The concept of friendship towns dates back to the 1940s and has offered various benefits to Finnish municipalities over the years. These days, cities collaborate across borders routinely, but town twinning still has relevance in international relations.
FOR ALMOST 70 years, Finnish cities and towns have been forming friendship agreements with foreign cities, allowing them to collaborate in numerous ways with their international partners. Today, Finnish municipalities have over a thousand twin town relationships around the world.
Over the years, the aims of town twinning have evolved, following the wider developments in the field of international affairs. Although international cooperation has now become commonplace, friendship city networks can still be a valuable asset to municipalities in giving support to their international culture and business initiatives.
Historically, the first steps in town twinning were taken shortly after the end of the Second World War, in the spirit of reconciliation, cooperation – and providing material aid. The first friendship town relationships were, in fact, formed between Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian towns in the late ‘40s. After the war, the cities exchanged aid to help in rebuilding, and these ties were formalised afterwards through friendship agreements.
Outside the Nordics, twin town relationships were created with many Soviet towns, following the “YYA-treaty”, agreement on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance between Finland and the Soviet Union after the war. Also Germany became an important country for friendship agreements, and many towns formed ties with both West and East Germany after the division was recognised internationally. (Today, many Finnish towns have two friendship towns in Germany for this reason).
Later, various citizen organisations such as cultural exchange associations became an important driving force in promoting twin town agreements, and, overall, the growing European friendship town network could be seen as one chapter in the general integration process that took place in Europe over past few decades. More recently, a more pragmatic reason for formalising relations between cities has become more prominent, as formal ties between cities may give additional support to businesses that are expanding from one country to another.
Some examples of the twin cities that Finnish municipalities have:
(in brackets, the year when the relationship was formed)
Shanghai, China (1998) Køge, Denmark (1970) Nõmme, Estonia (1993) Esztergom, Hungary (1974) Sauðárkrókur, Iceland (1984) Kongsberg, Norway (1970) Gatchina, Russia (1968) Sochi, Russia (1989) Kristianstad, Sweden (1969) Irving, Texas, United States (1998)
Helsinki doesn‘t have formal twin towns, but the city has selected strategic partners, including Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Stockholm and Berlin. It also has a “special partnership relation” with Beijing and Moscow.
Esbjerg Municipality, Denmark (1947) Potsdam, Germany (1985) Debrecen, Hungary (1970) Fjarðabyggð, Iceland (1958) Niiza, Japan (1997) Stavanger, Norway (1947) Poznań, Poland (1974) Yaroslavl, Russia ( 1966) Eskilstuna, Sweden (1947)
Jiujiang, China (2006) Schwalm-Eder-Kreis, Germany (1973) Nyíregyháza, Hungary (1981) Rostov-on-Don, Russia (1956) Östersund, Sweden (1943) Marquette, Michigan, United States (1997)
Deyang, China (2000) Wuxi, China (2011) Randers, Denmark (1947) Narva, Estonia (1994, partnership agreement) Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany (1987) Suhl, Germany (1988) Pécs, Hungary (1956) Akureyri, Iceland (1947) Ålesund, Norway (1947) Kaluga, Russia (1994) Västerås, Sweden (1940) Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine (1953)
Halle, Germany (1968) Leverkusen, Germany (1968) Siófok, Hungary (1978) Alta, Norway (1948) Arkhangelsk, Russia (1993) Boden, Sweden (1948) Bursa, Turkey (1978) Odessa, Ukraine (1957) Hangzhou, China (2010)
Linz, Austria (1961) Olomouc, Czech Republic (1986) Odense, Denmark (1966) Tartu, Estonia (1992) Klaksvík, Faroe Islands Chemnitz, Germany (1961) Essen, Germany (1961) Guangzhou, China (2008) Miskolc, Hungary (1963) Kópavogur, Iceland (1964) Kaunas, Lithuania (1997) Trondheim, Norway (1964) Łódź, Poland (1958) Brașov, Romania (1981) Nizhny Novgorod, Russia (1995) Norrköping, Sweden (1956) Kiev, Ukraine (1954) Syracuse, United States (1992)
Varna, Bulgaria (1963) Tianjin, China (partnership agreement) Aarhus, Denmark (1946) Tartu, Estonia (2008) Cologne, Germany (1967) Rostock, Germany (1958) Szeged, Hungary (1971) Florence, Italy (1992) Bergen, Norway (1946) Gdańsk, Poland (1958) Constanţa, Romania (1958) Saint Petersburg, Russia (1953) Bratislava, Slovakia (1976) Gothenborg, Sweden (1946)
Askim, Norway (1951) Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany (1987) Huddinge, Sweden (1951) Jinan, People‘s Republic of China (2001) Kineshma, Russia (1969) Kongens Lyngby, Denmark (1951) Matte Yehuda Regional Council, Israel (1967) Mladá Boleslav, Czech Republic (1978) Nuuk, Greenland (1965) District of Rastatt, Germany (1968) Salgótarján, Hungary (1976) Seyðisfjörður, Iceland (1980) Słupsk, Poland (1987)
Source: Cities’ websites
Friendship in the making
Friendship town agreements are formed at the initiative of the two towns that want to create official ties between each another. The relationship is always formalised through a twinning oath, which both town councils sign. There is no central authority to coordinate the process, although the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) gives support to towns looking for a twin.
What practical activities the towns engage in depends entirely on the towns themselves, as the twinning oath typically specifies few, if any, concrete actions for collaboration. “Normally the twinning agreement does not specify the areas where the municipalities commit themselves to collaborate, as it is mostly a symbolic agreement,” says Carlos Mascarell Vilar, Policy Officer at CEMR. “It is up to the two municipalities to afterwards decide what to do with regard to meetings, activities, areas of cooperation and so on.”
The reasons why two towns choose each other as friendship towns are often historical, or there may be some shared qualities between the towns. The city of Oulu offers a couple of examples: both Oulu and Boden, its Swedish friendship town, are hubs for the countries’ northern railway networks, and both cities had military bases when the friendship was formed. Similarly, both Oulu and its German friendship town Leverkusen have links to the chemical industry – Oulu has Kemira’s plants while Leverkusen is the home for Bayer’s factory.
Originally, town twinning was a unique initiative in that it offered the first formal way for cities to collaborate internationally. “In the early years, internationalisation was a sufficient goal in itself for town twinning,” says Tuula Antola, Director of Economic and Business Development at the city of Espoo. This gave municipalities access to their international peers, allowing the exchange of the best practices in a wide variety of areas varying from waste management to gender equality, says Mascarell Vilar.
Citizens often benefit from the relationship also in more direct ways. For instance the city of Oulu has been able to capitalise on its friendship town relations by getting involved in a wide range of activities and projects, extending from cultural exchange to business promotion: one long-running programme allowed chemistry students to work as interns at Bayer’s factory in Leverkusen, for example, while the cities’ music academies have a decades-long collaboration in the form of meetups and joint concerts.
“It‘s regrettable that when newspapers write about international collaboration, they concentrate too much on politicians‘ trips,” says Anneli Korhonen, Public Relations Manager at the city of Oulu. “What gets less publicity is that in reality, friendship town relations have made a wide variety of great initiatives possible.”
Business with friends
International collaboration may have been rare between cities when the first friendship town agreements were made, but these days it is ordinary for Finnish and foreign municipalities to work together. Because of this, formal friendship agreements are less significant than before, as activities between twin towns are now only one way for cities to cooperate internationally.
In fact, collaboration with foreign towns has become so customary that forming official partnership agreements can seem like an overly formal approach to cooperation, particularly among European cities.
“We collaborate less with our friendship towns nowadays, however the network still exists and can always be reactivated when useful,” says Ulla Heijari from the City of Lahti. She notes that the city’s different offices conduct their international activities independently, also with cities that don’t belong in the friendship town network. “These days, friendship towns don’t really have special status but are part of regular international relations activities.”
Who’s friends with whom?
Most commonly, Finnish municipalities have twin towns in the other Nordic countries, in Estonia and in Russia. The biggest number of connections is with Sweden (285, according to CEMR). In Europe overall, the largest number of twin town agreements (almost 2,300) is between France and Germany.
Outside Europe, however, there are places where formal ties are still useful, particularly in countries that have a short history with international collaboration. China is a good example: Espoo is a friendship town of Shanghai, which has helped Finnish companies to form closer relations with Chinese enterprises in a city that is becoming an increasingly attractive location for foreign businesses, according to Espoo’s upcoming report on the city‘s international relations. Also higher education has been an area of fruitful collaboration: in 2010, Aalto University opened Aalto Design Factory, the centre of the university’s Asian activities and an important hub for Finland in China overall, at the Tongji University’s campus in Shanghai.
Although relations with some old friendship towns are not as dynamic as before, the level of international activity has never been higher on the whole. However, the focus is more and more in promotion of business, Korhonen says, as areas of collaboration evolve according to general trends in international relations: “Today, the bottom line of all international activity is to have active business and industry cooperation, with the aim of creating jobs.”