Op-ed

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Why cities rule the world

by Robert Muggah and Benjamin Barber

Ted Ideas
May 31, 2016

Cities are the the 21st century’s dominant form of civilization — and they’re where humanity’s struggle for survival will take place. Robert Muggah and Benjamin Barber spell out the possibilities.

Half the planet’s population lives in cities. They are the world’s engines, generating four-fifths of the global GDP. There are over 2,100 cities with populations of 250,000 people or more, including a growing number of mega-cities and sprawling, networked-city areas — conurbations, they’re called — with at least 10 million residents. As the economist Ed Glaeser puts it, “we are an urban species.”

But what makes cities so incredibly important is not just population or economics stats. Cities are humanity’s most realistic hope for future democracy to thrive, from the grassroots to the global. This makes them a stark contrast to so many of today’s nations, increasingly paralyzed by polarization, corruption and scandal.

National dysfunction is hardly restricted to Congressional gridlock in the United States and the dark carnival of the Presidential primaries. It is also rife in Brazil where an elected President was impeached by a national congress, over 50 percent of whose members face criminal investigations. From Hungary to Poland, angry, right-wing populist administrations are taking charge. In the Philippines, a hard-boiled gunslinger has assumed the presidency. The countries of the Arab Spring have become engulfed in vicious wars, terrorist insurrections and junta governments.

Against this grim backdrop, cities are a promising alternative for democracy to thrive naturally. Where nations are independent, competitive and defined by rigid borders, cities are cooperative, made for trade and defined by bridges rather than borders. And increasingly, cities are getting connected and becoming the most interdependent of political entities.

Large and medium-sized cities — especially in North America and Western Europe — have forged networks between and within national boundaries. Linked together by exchanges of ideas, capital and people, and facing common challenges like climate change, inequality and terrorism, intercity networks are a kind of new normal.

Not all cities are equally connected, though. Some of the world’s 30-odd mega-cities are linked together in clusters of culture, commerce, labor and infrastructure. Hundreds of large cities are connecting to an international urban grid; thousands more aspire to connectivity. In order for “glocal” urban relationships to succeed, cities will need to squarely address the inequality that allows some cities to prosper while leaving many others behind.

There are hundreds, even thousands, of fast-growing cities in AfricaAsia and the Americas that are literally and figuratively off the grid. Glamorous cities of the future — London, New York, Paris, Shanghai and Singapore — are diverting our gaze from southerly cities where the vast majority of future population growth will take place.

Many of these cities — most with names you’ve never heard of — are struggling to attract investment, enduring gut-wrenching levels of crime and violence and suffering from extreme inequality and grinding poverty, along the lines of what urban theorist Mike Davis described in his book Planet of Slums. As successful cities come together to weave a better, stronger future, these “fragile cities” watch helplessly as their urban fabric unravels.

One way to help cities of all kinds benefit from the urban revolution is to build new avenues of intercity and cross-border collaboration. The last few decades witnessed an explosion of city networks, many of them focusing on specific problems. The United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) is one of the better-known alliances. Established just over a decade ago, it claims to advocate on behalf of 240,000 towns, cities and metropolises from 140 countries.

In the area of public security, there is the European Forum and Urban Security (EFUS) and the newly established Strong Cities network. For better housing and environmental protection, there is the International Clearing House on Sustainable Development and Environmental Protection (ICELI) which works with over 1,000 cities and towns to build more livable cities. In the realm of climate change, there is the C40 Climate Cities network, a group composed of 80 cities founded ten years ago by three mayors (London’s Ken Livingstone, Toronto’s David Miller and New York’s Michael Bloomberg).

While this burst of city networking is remarkable, it’s not enough. What’s missing is a global governance body constructed purposefully for and by cities. The Global Parliament of Mayors — the first gathering of which will occur in The Hague between September 10 and 12 this year — is a step in that direction. The GPM is not just an abstract idea; it’s a real expression of city-driven collective action. And it may prove a nimble and potent force in an era where existing structures — like the United Nations General Assembly or Security Council — are not up to addressing our most dire global threats.

The road ahead is pocked — cratered even — with uncertainty. There are no simple solutions to our planet’s most pressing problems. What is clear, though, is that the struggle for justice, equality and sustainable growth will take place in cities — and that any true success has to include the cities and citizens of the Global South. Many of the most ingenious and effective responses come from cities with intractable problems, and the fact that cities and urban residents are rolling up their sleeves and getting things done — where nations have failed — offers real grounds for hope.

In the future, it may not be so much senators, governors and or even heads of state that will define our fates — but mayors. Let’s make sure they have all the tools at their disposal to succeed.

Robert Muggah is the research director of the Igarapé Institute and the SecDev Foundation.

Benjamin Barber is a political theorist and the founder of the Global Parliament of Mayors.

Image: iStock

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