Almost half a million people from 185 nations live in the British city of Bristol. Mayor Marvin Rees sees this as both his city’s richness and its opportunity. As a member of the Leadership Board of the Mayors Migration Council, he is working with colleagues from other cities to find global solutions for the city of the future.
Even as a child, Marvin Rees enjoyed spending time on Brandon Hill, a green hill in the middle of Bristol. At the hill’s highest point, Cabot Tower has looked down over the city since 1890. Rees was drawn to the small brass flags on its observation deck showing the distances to various cities around the world. "I loved this place," Rees recalls. "My thoughts flew out into the world from here. I thought that if I point in that direction, there's Oslo, and back there somewhere is Madrid."
Today, he is 50 years old and has been the mayor of Bristol since 2016 – the first Black man to govern a major city in Europe. Brandon Hill is still his favorite place.
Not only does the Labour politician want to make his city a more livable place; he is also turning his attention to global challenges such like migration and climate change. Because he sees no other option. Bristol is a city with large migrant communities, built close to the North Atlantic. "The world's population is growing, and at the same time we need to reduce CO2 emissions and resource consumption," Rees says, "Our only effective strategy is to reorganize the world's urban spaces."
As a member of the Leadership Board of the Mayors Migration Council (MMC), he embodies this local-global perspective, and aims to improve policy at a national and international level: "Cities can often be more agile than national governments in these global policy areas." Bristol, Rees says, is a very progressive and active city. "People expect me to have something to say on climate change and migration," he explains. "But they also expect me to create affordable, sustainable housing."
Global and local – is that a contradiction, a balancing act, or is it impossible to separate one from the other?
Rees moves confidently and naturally on the global political stage. In 2018, he was the first mayor to speak at the negotiations on the United Nations Global Compact for Migration. He takes part in international meetings such as climate conferences and values the exchanges with colleagues from all over the world, such as Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown. Aki-Sawyerr is also a member of the MMC and a "hands-on, strategic person, a real leader I would follow anywhere," Rees says. Enabling exchanges between cities is one purpose of the MMC. "This is where mayors from Freetown to Kampala to Montreal to Zurich come together," Rees says, "Together we can come up with ideas and projects that can save billions of pounds, dollars and euros."
Rees has learned, for example, that it's central to "communicate in an understandable way, in multiple languages and at many levels, so that all city residents have equal access to important information." Marvin Rees appears on the city’s community radio station, every wednesday he holds an open press conference: "My motto is:´ask me anything.`"
The world's major cities consume 70% of global energy and cause three quarters of all CO2 emissions. By 2050, 68% of the world's population will live in cities. "Cities are movement – people, goods, capital, ideas," says Marvin Rees, "and when the momentum decreases, cities start to die." Currently, however, national governments tend to draw borders and restrict migration, which is why "the perspective of cities is so important in global migration and climate policy," he explains.
When the UK left the EU, Rees traveled to Brussels shortly after Brexit to learn what cities can do to "keep the lines of communication open between the EU and us – between universities, businesses, twin cities, people traveling back and forth all the time," he says. "Local, national and international actors actually need to pull together."
He learned just how difficult this is in the run-up to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. Marvin Rees wanted to work with Boris Johnson's government to develop a plan for making cities in the UK carbon-neutral. "Yet none of this has taken place,” Rees explains. “While COP26 brought us another set of agreements, the reforms don't have the scale and pace we need now to address climate change."
Perhaps he's glad to be pushing ahead with very tangible projects in Bristol, such as the Castle Park Energy Centre. The UK's largest water-source heat pump will provide zero-emission heat and hot water to stores in Bristol city center and, before long, to 200 new residential buildings as well.
Of course, there are Bristol residents who ask Rees why he's in New York so often "and the holes in the pavements don't get fixed," he says. The fusion of local commitment and global thought leadership is sometimes challenging. Rees believes that Bristol's population finds it easier to welcome newcomers generously and openheartedly if they don't have to worry about their own material security. "There are children going hungry in our city, too," he points out. And there is also an urgent need to build new public housing.
The Robert Bosch Stiftung supports the Mayors Migration Council to enable cities to help shape migration policy at the national, regional, and international levels. The goal is to better align various migration policy instruments with local realities so that new arrivals and host communities benefit equally. Mayors play a key role in migration policy, as they can improve local conditions for all city residents and thus contribute directly to global migration governance goals. To improve conditions for migrants and refugees in the long term, migration policies at the national, regional, and global levels must be better attuned to the local realities and needs of cities and communities.
It helps that Rees knows from his own experience what it means to grow up in cramped poverty. His father is from Jamaica, his mother from a Welsh-English family. She had to raise her son and daughter alone. A documentary entitled "The Mayor’s Race" traced his journey from this precarious situation to City Hall. Rees can empathize well with the situation of newcomers who feel excluded. In day-to-day politics, he still faces resentment because of his race. In the earliest days after his election opposition politicians referred to him as a "inner city mayor", which he took as code for "Black", as he remembers: “Black men and women are still seen as different and a threat. That’s very unfortunate.”
As Bristol’s mayor, he can do something to prevent rifts from widening between people in a city. For example, as recommended by the MMC, to "actively reach out to, listen to, and engage the migrant population" or break down silos in city government and initiate interdepartmental, holistic policies. Once again, it's about crossing boundaries.
Questioning one's own preconceptions, broadening one's view, changing one's perspective – these things are important to him as a politician and as a person. He once described his decision to leave Bristol after school to study political science abroad as an "escape". But he has come back to the city. And when it all gets too much for him, he goes for a run on his favorite place, Brandon Hill, to "clear his head".