Op-ed

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Tackling global problems? Look to cities, not countries

by Robert Muggah

The Globe and Mail
June 17, 2017

The world is buckling under multiple pressures, including climate change, inequality, migration, pandemics and terrorism. Yet, at precisely the moment collective action is most pressing, international co-operation is coming unstuck. Twentieth-century supranational entities such as the United Nations and World Bank are stumbling. This is because the world's 400-year-old experiment with nation-states is crumbling. By contrast, cities are humanity's most realistic hope for survival.

The odds are in cities' favour. For one thing, they are where most people live. By 2050, more than two-thirds of humanity will live in a city. When nation-states first emerged in the 1600s, less than 1 per cent of the world's population resided in one. Today, cities are crucibles of ingenuity and productivity, generating more than 80 per cent of the world's patents and approximately 80 per cent of global GDP. Urban dwellers tend to be happier, healthier, better educated and more prosperous than their rural counterparts.

Cities are key to surmounting our biggest challenges. Where nation-states are by nature independent, competitive and defined by rigid borders, cities are instinctively interdependent, co-operative and open. Cities are diverse, cosmopolitan and liberal: they are a direct threat to populism and reactionary nationalism. This helps explain why dozens of U.S. cities representing tens of millions of people are standing up to the White House on issues of climate action and providing sanctuary to migrants.

Of course, not all cities are equally connected. There are hundreds of successful cities across North America, Western Europe and East Asia that are linked together through culture, commerce, labour and infrastructure. But there are also thousands of fast-growing cities in Africa, Asia and the Americas that are literally off the grid. Glamorous cities such as London, New York and Singapore are distracting our gaze from cities across the Global South where 90 per cent of future urban growth may take place.

Some cities struggle more than others. The most fragile cities are unable to attract investment, suffer from acute levels of crime and face grinding poverty. One way to help cities of all kinds benefit from the dividends of urbanization is to forge intercity collaboration. Indeed, the past two decades have witnessed an explosion of city networks: there are currently more than 200 of them, more than for nation-states.

To their credit, some cities are also investing heavily in diplomacy. The most effective of them are mapping their civic and commercial assets to determine their comparative advantage. They are also charting out a global vision that is linked to local interests and capabilities. Early adopters of city diplomacy such as Chicago, London, Montreal, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore and Toronto are teaming up with think tanks and private entities to build political, economic, cultural and security ties overseas.

City diplomacy is motivated by enlightened self-interest. Since more than two-thirds of all cities are coastal, they are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels. Cities are also becoming heat islands, susceptible to rising temperatures because of an abundance of concrete. City authorities are acutely sensitive to the pulse of global and local politics and economics in ways that national representatives simply are not. They recognize that political order must adapt in the 21st century.

What is needed more than ever is a global governance body constructed by and for cities. Indeed, a Global Parliament of Mayors was launched in The Hague last year to give expression to city-driven collective action. More than 60 mayors from Afghanistan to the United States have already signed on. While early days, the Parliament may prove to be a potent force in an era in which existing structures – the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly – are unable or unwilling to address the most dire global threats.

The Global Parliament of Mayors is designed to empower mayors to take action. It has at least three goals: First, the parliament intends to give mayors a voice in global forums. After all, if you're not at the decision-making table, you're likely on the menu. Second, the parliament seeks to give mayors a vote. Nation-states are still ambivalent, even hostile, to giving cities more discretion in global affairs. Third, the parliament will strengthen cities capacity to veto decisions that run contrary to the urban imperative.

Now is the time for cities to lead. There are no simple solutions for our planet's most pressing problems. What is abundantly clear, however, is that the struggle for equality, justice and sustainable development will take place in our cities and must involve urban dwellers from around the world. Many of the most ingenious and effective solutions emerge from cities facing seemingly intractable problems. That city leaders are rolling up their sleeves and getting things done – where countries have failed – offers grounds for hope.

Robert Muggah is the co-founder of the Igarape Institute and SecDev Group and is chair of the consultative committee of the Global Parliament of Mayors.

Image credit: Sam Kang Li/Bloomberg

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