Exploring the best podcasts on urban affairs

A brief review of the best podcasts focusing on global urban affairs and city diplomacy.

By Emanuele Sala

Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”

Director Jean-Luc Godard reiterates that stories are vital to human beings. Podcasts are a contemporary form of educational stories: their success in terms of listeners and initiatives confirms our fascination with this narrative form. 

In this connection, the podcast format is not only entertaining but taking on an increasingly important role as an information output for both academia and business. This product could impact education and learning and bridge academic research and wider public dissemination. A success due to the low-cost and accessible form of expression that the podcast ensures. Unlike other media, it can guarantee greater representativeness to different urban actors. It is a valuable opportunity also for the domain of city diplomacy, still often overlooked by standard academic works.

With this brief general review of quality podcasts dealing with urban issues, we also want to highlight their focus on city diplomacy through specific episodes or an editorial approach based on the exchange of best practices and knowledge. It is not a thorough review, but it serves to give an idea of what the market can offer today.

The classification followed is based on the criteria of podcast dissemination. Thus, what is the central targeted public of a podcast? Following this criterion, we recognize three podcasts’ categories: those addressing the general public, dealing with general and broad urban matters, those for students and scholars, and those targeting city practitioners and enterprises about more specific and operational issues.

Podcasts for the general public

Monocle 24: The Urbanist

With more than ten years on the show, The Urbanist, by the radio Monocle 24, is one of the most well-known podcasts on urban affairs. It tackles broad topics and claims to have an influential audience of mayors, architects, and urban planners. The few-minute cycle of episodes “Tall Stories”, released weekly, offers fascinating insights into the best planning examples and sound management practices around the world. It is as entertaining as it helps promote the exchange of best policies in cities. “The Urbanist” weekly series consists of 30-minute episodes that address key topics. Two episodes highlight the peculiar relationship between certain cities and their diplomatic importance. In the episode Placemaking, Biodiversity and Diplomacy, we find an innovative insight into the urban dynamics that New York City faces when it becomes the stage for international diplomacy. The same relationship is addressed by Power City, on how the design of some cities (Washington, Brussels, Vienna) changes because of their diplomatic importance. It is an original perspective on how some cities relate to global affairs. 


360 Degree City

360 Degree City is a bi-weekly podcast by Californian Intelligent Futures that aims to highlight the steps of the actors that make cities better, and to change the point of view of its users about their city. The title emphasizes the complete vision that the audience must receive, 360 degrees. In this regard, the cycles “City Builder” and “What’s next” are two original contributions. The first one analyses the main actors that make cities. Thus, we find interviews with elected officials, architects, urban planners, transportation and civil engineers, etc. The second cycle asks questions about the urban future in various fields, such as housing, mobility, supply chain, and urban communities. Interestingly, Intelligent Futures intend to investigate the larger global system of which cities are part. The episodes address different scales, making evident the connection between all cities and their influence on the others. “Our guests,” the organization reports, “explained how cities connect to these systems and also how there are sometimes disconnects with how we understand how our cities relate to the world”.


Strong Towns

This podcast has been running weekly for more than ten years, and it deals with urban issues that are less generally discussed. The podcast addresses not only infrastructure, transportation, housing, smart cities, etc., but also the role of popular traditions, daily life, or grassroots movements in creating the city. Even though the theme of collaboration between cities is never explicitly addressed, the focus on grassroots movements gives the idea of a global system of cities facing the same challenges and opportunities. In the long episodes (an hour on average), participants include experts from business and academia, but citizens and their experiences above all. The podcast is part of a triptych of Strong Towns, the homonymous organization. Completing this three-part set are the podcasts The Bottom-Up Revolution, which deals explicitly with grassroots movements in cities, and Upzoned, which focuses on major debates in urban studies. The association’s main goal is to raise awareness about what a strong city is and advocate for policies that make cities better.


Urban Matters 

The Urban Matters podcast is produced by the UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe). Its episodes cover topics of different scales and scope – from the functioning of the Forum of Mayors, the event gathering mayors of cities in UNECE countries to fire safety in urban buildings, passing through housing, circular economy, and smart cities. Hosted by journalist Tom Miles, with contributions from experts, academics, and practitioners, it always retains a view on how cities can join forces to share ideas and grow together, to combat not only pandemics but also other ills that plague urban societies.

Podcasts for an academic public

The Cities of Refuge

The Cities of Refuge is primarily a research project based at the University College Roosevelt, exploring the role of local governments in Europe in welcoming and integrating refugees. From a law perspective, the unit is researching the relevance of the local dimension in this global matter, adopting a new insight on the role of cities. The homonymous podcast focuses on this same theme and offers unique contributions to city diplomacy about migration. For example, the podcast offers an original view on the relationship between cities and international law, finding a position for an often overlooked subject in international relations. Another recent contribution to the domain is the episode on city diplomacy in global migration governance. Through the insight of two researchers in the field, the episode investigates the international stance of cities to promote specific priorities in the global agenda or to attract funds to the local level in the challenge of migration management. The episodes are generally aired twice a month.


Connected Cities

Started as an initiative of the Melbourne Centre for Cities at the University of Melbourne, the Connected Cities podcast began in the period immediately preceding the Covid-19 pandemic, with a variable schedule. The typology of the episodes is twofold. On the one hand, recordings of debates between academics and researchers on various topics, such as the role of cities in the fight against pandemics, housing, and sustainability. On the other hand, individual interviews deal with a specific theme in a shorter duration. For example, the podcast has addressed the issues of night economies in several episodes, offering valuable insights into the functioning and management of the night in the city. The podcast also devoted many episodes to the COP26, focusing on the role of cities within this framework. The focus on urban observatories about the pandemic concentrates on global relations between cities in the fight against the pandemic.


Urban Political

Urban Political is an academic podcast hosted by Ross Beveridge (University of Glasgow) and Markus Kip (Humboldt University in Berlin). The Georg-Simmel-Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Humboldt University powers the initiative to allow the voices of scholars and activists to be heard and be part of a transnational debate. As the name suggests, this podcast deals with a wide variety of urban issues. From social housing to tourist gentrification, from metrolingualism to troubling urban graffiti. The specificity of the podcast is that it deals with topics relevant to research in urban studies. The podcast aims to connect urban activism and scholarship, where each episode offers snapshots of pressing issues and new publications, allowing multiple voices of scholars and activists to enter into a transnational debate directly. The long episodes, issued irregularly, are one hour long.

Podcasts for experts and city practitioners

Smart and Sustainable City

In this 30-minute podcast Pierre Mirlesse, the podcast host, interviews key people in organizations who are shaping the smart city field. These actors tell about the reasons that lead them to establish or work in a specific activity and its importance in implementing smart city policies. Experts and organizations come from both the private and public spheres, with episodes focusing on the European Commission, the World Bank, UNECE, or private companies such as BP, Deloitte, and OASC. Experts also come from local governments, as for the coordinators of smart city programs in Copenhagen or Barcelona. The podcast is a product without frills, which remains a valuable tool for understanding the activity linked to smart policies. However, it often favors an internal point of view and promotes a specific business vision. The podcast was interrupted in August 2021.


Energy Cities

This monthly podcast builds upon interviews with actors operating in cities as part of the promoting organization Energy Cities Network. It deals with sustainability and clean energy issues, collecting opinions and points of view of city actors, academics, and managers. It is a valuable tool for evaluating good practices related to specific urban energy policies. The Energy Cities Network gathers one thousand members, all cooperating to build future-proof cities. A related strength is the broad scope of cities involved, including global, medium, and small cities. As a means to inform about the steps undertaken by the most active and ambitious members, the podcast could be a valuable tool to help cities in the energy transition.


Connected Places

The Connected Places podcast is promoted by the Connected Places Catapult, a U.K-based innovator which reflects on and offers solutions linked to mobility. The podcast itself addresses topics of connectivity, understood in a broader sense. The connectivity could be physical, social, or digital. By employing and developing the full potential of all three types of connectivity, the organization wants to help create better cities and prosperity for its citizens. Therefore, the podcast deals with mobility issues, but in its broadest sense, considering the social and political implications. A significant focus is placed on infrastructure management, taking global models as examples. This podcast intends to be a resource for knowing good practices related to mobility.


Urban Exchange: Cities on the Frontline

The Urban Exchange podcast is a collaborative project to foster mutual inspiration for cities and city-makers. Based on interviews with city leaders, the podcast aims to be a virtual meeting point for city leaders to exchange successful practices. It includes only four episodes, issued irregularly, but is backed by two key institutions: the Resilient Cities Network and Smart Cities World. The two organizations cooperate on specific urban issues, in the belief echoed in the podcast that cities are indeed on the frontline for solving major contemporary problems and that cooperation is the way forward to fully harness this potential.


Eurocities

The Eurocities podcast, released monthly, is a conversational podcast informing about the most relevant steps of the cities part of the Eurocities Network. This network has been operating primarily in Europe since 1986 to foster relations between cities and the EU. With more than 200 of Europe’s largest cities from 38 countries, Eurocities aims at shaping the EU’s urban policies. The network creates synergies between cities to have shared and clearly defined goals in this same direction. The podcast is a valuable tool to get to know the main European urban actors through interviews with the mayors of some key cities in Europe (such as Rotterdam, Nantes, and Utrecht) and get insight into the action of this leading urban network. 

Honorable mentions

Podcasts on urban issues are varied, and many of them are also very widespread and listened to. They address particular urban matters, such as transportation, architecture, landscape, urban planning, etc. Talking Headways is a very dynamic podcast that has been in production for years and systematically deals with transportation and infrastructure, exploring the relationship between transportation, planning, and quality of urban life. Among the podcasts focusing on urbanism and architecture, 99% Invisible is a reference, ambitioning to reveal the secrets and stories behind urban design, from urban furniture to major skyscrapers. The Smart Community podcast is a weekly show about the big issues of smart cities applied to the communities that inhabit them. Urban planning is the topic of the American Planning Association podcast (APA) that bimonthly addresses interesting case studies of American cities.

Last but not least… the City Diplomacy Students’ Podcast

And finally, be sure to check out the City Diplomacy Students’ Podcast. Episodes of this podcast, now in its fifth season, are produced by students from Sciences Po – Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) and Columbia University, under the guidance of Dr. Lorenzo Kihlgren Grandi, director of the City Diplomacy Lab. Each episode provides a pedagogical and analytical insight into one of the key players in city diplomacy.