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Twin towns or sister cities are a form of legal and social agreement between towns, cities, counties, oblasts, prefectures, provinces, regions, states and even countries in geographically and politically distinct areas to promote cultural and commercial ties. The modern concept of town twinning, conceived after the Second World War in 1947, was intended to foster friendship and understanding between different cultures and between former foes as an act of peace and reconciliation, and to encourage trade and tourism. In recent times, town twinning has increasingly been used to form strategic international business links between member cities.
In the United Kingdom, the term "twin towns" is most commonly used; the term "sister cities" is generally used for agreements with towns and cities in the Americas. In mainland Europe, the most commonly used terms are "twin towns", "partnership towns ", "partner towns" and "friendship towns". The European Commission uses the term twinned towns and refers to the process as town twinning. Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic use Partnerstadt (De) / Miasto Partnerskie (Pl) / Partnerské město (Cz), which translate as "Partner Town or City". France uses Ville Jumelée (Twinned Town or City), and Italy has Gemellaggio (twinning) and Comune gemellato (twinned municipality). In the Netherlands, the term is Stedenband (City bond). In Greece, the word αδελφοποίηση (adelfopiisi—fraternisation) has been adopted. In Iceland, the terms vinabæir (friend towns) and vinaborgir (friend cities) are used. In the former Soviet Bloc, "twin towns" and "twin cities" are used, along with города-побратимы (Ru) (sworn brother cities).
The Americas, South Asia and Australasia generally use the term "sister cities". In China, the term is 友好城市 (yǒuhǎo chéngshì—"friendship city"). Sometimes, other government bodies enter into a twinning relationship, such as the agreement between the provinces of Hainan in China and Jeju-do in South Korea. The Douzelage is a town twinning association with one town from each of the member states of the European Union.
In recent years the term 'city diplomacy' has gained increased usage and acceptance, particularly as a strand of paradiplomacy and public diplomacy. It is formally used in the workings of the United Cities and Local Governments and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and recognised by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. A March 2014 debate in the British House of Lords acknowledged the evolution of town twinning into city diplomacy, particularly around trade and tourism, but also in culture and post-conflict reconciliation. The importance of cities developing "their own foreign economic policies on trade, foreign investment, tourism and attracting foreign talent" has also been highlighted by the World Economic Forum.
The earliest known town twinning in Europe was between Paderborn, Germany, and Le Mans, France, in 836. Starting in 1905, Keighley in West Yorkshire, England, had a twinning arrangement with French communities Suresnes and Puteaux. The first recorded modern twinning agreement was between Keighley and Poix-du-Nord in Nord, France, in 1920 following the end of the First World War. This was initially referred to as an adoption of the French town; formal twinning charters were not exchanged until 1986.
The practice was continued after the Second World War as a way to promote mutual understanding and cross-border projects of mutual benefit. For example, Coventry twinned with Stalingrad and later with Dresden as an act of peace and reconciliation, all three cities having been heavily bombed during the war. Similarly, in 1947, Bristol Corporation (later Bristol City Council) sent five 'leading citizens' on a goodwill mission to Hanover.
Within Europe, town twinning is supported by the European Union. The support scheme was established in 1989. In 2003 an annual budget of about €12 million was allocated to about 1,300 projects. The Council of European Municipalities and Regions also works closely with the Commission (DG Education and Culture) to promote modern, high quality twinning initiatives and exchanges that involve all sections of the community. It has launched a website dedicated to town twinning. As of 1995, the European Union had more than 7,000 bilateral relationships involving almost 10,000 European municipalities, primarily French (2837 twinnings) and German (2485 twinnings).
A recent study has concluded that geographical distance has very little, if any, influence upon communities' selections of a twin town or sister city. Twinned towns are often chosen because of similarities between them; thus about 15 towns in Wales are twinned with towns in Brittany, and Oxford is with Bonn, Leiden, Grenoble and other university cities. Many former West German cities are twinned with former East German cities; these twinning links were established before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Famous examples are the partnerships of Hanover and Leipzig, both of which have important trade fair grounds, or between Hamburg and Dresden. The first U.S.-German town twinning was in 1947 between Worthington, Minnesota and Crailsheim. St Petersburg in Russia holds the record for the largest number of partnership arrangements with other communities. In June 2012, the Scottish village of Dull and the U.S. town of Boring, Oregon, agreed to twin their municipalities to promote tourism in both places, playing on their names.
Recently some towns have made novelty twinning arrangements with fictional or virtual locations. Wincanton, England is partnered with Ankh-Morpork from Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, and the Scottish Isle of Skye has been 'virtually twinned' with Skylands, a location in the video game Skylanders: Swap Force.
Town twinning has increasingly been used to form strategic international business links. For example, in the 1990s, when the Nottingham City Council in the UK considered installing a tram network, it consulted experts from its twin city of Karlsruhe, which has one of the most extensive and efficient tram networks in Germany. With assistance from Karlsruhe's specialist engineers, Nottingham completed its second tram line in 2013. More recently Bristol and New Orleans have announced their intention to form a 'tuning' partnership based on a shared musical heritage and culture offer, at the initiative of Bristol Mayor George Ferguson. Annecy, France and Nerima, Tokyo have for several years shared a partnership based around their "co-existent animation industry".
The first city in North America to establish a sister-city relationship was Toledo, Ohio, which sistered with Toledo, Spain, in 1931. Vancouver, British Columbia, entered into an intercontinental twinning arrangement in 1944 with Odessa, Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time. The initiative was based on Canada's aid to the allied port city during the Second World War. Liberal, Kansas, was twinned with Olney, Buckinghamshire, in 1950, and the cities have run a joint Pancake Day race ever since. Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan,—also formerly part of the Soviet Union—was twinned with Seattle, Washington, in 1973. Another first for town twinning occurred in 1967 between Rochester, Minnesota, and Knebworth, UK, both centres for primary medical research.
Sister City relationships begin for a variety of reasons. Generally, partner cities share similar demographics and size. They may arise from business connections, travel, similar industries, diaspora communities, or shared history. For example, the partnership between Portland, Oregon, and Bologna, Italy, arose from shared industries in biotechnology and education, appreciation for the arts, and a 'similar attitude towards food'; whereas Chicago’s link with Warsaw, Poland, began with Chicago's historic Polish community.
The US sister city program formally began in 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed a people-to-people, citizen diplomacy initiative. Originally a program of the National League of Cities, Sister Cities International, became a separate corporation in 1967 due to the growth and popularity of the U.S. program. Sister Cities International is now a nonprofit citizen diplomacy network that creates and strengthens partnerships between communities in the US and other countries, organizes cultural exchanges, and provides support and funding. Under its administration, more than 2,000 cities, states and counties are partnered in 136 countries.
According to the Sister Cities International website, these exchanges include "musical performances, art exhibits, construction of peace parks or tea gardens, international cultural festivals, and teacher exchanges".
Sister city cultural events include the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., honouring Washington's sister city relationship with Tokyo City. Capitalising on the growing world economy, many sister city members developed business agreements with their partners. For example, Vermont's Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream company opened a factory in Karelia, Russia, and offered the same profit-sharing scheme to its Russian employees as its American employees enjoyed. While not a primary goal, business relationships are a natural byproduct of sister city exchanges.
In 1995, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to eliminate the United States Information Agency (USIA) with vocal support from the U.S. Conference of Mayors International Affairs Committee and sister city members, Sister Cities International Program. Through this program, students predominantly from the Middle East study for a year in the U.S. On a 2004 exchange, Arab students from Gaza, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, Tunisia and Yemen lived in the US for a year with host families and attended a leadership summit in Boulder, Colorado. To further the youth program's goals, Sister Cities International developed the Youth and Education Network in 2004.
Sister city partnerships are supported in Japan by the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations, a joint agency of local governments established by the Japanese government in 1988 (similar to Sister Cities International, its counterpart in the US). More recently, Tokyo has begun to actively promote 'city diplomacy' with other global cities at the initiative of its governor Yoichi Masuzoe.
Relationships between communities can also arise because of shared names; they may be named after one community, (as in the case of Córdoba), they may share names (Santiago de Compostela) or their names may have a common etymology. These similarities usually arise from sharing the same or related language, or from having been a colony or previously conquered.
Twinning towns and cities is sometimes done for political purposes. The Hungarian city Gyöngyös was twinned with the Azerbaijani city of Shusha in 2013, signing the twinning agreement with representatives from the Azerbaijani government; Hungary recognises Shusha as part of Azerbaijan, even though since the end of the Karabakh War it has been controlled by the military forces of Armenia and the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (de jure part of Azerbaijan). An attempt was made in 2003 by Preston city councillors in England to twin with the Palestinian town of Nablus in the name of "solidarity".
Recently, city partnership termination started to be used for political purposes as well as its creation.
In 2013, Milan and Venice, formerly twinned with Saint Petersburg, suspended their links due to St Petersburg's conservative ban on "promotion of homosexuality to minors".  Other cities considered similar steps, namely Los Angeles and Melbourne, where the campaign is lead by Carl Katter. The cities of Glendale, California and Higashiosaka, Japan came close to terminating their sister cities relationship in 2013/14 on account of an on-going row over Glendale's support for the erection of a statue dedicated to Korean comfort women in a city park. In 2014, Prague terminated its partnership with Saint Petersburg and Moscow because of Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Moscow has been Prague's partner city since 1995.
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