Why do New Zealand’s towns and cities have siblings in other countries – and what does this relationship actually involve?
“If I’d got a dollar for everyone who wanted to be sister cities with Palmerston North, I’d surprisingly be quite wealthy,” says Grant Smith, Palmerston North mayor and chair of Global Cities New Zealand. “We’re in some illustrious company, which sometimes I still pinch myself about.”
You might not expect Palmerston North, metropolis of 88,000, well inland, known for its great gardens and terrific TikTok account, to have a page on the council website dedicated to “International Relations”. Nonetheless, there it is: putting the “relatives” in “international relations”, the website lists its sister cities: Missoula in the US, Guiyang and Kunshan in China, and Mihara in Japan.
These links are real and meaningful, Smith stresses. The University of Montana in Missoula and Massey University in Palmerston North have a long-standing association, for example, and trade delegations have visited Guiyang and Kunshan.
If you spend enough time on the dark web (New Zealand’s local council websites) you’ll eventually find that most councils have these types of relationships. But what does being a sister city actually mean – and are they still relevant?
Sister cities originated when Coventry in the UK became a twin town with Volgograd (then called Stalingrad) during World War II, when both cities were being heavily bombed. The idea was to create solidarity across borders. (The Coventry-Volgograd relationship is now on pause due to the invasion of Ukraine.) New Zealand’s organisation for sister cities, now called Global Cities New Zealand, coordinates sister city organisations throughout the country, many of which are run by volunteers.
“It’s different from country-to-country international relations,” says Smith. “It’s about people-to-people connections which happen more naturally at a city-to-city level – there can be connections between sectors or universities.”
The nature of sister city relationships can vary, although there has to be a formal agreement between the two local governments for the connection to make it official. Many towns and cities in Aotearoa, for instance, have Chinese gardens, which are usually a product of a sister city relationship. Some organisations are more dedicated than others: the Dunedin-Edinburgh sister city relationship has a radio show called “Kilts and Kiwi” and hosts monthly meetings, and Cambridge is twinned with Le Quesnoy in France, which a New Zealand army division recaptured in World War I.
But does having a sister city (or the British gender-neutral term, “twin town”) actually mean anything? Marlborough has put the numbers on it, at least economically. Their relationship with Ningxia, an area in central China known for red wine, has been worth about $1.2m to the region – while spending $37,000 on investment and visits. It’s an excellent return on investment, says Neil Henry, economic development manager at Marlborough District Council.
“We wanted a relationship where we had something in common,” Henry says. Their sibling status works well because of the seasons – winemakers from Marlborough are able to go to Ningxia because the grapes ripen at a different time in the opposite hemisphere. Students from Ningxia come and learn about winemaking at the Te Pūkenga Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology; wine technology, like temperature controlled fermentation tanks, are exchanged too.
“We’re not exporting anything to Ningxia,” Henry says. “We’re playing a different role [to MFAT] – moving beyond primary goods and into knowledge and technology.” Of course, he acknowledges, that’s only possible because of the free trade agreement between China and New Zealand.
“Sister cities don’t have a lot of profile here – they’re run on the smell of an oily rag, and MFAT doesn’t leverage us as much as they could,” says Smith. “We can help promote internationalism and New Zealand Inc. overseas.” He’d like to see more resourcing for global city connections to enhance some of the cultural and business values that could benefit from an exchange.
Cultural values, business connections – are these just synonyms for soft power, the idea that diplomacy can happen through personal friendships, excellent PR and good vibes? That might be a part of it, Smith says, and nation-to-nation diplomacy certainly helps facilitate city and region relationships. He returns to the initial idea of sister cities as a way to forge closer connections between people and places, and to thereby reduce the appetite for war. Sister cities make it easier to think about the big wide world as specific places with people in them.
“It’s a great way of having more cultural awareness,” Smith says. When international delegations visit Palmerston North, they’re welcomed on a marae, and when he visits Missoula later this year the delegation will engage with indigenous American groups as well as the university and business associations.
A survey of Aotearoa’s sister cities shows that many of them are in East Asia, particularly China and Japan. Is this because those places have a bigger population – there are simply more cities to pair with, I ask Smith. That’s part of it, he says, but it’s also about the higher status and priority given to sister cities in those countries. “They’ve got a stronger push from their local sister city organisations – New Zealand is seen as an attractive place to pair with,” he says. That said, he’s hoping that local councils around Aotearoa can start to build sister city relationships in South Asia – with the likes of Indonesia and the Philippines – and South America. “They can start with a memorandum of understanding between two cities for trade or education and see how it goes,” he says.
People who care about their sister city connections care deeply about them, as markers of their location’s global importance as well as the economic possibilities they suggest. And yet despite this, as I reported this story I asked people from throughout the country if they could name their sister cities. Few could, although several people remembered that Bulls’ twin town is Cowes in England. I put this to Smith: do people need to know who their sister city is for the connection to be effective?
“Sister cities offer the possibility of an affinity that is more grassroots,” he says. “We’d love to have more profile and public understanding but that’s up to the town.” He likes that Christchurch has a display about its sister cities in the airport, and Palmerston North has had displays from Mihara in their local museum. Three years of Covid has diminished some sister city momentum, which he hopes can be regained.
I have one last question for Smith: if a city can have sisters, can a city have sisters-in-law? He laughs. There aren’t any formal relationships between a sister city’s sister cities. But – “there are some three-way relationships, like Auckland and Guangzhou and Los Angeles. It doesn’t preclude you from gaining from their other partnerships.”