International "Sister" Relationships Benefit U.S. Cities

There are hundreds of sister city relationships between U.S. municipalities and foreign cities. The benefits can be as simple as a cultural exchange or as complicated as getting a contract to design a $1 billion theme park in China.
by | September 4, 2012
The Nanmen Port in Chongming, China, which is the sister city to Lakeland, Fla. (Photo: rsun42/Flickr CC)

Rockville, Md. – Pinneberg, Germany. Lakeland, Fla. – Chongming, China. Birmingham, Ala. - Guadiawaye, Senegal.

These pairings may appear to be unlikely twins, but all of them are “sister cities,” a relationship for cultural or economic exchanges which, in general, benefits both.

There are hundreds of sister city relationships between U.S. municipalities and foreign cities. Some cities have just one “sister.” Some have as many as a dozen. Some are formal arrangements with regularly scheduled events; others are informal exchanges of students or business leaders.

According to Sister Cities International, the umbrella group that keeps track of most of the relationships, there are approximately 600 member U.S. cities which have almost 2,000 “sisters” across 136 countries and all continents.

The benefits can be as simple as a cultural exchange or as complicated as getting a contract to design a $1 billion theme park in China that came about as the result of a sister city relationship, said Megha Swamy, communications manager for Sister Cities International. She said there is no set way that a relationship starts. It can be as simple as an immigrant from a foreign country starting to talk to American business leaders along with leaders in his or her home country. It can start if an American citizen comes home from a trip with a city in mind.

“We recommend them for an official sister city when the mayor or chief elected officials of both cities sign off on the agreement,” Swamy said. “Volunteers who are interested, or business connections, are established and then they petition the chief elected official.”

She said the program started with President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s in the wake of World War II, when the United States and many other nations sought to understand other countries as a way to prevent another world wide war.

The sister city relationship between Lakeland, Florida, and Chongming, China is one that has resulted in a small U.S. civil engineering company, ECON, getting the contract to design the East Bay theme park and development in Chongming.

“It never would have happened without Sister Cities,” said Trae Holland, vice president of sustainability at the 22-employee firm. Holland said the firm’s CEO, John McVey, visited the suburb of Shanghai, China, several years ago in a trip set up by the Sister Cities group. He got to know business and civic leaders in China, and, when they were planning what is to become a $1 billion theme park, residential, and business center, they thought of ECON for the design function.

“These relationships take a long time to build,” Holland said. “Especially in China, with feng sui, a belief in nature and how things work in a room. You’re not going to do business off the bat. Relationships have to be tested. We were keeping our eyes open for opportunities while we were there, but one can’t be too hasty. So they approached us.”

Lakeland was fortunate in that Robert Lee, an entrepreneur and a Florida resident who was originally a Chinese citizen, joined Sister Cities and was anxious to establish ties with his home country. The relationship built from there, Holland said.

Sometimes a famous person can cement a sister cities relationship – former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, for example. The tie formed between Birmingham, Ala., and Guadiawaye, Senegal, because of a trip to that country by Rice, according to Scotty Colson, assistant to Birmingham Mayor William Bell and executive director of Birmingham Sister Cities, Inc.

“We were looking for connections to West Africa,” Colson said, given that a large percentage of Birmingham is of African descent. In the 1980s, Rice was on an official trip to Senegal and got to talking to officials there. When they discovered Rice was originally from Birmingham, they started talking about cultural exchanges. “The mayor of Guadiawaye knew his American civil rights history,” said Colson.

Not 10 days later, the mayor of Guadiawaye was on his way to Birmingham for a trip, Colson said. “It’s worked out well; we’ve done some good education and humanitarian exchanges with them,” he said of the relationship that dates back to 1987.

But Birmingham has eight other sister city relationships that might not seem so intuitive, he added, including one with Rosh Ha’ayin in Israel. The city has set up an “e-pal” program with a local high school so students can communicate by email with their counterparts in Israel, he said. “There is a weekly Skype and email between those schools and they are learning about each other’s culture. Our inner city kids are learning Hebrew. Normally our kids never meet a Jewish person and those Jewish people may have never met a kid from East Lake (High),” he said.

Fort Worth, Texas, which won the Sister Cities International “best overall program” award this year, also has eight sister cities in Mexico, Japan, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Swaziland, Indonesia and China, according to Mae Ferguson, president of the Ft. Worth group.

Ferguson says the city got into it mostly for the cultural benefits, except for the relationship with nearby Toluca, Mexico where Sister Cities trips resulted in a contract for Bell Helicopter of Ft. Worth, to sell a chopper to Toluca. “Because of that connection Bell Helicopter was able to sell a helicopter to the City of Toluca,” she said. “In facilitating these relationships, these kinds of things happen.”

Ferguson noted that Sister Cities is a non-profit and raises its own money every year. Most Sister Cities groups have some relationship with city governments and may get funding on a year-by-year basis, but the bulk of their funding comes from private sources.

“We get money from the city; we don’t rely on it,” she said, citing a model common to other U.S. cities in the program.

Rockville, Md., relationship with Pinneberg, Germany is based on many similarities and revolves around student exchanges. Like Rockville, a suburb of Washington, D.C., Pinneberg is located 12 miles northwest of a major metropolitan area (Hamburg); is served by a rapid rail system and a major highway, is a center for retail shopping but is primarily a residential, suburban environment.

Students from The Johannes Brahms Schule in Pinneberg regularly visit Rockville. Given the demographics, they probably feel right at home.

View the Sister Cities International interactive map.


More from State News