Seattle's Sister City Program

  • By Gordon Burridge with Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 5/03/2001
  • Essay 3254

President Dwight Eisenhower created the Sister City program in 1956 to encourage the people-to-people exchange between Americans and citizens of other countries. Seattle was quick off the mark with the formation of the Seattle-Kobe Sister City Association in 1957. Since then, its international urban sorority has grown to 21, including, in chronological order: Kobe, Japan; Bergen, Norway; Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Beer Sheva, Israel; Mazatlan, Mexico; Nantes, France; Christchurch, New Zealand; Mombassa, Kenya; Chongquing, Peoples Republic of China; Limbe, Cameroon; Galway City, Republic of Ireland; Reykjavik, Iceland; Taejon, South Korea; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Pecs, Hungary; Cebu City, Philippines; Perugia, Italy; Surabaya, Indonesia; Gdynia, Poland; Haiphong, Vietnam; and Kampong Saom (formerly Sihanoukville), Cambodia.

At the height of the Cold War, President Eisenhower believed the chances of future global conflicts would be lessened if people and organized groups were involved in citizen diplomacy – fostered through the Sister City program. Seattle was one of the first to respond to this call.

In 1957, Seattle Mayor Gordon Clinton proposed to his counterpart in Kobe, Japan, Mayor Chujiro Haraguchi, that their respective cities become "sisters," and Haraguchi quickly agreed. On October 10, 1957, the official ceremony took place in Kobe – forming one of the first inter-urban relationships. Sixteen years later, Seattle again embarked on unchartered waters by affiliating with Tashkent, Uzbekisatan, (then part of the U.S.S.R.) in the first U.S.-Soviet sister city association.

Led By Citizen Committees

The initiative to establish a Sister City relationship is taken by a group of citizens in the community. Associations, working with their counterparts overseas, plan their own agendas and projects. They operate independently with volunteers and with assistance from city government. Seattle has imposed a temporary moratorium on acceptance of new Sister City affiliations due to the demands they create on municipal staff.

As of May 2001, cities from 125 nations are involved in the sister city program. Seattle's 21 sister city affiliations are here described in chronological order (with population in year 2000):

Kobe, Japan, approved October 10, 1957: Kobe (population 1,430,000) is Japan's seventh largest city and the capital of Hyogo Prefecture on the main island of Honshu. It is a major port on the Inland Sea. Industries include steel, electrical machinery, transportation equipment, high-tech industries, rubber goods, and sake. In 1997, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Seattle relationship, Kobe Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama brought a delegation of Kobe citizens to participate in Seattle’s annual Seafair Festival. To reciprocate, Mayor Norm Rice led a delegation to Kobe, presenting a bronze sea otter statue and a sequoia tree to the citizens of Kobe. Gifts from the citizens of Kobe can be seen around Seattle, most noticeably pine and cherry trees and a stone lantern at the Kobe Terrace Park in the International District.

Bergen, Norway, May 22, 1967: Bergen (population 220,000) was founded in 1070 on a natural harbor between two fjords and soon became Norway’s most important center of trade with Europe. It is the country’s second largest city and has developed into a cosmopolitan center of trade, finance, shipping, oil production, fishing, research, and learning. In 1970, Sister Cities International honoured the Seattle-Bergen relationship with an award for best overall program. Bergen’s Nordness Park has a totem pole from Seattle and the Seattle community of Ballard has a park dedicated to King Olav of Norway.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan, January 22, 1973: Tashkent (population 2,300,000) is the largest city in Central Asia and the capital of the new Republic of Uzbekistan that borders on Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. Tashkent is a city on the legendary Silk Road trade route which connected China and Europe for 13 centuries. In 1220, the city became part of the Genghis Khan empire and in 1865 part of the Russian empire. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tashkent became the capital of independent Uzbekistan. In 1966, an earthquake destroyed much of the city. Since then, rebuilding has transformed the city into an industrial and cultural hub with a diverse economy. Irrigation projects have turned desert into land producing fruit, vegetables, and cotton. There is a Seattle Peace Park in Tashkent designed and constructed by citizens from the Seattle-Tashkent Association and by volunteers from Ploughshares, an organization of Seattleites who had served in the Peace Corps.

Beer Sheva, Israel, April 18, 1977: Beer Sheva (population: 157,000), located on the edge of the Negev Desert, is the administrative, cultural, and industrial capital of the Negev. It is home to Ben Gurion University of the Negev, a center for science and the humanities and the internationally acclaimed Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research. Mayor Charles Royer led a delegation there in 1987. The following year, eight Seattle high school students visited Beer Sheva after attending an international sister cities conference in Jerusalem. Ben Gurion University and the University of Washington School of Social Work have hosted exchanges.

Mazatlan, Mexico, November 19, 1979: Mazatlan (population: 380,000), a short three hour flight and Seattle’s closest sister city, is located in the southern region of Sinaloa State. Mexico’s largest city on the Pacific Ocean, it is a major port currently being developed by the Mexican government as a major gateway to Pacific Rim trade. Mazatlan is a popular tourist destination. The Seattle-Mazatlan Association arranges homestays for exchange students and for visiting scholars. The association also provides medical supplies to orphanages and aid to the fire and police departments. Large contingents participate in the annual Seafair festivities in Seattle and in the Mazatlan Carnival in Mexico.

Nantes, France, April 21, 1980: Nantes (population: 255,000) is one of France’s regional capitals and is a major seaport near the mouth of the Loire river in northwest France. The city grew around the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne where the Edict of Nantes was signed granting religious freedom to French Protestants. The city is a hub of high-tech and aeronautical industries, food processing, fisheries, and wine. The city is home to the University of Nantes and many research institutions. Throughout the year the Seattle-Nantes Sister City Association conducts exchanges in the fields of education, art, music, athletics, and trade. One long-standing event enables runners to participate in each city’s annual marathon.

Christchurch, New Zealand, January 26, 1981: Christchurch (population: 350,000) is New Zealand’s third largest city and the largest on the South Island. It is bordered by hills and by the Pacific Ocean on the edge of the Canterbury Plains. Political delegations, business missions, and cultural and sports exchanges continue to occur. The Burke Museum at the University of Washington hosts a permanent display of traditional and contemporary Maori art as part of the Pacific Voices exhibit. Also, there’s a popular New Zealand High Country plantation at the Arboretum which is to be expanded (as of 2001) as part of the new strategic plan for the arboretum.

Mombassa, Kenya, April 6, 1981: Mombassa, (population: 275,500) is Kenya’s major seaport and the capital of the Coast Province. Set in a deep, natural harbor on the Indian Ocean, Mombassa’s Kilindini port facility is the best equipped on the East African coast. It was a strategic trading center for many centuries and has been ruled by Arabs, Persians, Portuguese, Turks, and finally the British before independence in 1963. The Seattle-Mombassa Association promotes cultural, educational, trade, and tourism exchanges between the two cities. Mayor Royer led a Seattle delegation to Mombassa in 1988. The Savannah at the Woodland Park Zoo is dedicated to the sister city relationship.

Chongquing, Peoples Republic of China, June 3, 1983: Chongquing (population: 32,000,000) is a provincial-level jurisdiction comprising 30,000 sguare miles along the Yangtze River in southwest China. The inner city of Chongquing is home to about six million people. Many universities, technical and research institutes, and professional schools, including the renowned Sichuan Fine Arts Academy, are located there. Chongquing is where visitors to the gorges of the Yangtze River and to the Song Dynasty Buddhist stone carvings at Dan begin their journey. Since establishing ties, Seattle and Chongquing have conducted more than 150 exchanges in education, arts, government, business, medicine, and science.

Limbe, Cameroon, April 2, 1984: Limbe (population: 67,000), formerly known as Victoria, is a port city on the southwest coast of Cameroon between West and Central Africa. It was colonized by Germany in 1884, then divided into French and British zones after World War I. Cameroon, which became a republic in 1972, is renowned for its tea and agricultural production and Limbe is the center of its oil production. The Cameroon Ambassador to the United States has visited Seattle, and Mayor Charles Royer led a delegation to Limbe in 1988 to present a medical aid van as a gift from the City of Seattle.

Galway City, Republic of Ireland, March 10, 1986: Galway City (population: 60,000) is the third largest city in the Republic of Ireland, the capital of the west of Ireland, and the fastest growing city in Europe. The city celebrated its quincentenary (500th anniversary) in 1994. Galway is a university city which has a strong local economy complemented by a robust manufacturing and tourist industry. To mark the Seattle-Galway sister city relationship, a stone monument was unveiled in Galway in 1993 with a bronze marker containing the geophysical data of Seattle. University College, Galway, and the University of Washington participate in annual student exchange programs.

Reykjavik, Iceland, May 5, 1986: Reykjavik (population: 120,000) is the main port and capital of Iceland and the northernmost metropolis in the world. Its chief exports are fish, fish products, and aluminum. Reykjavik means "Bay of Smokes" in Icelandic because Norse settlers saw steam rising from thermal springs. Today these springs provide heat and hot water for homes and buildings. The sister city agreement was signed the year of Reykjavik’s bicentennial. Seattle has the largest Icelandic community in the United States.

Taejon, South Korea, October 4, 1989: Taejon (population: 1,300,000) is the provincial capital of Chung Chong Nam-do. The nation's sixth largest city, Taejon means "Great Field" in Korean. It is located in central Korea about 100 miles south of Seoul and is considered an important administrative, transportation, education, science, industrial, and agricultural center. Chung Nam National University is one of the most prestigious in Korea and is the home of the nation's top medical schools. Taedok Science Town is a unique scientific research center for the high-tech industry. Major industries include textiles, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. The region is one of farm belts of the nation. Mayor Charles Royer led a delegation to Taejon for the official signing of the sister city agreement.

Kaohsiung, Taiwan, May 3, 1991: Kaohsiung (population: 1,400,000) is the nation's second largest city and is a major industrial center located at the southwest tip of this island state. Its port is the world's fourth largest container terminal and one of the top 10 general ports. Kaohsiung is the cultural, recreational, and tourist center for all of southern Taiwan, representing 5,000 years of classical Chinese culture. On the shores of Lotus Lake are the new Confucian Temple, the Spring and Autumn Pavilions, and the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas. The Fokuang-Shan Mountain Range is the major center for Buddhist studies. Mayor Wu Den-yih visited Seattle in 1991, and the same year hosted a Seattle delegation to his city.

Pecs, Hungary, May 25, 1991: Pecs (population: 160,000) has a 2,000-year-old history that includes invasions by early Celtic warriors, Romans, nomadic tribes, and by Turkish and Soviet armies. It has been ruled by Hungarian kings and by Hapsburg monarchs. It has known revolution and war and now freedom and democracy. Pecs is the administrative center of Baranya County and is located south of Budapest, about three hours by train. Its university, founded in 1367, is the fifth oldest in Europe. One of Hungary’s most treasured medieval monuments is Pecs’ Romanesque Cathedral, built in the eleventh century by King Stephen I. Industries include the famous Zsolnay Porcelain Works, wine, beer, leather, uranium, and coal mining.

Cebu City, Philippines, August 21, 1991: Cebu City (population: 55O,000) is the capital of Cebu Island Province, a long narrow island at the center of the Visayan Islands about 265 miles south of Manila. Cebu was under Spanish rule for three centuries. The first Spanish settlement was built in Cebu in 1565 by Mexico’s Spanish government to colonize the country after Magellan's 1521 "discovery" of the Philippines. Cebu City is a commercial center whose industries include copper mining, fishing and aquaculture, shipbuilding, steel, cement, and agriculture.

Perugia, Italy, September 11, 1991: Perugia (population: 351,000) is an agricultural trade center north of Rome in central Italy. It is the capital of Umbria, the region's cultural and economic center. Perugia’s University Degli Studi di Perugia and the Italian University for Foreigners have an active exchange program with Seattle universities.

Surabaya, Indonesia, May 14, 1992: Surabaya (population: 2,159,000) is one of Indonesia’s oldest cities with a 700-plus-year history. The capital of East Java and Indonesia’s second largest city and port, it is known as the City of Heroes because of its struggle for independence at the end of World War II. Today it is a rapidly developing commercial and educational center. Its main industries are shipbuilding, heavy equipment manufacturing, food processing, electronics, agriculture, and furniture. The Mayor of Surabaya has visited Seattle and the association has sponsored programs on Indonesian politics, economics and culture.

Gdynia, Poland, May 10, 1993: Gdynia (population, 260,000) is one of Poland’s youngest and most dynamic cities. It is located on Gdansk Bay, a major Baltic seaport. In 1253, Gdynia was a fishing settlement, now it’s the nation’s center for deep-sea fishing and shipbuilding. Gdynia was fashioned by Poland as an alternate deep-water port after Gdansk was declared a free city in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and placed under the jurisdiction of the League of Nations. Gdynia is home to the Polish Navy and many maritime museums. It forms a tri-city urban district with Gdansk and Sopot. Activities of the Seattle-Gdynia Sister Cities Association include the annual Polish Film Pestival in Seattle, and technical, artistic, and student exchanges.

Haiphong, Vietnam, September 30, 1996: Haiphong (population: 1,448,000) is about 60 miles east of Hanoi. Officially founded in 1888, the city lies on the bank of the Cam River, and has been considered a major international seaport for centuries. It is the third largest city in Vietnam after Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Haiphong's major industries are fish processing, woolen carpet mills, glass, cement, and shipbuilding. The Sister City association adopted an orphanage and is building a new children's home there as its first project.

Kampong Saom, formerly Sihanoukville, Cambodia, November 24, 1999: Kampong Saom (population: 1987 estimate, 16.000) is situated on the Gulf of Thailand and is a principal deepwater port of southern Cambodia. The port is connected by two major highways to Phnom Penh, the national capital. Principal exports include timber, rice, corn, and rubber.


City of Seattle's Office of Intergovernmental Relations; Sister Cities International; "Birth of Gdnynia," Gdynia website accessed May 19, 2010 (
Note: This essay was corrected on May 19, 2010.

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