Can cities save us from climate change?

Effective climate change agreements seem a distant dream. So should we be looking to cities, where practical problem-solving is matter of everyday governance?

This is an interview between Henry Kippen, a visiting fellow at the Royal Society of Arts, and Benjamin Barber, author of the book ‘If Mayors ruled the world’.

Henry Kippin: How has your research agenda evolved to focus on cities and the role they can have in solving global problems? 

Benjamin Barber: My focus has always been on the challenge of making democracy work in a variety of institutions and on a variety of scales. We all know that democracy was born in the polis and developed through the ancient and medieval worlds to the New England settlement. But the growth of nation states created a scale where cities were no longer capable of acting as primary institutions. That forced us to upgrade democracy from a direct-participation model to one that is based on representation, because you’re dealing with thousands and millions of people. 

Just as the polis was too small to deal with the scale of new national institutions, today we are confronting what I call interdependent challenges – whether that’s disease, global warming or weapons of mass destruction – with these Enlightenment-era nation states, which stand in the way of addressing these cross-border challenges. In the mid-2000s, I worked on a project that asked what sort of global governance can we have that is appropriate for the scale of the interdependent challenges of this century, and can it be democratic? 

My book started on that question and it had a chapter on cities. But the more I looked at what cities were actually doing, the more it became clear that, of all the institutions I had been looking at, cities were far ahead in actually dealing in informal networks and cross-border solutions. There was a good deal of collaboration and informal governance. And, because of their local character and size, they are much more democratic than the corporate institutions that are their competitors in international networking. 

It makes a wonderful rhetorical circle. You start with the polis; it becomes too small. In post-feudal Europe and the New World, it is replaced by nation states, which are then insufficiently capable of dealing with global problems. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we went back, in a certain sense, to where democracy was born: the cities. While trying to solve the global governance problem, one of the institutions I was exploring turned out to be an extraordinary candidate. 

One more thing became apparent. The title of the book is If Mayors Ruled the World, but the subtitle is Why They Should and, importantly, Why They Already Do. I found that what I was calling for was already underway, but not under the name of global governance. It was under the name of networking, or cross-city collaboration, such as the C40 and Mayors For Peace. So the book makes an argument for why cities do what states cannot, but says that this is already happening. The move to global city governance is a much shorter step than I first thought. 

Kippin: That thesis makes sense if you look at things like the smart city movement. Amsterdam, for example, has set ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2025, which is twice the European objective. At city level, it seems possible to generate alignment between the social, private and public sectors. 

Barber: Indeed. If you look at the attempts to follow up Kyoto at Copenhagen and Rio, the bad news was that about 180 nations showed up to explain why their sovereignty did not permit them to do anything. The good news, however, was that mayors were convening as well as heads of state. They stayed on, signed protocols and took action. 

You can take it a step further. It turns out that about 80% of all energy is used in cities and 80% of global carbon emissions come from cities with more than 50,000 people. Therefore, if cities take strong measures – as well as Amsterdam, Los Angeles cleaned up its port and reduced carbon emissions by 30% to 40% – they will have a profound effect. Even if the US and China do nothing, cities can have a big role to play in fixing the problem. It’s not just a theoretical thing. 

Kippin: That’s a huge advantage of thinking and working at city level, which gets me to the question of leadership. Earlier you said "why cities can do what states can’t". What is it about leadership in cities that can do that? 

Barber: That’s a great question, but before I answer it let me mention an aspect you didn’t ask about, which is very important. I argue that the very sovereignty that defines the jurisdictional and legal claims of nation states becomes a very large problem when it comes to international cooperation. Cities don’t have this sovereignty, but that liberates them from the ideologies and jurisdictional claims that make an effective level of cooperation between nation states impossible. Cities are naturally interdependent. 

Now, let’s come to your question. Leadership in cities revolves around capacities and realities that are quite different from what we’ve come to expect from national leaders. Pragmatism is essential. People don’t care whether you’re a communist or a Tory; you still have to pick up the garbage. Citizens aren’t too concerned about ideology as long as everything runs as it should. There’s a great quote from Teddy Kollek, the long-term mayor of Jerusalem, who said: "If you spare me your sermons, I’ll fix your sewers." To use a vernacular term, mayors can be homeboys; they’re working with their neighbours. The very scale of cities changes the character of governance. 

In some countries – in particular France and China – the position of mayor is just a step in a career that is predetermined by a party system. Francois Hollande was mayor of Tulle, but he was not from there. In most countries, mayors generally do not go on to higher office. This is both because they don’t want to and because they are not established in ideological chains and national party politics. There are successful exceptions, however. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish prime minister, was previously mayor of Istanbul, so he was capable of the kind of compromises that needed to be made in that country.

There has never been a mayor of a major US city who has gone on to be president. In fact, only two American presidents ever served in any capacity as mayor. Grover Cleveland was briefly mayor of Buffalo and Calvin Coolidge was mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts, but they don’t figure on their résumés. 

This goes back to the character of leadership. These aren’t charismatic leaders who can move millions of people through ideological statements and great rhetoric. These are very effective problem solvers and they will tell you that they lack the power to do anything without collaboration. Public-private agreements at a national level come with these big ideological questions, but those kinds of deals are second nature to mayors everywhere. This means that most mayors who are extremely successful don’t go on. Bloomberg started as a Democrat, then became a Republican and is now an independent. 

Kippin: In Britain, we recently had referendums in ten cities on creating directly elected mayors. Only one, Bristol, voted for a new mayoral system, so we have this odd situation where mayors are popular once in place, but voters don’t seem to trust the political system enough to set them up. Does this happen in other countries? 

Barber: While we need and want to generalise about cities and mayors, it is also the case that cities are very different from one another and part of different political systems. A good example is Yury Luzhkov in Moscow, who started in the 1970s on the city council and was deputy mayor or mayor for 28 years. Finally, Medvedev got him out because he was seen as a threat and alternative power source in Moscow. 

In the American setting, at the turn of the 20th century, we believed that mayors were deeply corrupt and that the personal character of mayors was a problem. The progressive movement put forth the notion of city managers: appointed technocrats who would come in and do the problem solving. That idea was quite successful and went some way towards clearing urban government of its corrupt habits. Then, however, people felt that this technocratic approach was undemocratic, which led to a return for mayors. 

Part of my argument is that we can talk about mayors because of the intimate relationship they have with the citizenry. One part of my argument is that mayors can collaborate across borders. But the second and equally important part is that they do it in ways that are relatively democratic. That’s why I have a long section in the book on participatory budgeting. It’s a nice example of trying to engage citizens directly on the allocation of resources in cities. 

Kippin: Let me take you global again. You talked about global networks solving problems and mentioned the democratic underpinnings of that. What would that look like? And how can the process be democratic for people who live outside cities? 

Barber: On your first point, I think that the next step – and some people would say that it’s an awfully big step, but I found that many of the intermediate steps are being taken by cities already – should be the convening of a global parliament of mayors and a secretariat that would work with them. The parliament would not make mandatory laws, but rather present best practices and experiments for any cities that want to voluntarily comply with them. It would allow systematic and regular exchanges on common practices, such as ecological medals. For example, it could say that any cities that care to could agree to a 40% reduction in carbon emissions, but then explore with other cities how to achieve it in practice. 

A number of the mayors I have spoken to have said that they like the idea and that they are already meeting each other informally. I won’t name them, but I have the support of a number of important mayors who are convening a meeting ahead of the book’s publication. 

Your second question is even more important. More than half the world’s population lives in cities, but that means a little less than half does not. There is a large section in the final chapter of my book that asks in what sense would a global parliament of mayors be unrepresentative and deeply undemocratic. 

The first part of the answer is to say that cities are already deeply engaged with their regions through agriculture, transport systems and so on. In fact, cities being represented through their mayors could easily be seen as representing the regions around cities, too. The number of people being represented would shoot up. Second, the global parliament of mayors would not be an organisation that imposes anything on anyone; it’s voluntary. So there’s no reason why a regional government or county couldn’t take up some of the parliament’s ideas. There’s no tax or lawmaking without representation. 

Third, there is nothing to stop rural regions having parallel structures. I am not advocating starting an organisation that governs the world. Rather, I am arguing that a cooperative assembly, in which cities can work together in governing themselves, can help address and solve global problems. At some point, regions will have the chance to agree or disagree with the results. 

Fourth, if you’re talking about each voter having a voice that speaks for their interests, then a global parliament of mayors is never going to be representative. But if you’re talking about a Burkian notion, where representatives pursue the interests of the whole, then my assumption is that mayors will have as their mandate not simply to reproduce the local self-interests of cities, but rather to pursue the common and public interest. If they did that, they would be speaking for the world, for agricultural and other regions not directly in their cities. It is a vital question and one I do try to deal with in the book, although I don’t pretend that I deal with it fully. 

Finally, should we not have a global parliament of mayors just because some people are not fully represented? Or should we have it and then find ways to have better institutions for rural areas? 

Kippin: In a way, you already have the answer for that, which is that global governance as it is hardly works for the benefit of all. 

Barber: Right, we have multinational corporations and some NGOs pursuing humane interests. But right now there are no representatives. If we can go from nothing to representing half the world, I’d say we’re well on the way to a good thing. 

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal