The Chronicle Review

Power to the Cities

In an age of global turmoil, urban solutions should lead the way

Matthew Benson

July 30, 2017

T he Paris climate accord, signed in December 2015 by 196 sovereign nations agreeing to act against climate change, gave the world hope that something was finally going to be done. Then, on June 1, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the pact.

The science of climate change and its existential threat to our species and others has been settled for quite some time. The heart of the crisis is not a dearth of technical knowledge; climate change is and has always been a political problem. Indeed, many of our most challenging problems — pandemic disease, global terrorism, transnational crime — are at their heart problems of power and politics. We create political institutions and endow them with power to protect ourselves and our interests. But lately, our institutions seem to be failing us.

Benjamin R. Barber’s Cool Cities  (Yale University Press), the follow-up to his must-read If Mayors Ruled the World  (Yale, 2013), contains a subset of his original argument, tailored for the specific and pressing problem of climate change. But it has become even more pertinent in the Trumpian age: an age of anxiety about how global interdependence has made our national borders less meaningful and our political institutions less effective. Barber, who died this past April, was prescient about how such anxieties spawn reactionary forces hoping to re-erect 20th-century barriers — whether they be Brexit or Trump’s promise of an actual, tangible barrier along the border. But for better or worse, we live in an increasingly interdependent world. The internet, pandemic disease, terrorism, financial crime, and environmental catastrophe know no borders.

The rise of nationalist sentiment in the West shows that something is wrong with democracy in the nation-state. Barber argues that national governments have defaulted on their responsibility to use the power entrusted to them to ensure our survival, specifically within the context of climate change. Some politicians have hinted at a quiet respect for the authoritarian but effective direction of the Chinese one-party model. Abhorring any abandonment of Western liberal values, where else can one find institutional models fit for the burden of sovereignty in the face of global problems like climate change?

Those familiar with Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World already know the answer: cities. As nation-states default on responsibilities and struggle in an interdependent world, we can either reassert independence in vain, or we can adopt a model that embraces both the global and local while re-energizing faith in democratic politics. Barber calls this "glocality": the ability to tackle globally interdependent issues at the local level. Cities help us escape ideological impasse and disenchantment with democratic order. They allow us to tailor specific solutions, embrace pragmatism, and maintain global cooperation in the face of common threats, reconnecting citizens directly with their governments and fostering a civic life that has increasingly withered.

At the local level, ideologies tend to soften when the complexity of our problems comes into light. Vitriol for "the other" fades as we see them up close as people not too unlike ourselves. All problems are at the end of the day local; climate change and terrorism may have global repercussions, but each starts and ends in local manifestations of those causes and consequences. Mayors do not have the luxury of prevarication. If something goes wrong, they cannot explain it away or blame the opposition in a logorrhea of bloviation. Pragmatism rules the day because it gets things done. The mayor whose city is already experiencing increased flooding has time for neither doubt nor indecision.

But Barber’s most interesting argument is perhaps that cities function more effectively because they foster a form of democracy that has disappeared from the national stage. Democracy, as Barber sees it, is more than just majoritarian rule. It is a sense of shared civic life that transforms disparate viewpoints into common action. The city, birthplace of democracy, fosters cooperation and a direct connection between citizens and the political institutions in which they have placed the responsibility for their well-being.

In the context of climate change, this extends to the global stage as cities leap over national boundaries and cooperate with one another directly. After publishing If Mayors Ruled the World, Barber founded the Global Parliament of Mayors, an organization dedicated to advancing the belief that cities are the solution. But this international body is just the latest manifestation of urban networks that existed long before, from the medieval Hanseatic League to the C40, a group that coordinates cities’ efforts against climate change. While nation-states struggle to equate different climate actions fairly in the context of disparate capabilities, global urban networks have created systems that allow cities of all sizes and economic circumstances to agree upon a just distribution of the burden of change.

The problem is that even as cities should shoulder these sovereign burdens, they are blocked time and again, reminded that they are subsidiary and subservient to the nation-state. In North Carolina, for example, the mess precipitated by HB2 — the infamous "bathroom bill" — included a provision barring local civil-rights ordinances, specifically targeting the city of Charlotte and its LGBT-rights ordinance. In that same vein, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas pushed for and passed a law prohibiting so-called sanctuary cities in Texas, co-opting local prerogatives.

Considering these roadblocks and a way through them, Barber raises two questions: the unfunded-mandate question and the sovereignty question. First, how can cities take on global responsibilities when most of the vast revenue they raise is taxed away by central authorities and only a fraction returned? Second, how to argue for cities as the new arbiters of the people’s sovereignty? The core of Barber’s case is not just that cities should and can shoulder the burden, but that this realignment must be couched in the language of rights. It is not just practical and effective for cities to take on this responsibility, it is just and right. He has deemed his Global Parliament of Mayors as first and foremost a global movement for city rights.

Something is wrong with democracy in the nation-state. Cities may hold the answer.
Perhaps his most conservative proposition (and therefore the most radical for Barber, who was overtly liberal) is that the revenue raised by cities should remain under local discretion. Why is it that New York City, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, cannot afford to maintain its transit infrastructure? Federal taxation siphons the money and directs it into highways that residents of New York City have no use for. It sounds almost like "Big Government" for conservatives like Abbott and the North Carolina Legislature to prohibit and interfere with local rule. Americans may distrust their federal politicians as far removed and callously meddlesome, but an overwhelming number trust their mayors. In a marketplace where people vote with their feet, permitting competition and a diversity of options among cities instead of one centralized policy — just as states are the "laboratory of democracy" — can guarantee an experimentation that is more likely to find the right solution.

Barber’s work still leaves important questions unanswered. His progressive urban viewpoint fails to account for the widening urban/rural divide in the United States. If cities were to keep the greater bulk of their revenue, rural populations might be even worse off. His argument conveniently skips over problematic instances such as the politically paralyzing divide in Thailand between Bangkok, with its educated and wealthy elite, and the country’s impoverished northern countryside.

Barber’s definition of "the city" remains unclear as well. It is not just cities that are our economic engines, but also our metropolitan regions and in turn our burgeoning megaregions. Regional cooperation as detailed in Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s Metropolitan Revolution (Brookings, 2013) offers more practical recommendations. But regional politics is still fraught as well, as exemplified by the Ontario government’s decision to amalgamate Toronto proper with its more conservative suburbs, precipitating the mayoral election of Rob Ford.

Furthermore, Barber leaves us little idea how urban democracy functions more effectively at wielding the responsibilities that accompany greater sovereign rights. It makes sense that local politicians can more easily find dialogue, cooperation, compromise, and ultimately action. They are not encumbered by the spectacle of televised politics. But what are the mechanisms that allow local politics to be more participatory and ultimately effective? The burgeoning push for smart cities gives us both concern and hope. Technology can enable greater participation and democratic, effective governance, or it can shroud an inequitable urban politics in the objective guise of technocracy.

Barber’s Global Parliament of Mayors has yet to achieve concrete gains in advancing urban self-governance. No doubt the language of rights can be powerful. But history leaves us few instances in which centralized power was devolved willingly.

Naturally, one should be suspicious of anything hailed as a panacea. Nation-states are not going anywhere — we are not seeing the return of ancient city-states. Certainly cities do not want to give up a centralized banking system and common currency, and it remains to be seen how a global network of cities would be able to resolve catastrophes like the Syrian civil war. The current postwar order, despite great attempts at its dissolution by incompetent and malicious leaders alike, will not collapse overnight.

Perhaps a prudent step forward is to discuss how cities and their regions should be repositioned in the nation-state. The ousted Italian premier Matteo Renzi attempted to reorganize the Italian Senate by metropolitan regions, doing away with antiquated boundaries. The case against the outdated Electoral College system in the United States, which disproportionately favors less-populated areas of much lower economic productivity, is gaining traction. Perhaps we need to reassess Jefferson-era national narratives that idealize rurality and demonize the urban.

The age of the nation-state was the age of the positivist belief in centralization, of neat and orderly discrete principles. We now live in an age perhaps best defined by decentralized networks, a seemingly untidy, stochastic view of the world in which complex order arises from chaos. This age is an anxious one, in which turbulent change leaves us exasperated at our nation-states’ inability to fulfill the responsibilities we have entrusted to them. The nation-state has always been a nebulous concept based on shared narratives, sometimes fictitious ones. Everywhere we see these narratives faltering. But the shared narrative of urban life has never changed. It is the narrative that we experience daily and that connects us to one another. Barber knew this urban reality of life. He would never get to see his vision, but he laid the groundwork. Democracy was born in the city, and our time may require the form of democracy that can be found only there.

Sean Andrew Chen is studying for a master’s degree in public administration at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and an M.S. at the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University. He previously worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on urban resilience and climate-change adaptation.