What is a Sister City?

A sister city or twin city is a long-term partnership between two towns, cities, provinces or in some cases, countries all across the globe. The relationship is officially recognised after the highest elected official from both parties sign off a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which signifies the two cities’ commitment to working together for a better future. Alternatively, they will also sign a friendship agreement, which is less committal and instead purely symbolic and social.

A city will often have a number of sister cities to encourage cultural understanding, with guidance from nonprofits, municipal governments, the private sector and other civic organisations. The relationship is dependent on bilateral business, trade, educational, and cultural exchanges and projects with their sister city.

For the sake of this article, we’ll be using the term sister cities, but you may also see them referred to as twin cities, twin towns or friendship cities. You might also see the term “twinned with” when talking about two cities that share a sister city agreement.

What is a Twin City?

For those new to the term, ‘sister cities’ (or ‘twin cities’) almost has a rather whimsical, quaint and perhaps even fantastical feel to it. If you didn’t know better, you’d be forgiven for thinking about enchanted fantasy lands or something out of a science fiction novel.

Though the reality is probably not quite that dramatic, the concept of sister cities is actually very inspiring and holds lots of possibilities.

Whether you’re familiar with the concept or have never heard of it before, there’s a chance your hometown will have a sister city agreement with somewhere else – or, most likely, several.

What’s more, your city has probably benefited greatly from these agreements, allowing for some of the cultural, educational and even business opportunities that are in place today.

From their humble beginnings to the reasons to the reasons behind them, here is everything you need to know about sister city relationships.

What Does it Mean to be a Sister City?

The very choice of the terms ‘twin’ and ‘sister’ is itself interesting. They say that twins share an unbreakable bond, and the same can be said for sisters to a lesser extent. The connection between siblings is believed to be stronger than any other kind of bond, friendship or partnership. They look out for one another, learn from each other and protect one another, no matter what.

Paderborn sister cities

Paderborn in Germany was one of the earliest to form a sister city partnership.

With this in mind, the decision to become a sister city is not taken lightly. It signifies an intent to strengthen and support the other city, and joint ventures aren’t agreed to without meaning or reason. Another thing to think about is the cultural differences between the two cities. Not only do they often oppose in terms of geography, but they may also share entirely different community values and lifestyles.

You’d be forgiven for wondering, then: “What is the point of a sister city, anyway?” But these bonds are far from being merely symbolical.

A sister city relationship is intended to expand, strengthen and deliver great benefit to both parties. This voluntary forging of ties helps to encourage business, trade, educational, cultural exchanges and projects between the twin sister cities.

The sister cities can each expect an influx of business, tourism and trade, and more investment in the local economy. Raising the international profile of the cities is a great opportunity for each city to showcase their local government achievements.

In addition, each city is able to improve their global ranking across various fields by sharing valuable resources and approaches in business, education, culture and technologies. Educational partnerships and developments, including bilateral exchanges, joint research and teaching programmes, have proven to be a particularly popular means of intercity collaborations.

Through these sister city links, TEP has been able to successfully create numerous sister school partnerships, offering life-changing experiences such as student exchangesstudent hosting and school-to-school joint projects.

What is the difference between a ‘Sister City’ and a ‘Friendship City’?

Generally speaking, friendship cities are less formal than sister cities. A friendship agreement is often used as a first stage in the city relationship. If it is strengthened and both parties later decide they want a long-term relationship, they will become sister cities.

For example, Liverpool in the UK currently shares a friendship agreement with Kunming, China. In contrast, there are many other sister city partnerships with towns across the UK.

What Was The First Official Pair of Sister Cities?

Toledeo Spain sister city

In honour of the 50th anniversary of their sister city relationship in 1981, the mayor of Toledo, Spain delivered a speech about the friendship between the two cities.

The history of a sister city dates back for centuries. Paderborn, Germany and Le Mans, France were the first in Europe to take the partnership form of an ‘enteral brotherhood’ between the dioceses of the two Catholic bishops. Later on, an official city partnership agreement was signed in 1967.

Elsewhere, Toledo in Ohio became the first US sister city, pairing with its Spanish namesake in 1931. Vancouver in Canada followed suit, connecting with Odessa, Ukraine. Since first pairing with Odessa, Vancouver has also sistered with Yokohama (Japan), Edinburgh (Scotland), Guangzhou (China) and Los Angeles (US).

The modern concept of a sister city partnership was not launched until after WWII. Each twin city was designed to lead to global friendships and peace in a time of crisis. A joint partnership between Coventry in the UK and Kiel in France was created to foster healing and co-existence following prior destruction at the hands of others.

Although sister city partnerships were originally forged for military or political ties, this has extended greatly and today sister cities have a focus on cultural exchanges, education, business and trade ties. Now, more than 2,000 cities, states and counties are partnered in over 140 countries around the world.

What are the benefits of a Sister City Partnership?

Partnering with a Chinese city has significant measurable benefits such as:

  • Increased city-wide cultural awareness
  • Educational partnerships and developments, including joint research and teaching programmes
  • An influx of business, tourism & trade
  • Sharing of valuable resources and approaches in business, education, culture & technologies
  • Raising the international profile of cities
  • Showcasing local government achievements
  • More investment in the local economy.

How Do You Become a Sister City?

Becoming a sister city is a timely process that involves building trust and forging a strong relationship with the desired twin city. These partnerships can be developed in a number of ways, such as:

  • pre-existing mayoral relationships
  • trade relationships
  • historical or ancestral connections
  • expatriate communities
  • shared geographic/sector challenges
  • faith-based groups
  • personal experiences including studying and working abroad, to marriages.

Sister city partnerships can also be set up by independent or government-backed organisations who work to support cultural, educational and government links between countries. True Education Partnerships (TEP) is one such organisation that works to establish and support sister cities through bilateral sister school partnerships.

True Education Partnerships can help you to set up a new partnership or develop an already existing sister city relationship. Take a look at our Sister City Partnerships page to find out more.

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