As nation states show signs of going rogue, could cities point the way to a more positive future? The Global Parliament of Mayors brings together representatives from around the world to work together on common priorities. In our increasingly complex global environment, such interconnected networks of cities could be the key forum to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
Cities are not just the dominant form of social organization in the 21st century, they are the antidote to many of the planet’s most intractable challenges. We are, after all, an urban species. More than half the world’s population already lives in a city, and cities generate four fifths of global GDP. There are a staggering 2,100 cities with populations of 250,000 people or more, including a growing number of mega-cities and sprawling conurbations with at least 10 million residents.
The widening clout of cities is not just a result of demography and economics. It is also fundamentally about politics, including a revival of democratic governance at the urban scale. And many cities are thriving and driving positive change while states fall into gridlock and disarray. As this year’s U.S. presidential race amply shows, even the world’s most powerful nation states can become paralyzed by reactionary populism, polarization, and scandal.
There are ominous signs of nation states going rogue. Consider the cases of Austria, France, Hungary, the Netherlands and Poland where angry right-wing populist administrations are threatening to take charge. In Russia and the Philippines, the current regimes can be characterized as strong-man autocracies. Against this grim backdrop, cities are a promising alternative for fostering effective and pragmatic democratic governance from the ground up.
While some political leaders speak of throwing up walls, cities are busily getting connected with one another. In an interconnected globalized world, cities are the most interdependent of political entities. They are transactional, trade-oriented and open, and defined by physical, intellectual and digital bridges rather than borders. Bound together by dense exchanges of ideas, capital and people, and facing common challenges like climate change, migration, inequality and terrorism, city networks are the new normal.
“While some political leaders speak of throwing up walls, cities are busily getting connected with one another. In an interconnected globalized world, cities are the most interdependent of political entities.”
But if they are really going to address some of the world’s trickiest problems, city networks need to do more than exchange ideas and best practice. In order for glocal urban governance to thrive, cities will need to develop proactive partnerships across national and international frontiers. There are hundreds, even thousands, of fast-growing cities in Africa, Asia and the Americas that are literally and figuratively off the grid. Archetypal global cities like London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo are diverting our gaze from municipalities across the global south that are struggling to keep up.
Fast-expanding cities and shantytowns in the developing world are precisely where virtually all future population growth is taking place. Many of them are struggling to attract and retain investment and talent, exhibit eye-watering rates of crime and violence, and suffer from extreme inequality and concentrated disadvantage. As successful cities rewrite the social contract to enable global collective action and agency, fragile cities watch helplessly as their social contracts unravel.
One way to help ensure that metropolises of all size and status benefit from the urban revolution is to build new modes of inter-city and cross-border collaboration. Some cities are already aggressively networking. Take the case of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) that emerged after the First World War to facilitate the exchange of research and best practices. There are dozens of other city consortia including Metropolis and the C40 Climate Cities network which helped push for a climate agreement in Paris known as COP21.
Even so, there is still no legitimate and effective platform to foster collective city action to address the world’s intractable problems. If mayors are going to cut carbon emissions or come up with smarter ways to deal with migration they will need to forge new ways of working together and co-designing solutions. Gathering data, sharing lessons and reaching out to global institutions is the first step. Just as important is lobbying international institutions, setting rules to identify common priorities and delivering services and good governance to citizens.
Critics will say that it’s hard enough to achieve consensus with at least 193 nation states, so how will thousands of cities manage? Part of the answer comes down to the intrinsically collaborative nature of cities. Nation states are independent, competitive and separated by territorial boundaries while cities are interdependent, cooperative and increasingly forging positive win-win partnerships. As Brexit and the populist movements in Europe show, nation states are starting to look parochial; an increasing number of cities are cosmopolitan and universal in their values.
What is urgently needed is a global governance body constructed purposefully for and by cities, a Global Parliament of Mayors. This is not a theoretical construct – it is already in motion. This past September, a group of more than 70 mayors and representatives from over two dozen inter-city networks gathered in The Hague to forge a compact. At the inaugural meeting cities as diverse as Buenos Aires, Cape Town, New Delhi and Paris addressed common priorities related to climate change, immigration, governance and public security.
The future international landscape is marked with volatility and uncertainty. There is a seismic re-ordering of international order underway that stretches from the U.S. and Europe to South and East Asia. There are no simple solutions and many potential flash points. But the truth is that the road to democracy, sustainability and stability runs not through nation states, but cities. Rather than standing still, city residents are already rolling-up their sleeves to get things done. Now is the time to empower mayors to take these efforts on a global scale.