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'Cities must act on global problems'

Benjamin Barber
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In the setting of the current crises of governance, democracy and national sovereignty, there is a new and powerful role for cities.

The urbanisation of our planet, which has brought more than half of the world’s population into cities that produce 80% of global GDP, offers an antidote to the increasing dysfunction of nation states and their stunning incapacity to solve global problems, whether of climate change and terrorism or refugees and market inequality.

It will be cities that are the new global problem-solvers and their pragmatic, non-ideological mayors that will cooperate around solutions. The time has come to think about cities rather than nations, and mayors rather than prime ministers, as the key players of our new urbanising century in crisis.

Recent developments have underscored the new role for cities.

There is government gridlock in the United States, and with the election of an ignorant and xenophobic populist to the White House, a grim prospect of failure in America’s global leadership.

There is the assault on the EU that began with Brexit and continues with the rise of populist and reactionary nationalist parties in Spain, Italy, Poland and Hungary and threatens victories for the extreme right in France, Holland and even Germany. All of these developments are fuelled by an attack on national governments that shows citizens’ needs are not being met as their fears and resentments are inflamed. The result has been a default by national governments on their fundamental social contract responsibilities.

In short, we appear to have reached the end of the era of nation states. The more-than four centuries old markers of national independence and sovereign jurisdiction no longer accommodate the borderless interdependence of the 21st century world. As states effectively default on their sovereignty, cities harness their pragmatic capacity to solve problems and their inclination to transactional cooperation across borders and assume the responsibilities of nations. More successful than any other political body today, cities are emerging as the de facto sovereigns of the century.

The enduring vitality of the metropolis, now fully restored, is hardly surprising. Cities are much older than the nation-states to which they belong and much more open and multicultural, hence more transactional and tolerant than mono-cultural states as well. Moreover, citizens view the city as the quintessential home. Cite and citoyen in French, Burg and Buerger in German, suggest the deep etymological link between cities and citizenship or civic identity.

Although cities once were walled fortresses, today they are defined by bridges and diversity, and by multiple networks in which they pursue common practices and policies. As Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City has said: “When national governments fail to act on crucial issues like climate, cities have to do so.”

Cities have been cooperating for decades in such networks as United Cities and Local Governments, ICLEI, the C40 Climate Cities, EuroCities and the US Conference of Mayors. Since September 2016, they also have the voice of the new Global Parliament of Mayors, founded in the Hague, to express the rights of the city and the responsibility they have for solving local and global challenges.

The Global Parliament of Mayors empowers cities to act in concert, forcefully, effectively and consensually. Its aim is neither to compete with nor encroach upon nations. On the contrary, it aspires to cooperate with them and with the United Nations in solving global problems that traditional governing bodies have found it hard to address. Yet when states cannot or will not act, the parliament will assume what is in effect sovereign responsibility under a new social contract to secure a sustainable and just planet.

Mayors are in practice modest and unassuming. They are diffident about asserting a right to act even when nations conspicuously fail. But they have a right and an obligation to act, and the bold may lead the more reticent in asserting their role as guarantors of life and liberty, as Mayor de Blasio did recently in a powerful speech at Cooper Union in New York when he vowed he would “resist” illegitimate efforts by the federal government to round up immigrants and would “not comply” with orders to create Muslim registries. Citing the Declaration of Independence, he almost seemed to propose a form of urban civil disobedience.

In the era defined by Brexit, Donald Trump and reactionary populism around Europe and the world, we will find ourselves depending more and more for the survival of our rights and perhaps our existence on this kind of bold leadership by cities; on urban disobedience, municipal courage, and a new politics of the city - a politics of hope aimed not at blocking national government but at freeing up municipal agency and local civic action on behalf of global goods.

Benjamin Barber, professor emeritus of political science, Rutgers University. Prof. Barber explores his ideas on nations’ and cities’ sovereignty in his books If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, and Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming

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