituentsCitizens
Partners and collaborationsPublic and private sector, NGO leaders

Could you tell us about the German Marshall Fund’s work at city level? What are the priority areas for you in this strand of work? And what was the motivation to start focusing on cities?

Paul Costello: The cities work at GMF involves a few strategic directions and thematic priorities, namely furthering and fortifying democracy; promoting social, economic and climate justice; ensuring agency and equity for all; driving enterprise and entrepreneurship towards social good; and a cross-cutting one, which is around furthering the role of cities in international relations. In addition to this, during the past two years, Ukraine has also been an important focus of our work, with a focus both on the role of cities in supporting Ukraine internationally, and on the green and sustainable reconstruction of Ukrainian cities.

An example of an important initiative where we connect the global to the local level, as part of our work on cities in international affairs, is our City Directors of International Affairs (CDIA) Network: This peer network brings together government professionals from cities across Europe and North America to learn from each other and build transatlantic cooperation at the city level. This is quite a unique network, because it brings together individuals with a very specific role at city level, namely the professionals responsible  for their city’s international engagement.

A core part of our work has focused on cities and democracy, and there are a few reasons for this. In a context of democracy eroding at a global level, it is important to remember that local government is the closest to residents, and it is usually the most trusted level of government. Critical issues such as education, housing, culture, economic opportunity, inclusion, etc., are all strongly determined at the local level. So, it is essential that cities deliver services and govern in ways that further and fortify democracy. Most of the time, the focus on democracy stays at a national and international level, and we forget the importance of the local level. If we want to further and fortify democracy and stem the growth of illiberal authoritarianism, this needs to involve the local level as well. And it’s important for local leaders and national leaders to realise that cities are not just a mechanical and administrative layer in multi-level governance systems – they can also be real forces for innovation and strengthening democracy in important ways.

In fact, we have seen several cities being the drivers of innovation and champions of democracy. There’s a lot of experimentation happening – many policies and practices being tried in cities, and many opportunities for sharing and learning across and within cities. What’s happening in Bilbao can be hugely valuable for a civil society group in Baltimore to learn about, and vice versa. These are the ideas that motivated this part of our work from the beginning, and still guide what we do around cities.

How do you develop these partnerships between the cities? Are there specific principles that guide you when building these connections? And which actors do you involve?

Our work is based on the idea that we need to involve local governments as an anchor for systems change, and that this work needs to be cross-sectoral. Therefore, we rely on strong partnerships, built with different actors in city government, but also making sure that the view of city governments is never the only one at the table. Over the years we have developed an approach based on what we have seen that works well across numerous projects. Within the city, we tend to work with heads of departments, the professionals who report to political or elected leadership. We think that it is important to build the knowledge and partnerships that can withstand regular political changes and elections. Moreover, these are the professionals with the relevant expertise in their programmatic work and an ability to engage enthusiastically and in great depth – making them great partners for learning and exchange opportunities.

Depending on the focus of the project, we usually try to have a person from a relevant sector, often a civil society entity, or representative of affected communities. For example, in our Cities Managing Migration project, cities joining were asked to invite a cross-sector participant that was either from a migrant group or represented them/worked closely with them locally. We also always look for opportunities to involve other levels of government to make sure that there’s this multi-level dialogue, and that learning opportunities are available to all the governance actors.

This is an interesting point which connects us well to another case of our Cities of Tomorrow series. Pelle Bournonville, from Realdania, explained how important it was for the DK2020 project to have political backing and buy-in. How important is it for the GMF Cities programme to involve political actors?

For us it varies. We would only work with cities that share the goals of our work in a specific project, whether it be around the importance of furthering and fortifying democracy, centring equity and inclusion, or a just transition, for example. Depending on what we work on, it can be essential to have political buy-in so those participating in our projects in city government can do so with the support of their mayor or council throughout the duration of a programme. Nonetheless, when we start a new project, we do usually look to involve  cities where their political leadership has demonstrated a commitment or willingness to invest in the issue area we are addressing through the programme.

We do sometimes involve mayors and deputy mayors more directly, but given their roles and priorities, their availability is more limited, and their presence is often more symbolic. However this can also be very valuable, for example as signers of the Global Declaration of Mayors for Democracy, which we led in partnership with the Global Parliament of Mayors and the Pact of Free Cities. In this case, we have done something similar to DK2020 around the climate commitments. This declaration, signed by over 250 mayors from around the world, outlines a series of values and principles, including around climate; diversity, inclusion and equity; and rebuilding and strengthening democracy. By signing the declaration, the mayors commit to these principles, becoming accountable for these commitments within their own cities. This work was less about the in-depth innovative work on a specific topic, but rather about increasing the public commitment and recognition of the role of mayors and cities in strengthening democracy. This is an area where we naturally saw great value in engaging the highest representatives of cities – their mayors.

An important part of your work in creating these connections and learning opportunities is bringing the different actors together in a physical space. How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect your way of working in this sense?

We’ve learned a lot since the Covid-19 pandemic on how much value there is in bringing people together in person for a few days, shoulder to shoulder. At the same time, the use of more virtual convenings has allowed us to engage more cities, more frequently, with less time commitment, less cost, and less climate impact. We now are much more thoughtful about what we do, and when and why we bring people together in person. Therefore, anything that can be done almost as well, or just as well virtually, is done online to reduce costs and make the best use of our time offline. I think a good example of that is the City Directors of International Affairs (CDIA) Network which was initially planned as an in-person gathering. As a new network, we still didn’t know each other, hence building trust and relationships was going to be essential. When Covid-19 hit, we didn’t want to do this virtually, but once we realised that we could still offer a good level of interaction (with polling, breakout rooms etc.), we decided to go ahead with this format. This turned out to have some benefits: the virtual format allowed us to start with a bigger group, since it made it easier for city directors of international affairs, with an already busy schedule, to find time to join the virtual sessions, and we finally managed to develop trust and build the relationships. This network now includes over 70 cities, and we have conducted over 20 virtual sessions. We still see huge value in meeting in person once a year, and we’ve seen that the relationships and the exchange developed online make the in-person meeting even more valuable now.

Is there an ideal trajectory for these connections and partnerships?

Most of our work is project-funded, so there is a point where we no longer have the resources, time or capacity to continue to be engaged for very long periods of time. Many of our projects are structured around a series of workshops over 12 or 18 months. In these cases, it is important to have a trajectory, arc,  and a closing point. We then like for people to stay engaged and connected afterwards, but this is beyond the scope of our capacity and resources, and so it happens mostly informally. So, often an ideal closing point is when people have built the relationships where they can continue to engage, and where they’ve really understood what is going on in other cities and when they’ve acquired new skills, tools and ideas that they can then use to inform and improve their work locally. Many participants in our programmes have continued to engage with their transatlantic peers in different cities after a project period has ended.

Can you share some of the progress you have observed as a result of the work around GMF Cities?

An area where we engaged early and contributed to its visibility and progress is the important role of cities for democracy. In early 2019, when we started working on this, it was not common, and we’d get many people asking why we would focus on cities and democracy. Since then, the leadership and courage of many mayors from the cities where democracy was being threatened in Europe (notably in Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw), saw the need to stand up for democracy and formed the inspiring Pact of Free Cities. This did a lot to raise the awareness and recognition of the importance of local government and local leadership for democracy.

More recently, the Global Declaration of Mayors for Democracy (described above) was highlighted in the G7 communiqué of the ministerial meeting on sustainable urban development in 2022 as an important example of cities taking responsibility for addressing global challenges and playing a critical role in democratic innovation; as well as by Secretary of State Blinken, in his remarks to the US Conference of Mayors in 2023.

Recently, we also launched an online database of Democracy Actions in Cities, which is an open resource to find inspiration and learn from different projects that cities have put in place around the world to strengthen democracy.

Much of this work happens in the framework of our Cities Fortifying Democracy project, supported by the German Federal Foreign Office. At the moment, in this project we are taking deeper dives into the topics of cities and disinformation, depolarisation, youth engagement, multiracial and multi-ethnic communities, and local journalism, all identified as key areas where cities can strengthen democracy. 

To conclude our talk, if you were to describe your ideal city, what would you select as its 3 most important characteristics?

Most importantly, I’d say equitable, diverse and green. But I think a fourth would be, and on a much more personal note, a city with a good food scene, and one that is reflective of the diversity of the city and integrated into its broader region.

Philanthropy Curiosity Corner

GMF Gender Equality Plan

The German Marshall Fund envisions a world where “equity is foundational, inclusion is fostered, diversity is celebrated, and belonging is the result”. While the fund was not originally created around these values, the organisation has embarked on a transformative journey, acknowledging that bringing these values at its core – and implementing a series of intentional shifts in that direction – will make the organisation better, both internally and externally.

As part of this vision, the foundation has defined its guiding principles around Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) and has developed a series of concrete actions based on these principles. Among these actions, GMF has adopted a Gender Equality Plan, with the purpose of assessing gender balance at the organisation and providing guidance for consideration and implementation on future commitments. It has also developed an Inclusion Roadmap for the whole organisation, and has published its first organisational Equity Report, through which they now collect staff demographics annually.