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Can Mayors Actually Rule the World?

Local authorities are pushing to fundamentally move away from the longstanding dominance of the nation-state.

Increasingly in recent years, we have seen growing calls by city governments for more autonomy and new international forms of collaboration. Make no mistake: In so doing, local authorities are seeking to restructure the areas in which they operate in ways that could fundamentally shift longstanding forms of global governance dominated by nation-states.

The movement toward an expanded international role for cities has been enshrined in documents that resulted from the recent Habitat III conference on urbanization. It also has been replicated in multiple new collaborative organizations and activities — the Global Parliament of Mayors in September, the C40 Mayors Summit that took place last week and more.

This is a natural response to trends of globalization and participatory governance, as well as to the fact that some of the most pressing problems of our times are occurring at the urban scale. However, it would be naive to think that national governments will sit by idly as cities and mayors seek to enter and guide global conversations on their own terms. What can we learn from past historical experiences as we forge ahead?

Globalization, while weakening national boundaries, has helped reinforce the importance of the local scale. Lower barriers for cross-border investment, communication and collaboration have allowed cities to make a de facto entrance onto the international stage. Economic globalization has empowered firms and foreign investors to select particular cities for investment in activities that drive both local and national economic growth, such as real estate, finance and services. This means that cities are increasingly becoming the stage upon which the economic future of a nation is set.

National governance structures often have proven unwieldy when dealing with the localized effects of such global problems as climate change, the flow of migrants and refugees, and informal urbanization. Further, trends in technology and the embrace of decentralization have facilitated the emergence of fine-grained, highly participatory governance strategies that are most easily applied at smaller scales.

Against this backdrop, city governments are on the right track in seeking to carve out spaces to outline a more context-specific urban agenda for dealing with today’s global problems. And far from being ghettoized as the site for society’s most pressing social problems — as was the case not that long ago — cities are now identified as key areas of investment opportunity and innovation.

Global Mayoral Elite

However, any shift toward city-level responsibilities must be accompanied by a corresponding expansion of the governance capacities of local governments, particularly with respect to fiscal and political resources.

Proponents of stronger, more autonomous authority at the local scale advocate an international governance system that shifts decision-making to effective, nimble and highly democratic local governments while also promoting international cooperation and collaboration. On the one hand, doing so brings problem-solving down to the local level, where knowledge of what will and won’t work in that context may be greatest. On the other hand, such efforts allow more direct knowledge transfer across cities.

Decades ago the scholar Janice Perlman started such “co-learning” efforts with her 1987 creation of the MegaCities Project, an experiment that helped create an international conversation about what was working best in cities around the globe. One might even see the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Initiative or Deutsche Bank’s Urban Age project as continuing this storied tradition. (The Rockefeller Foundation supports Citiscope.)

And it would be foolhardy not to link the globetrotting successes of high-profile mayors such as Bogotá’s Enrique Peñalosa to these precedents and to the ever-expanding awareness that city-level innovation can help advance dialogue about pressing global issues. Currently, several events showcasing the activities of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg are drawing global attention from the United Nations and the larger world of climate diplomacy.

But any institutionalized devolution of agenda-setting or convening power away from national governments and toward mayors or other local authorities is bound to be highly controversial. In particular, pushback from national-level actors who want to preserve their authority should be considered before celebrating the rush toward what could be called “global city governance.” We also must recognize the possibility that such activities could merely reproduce a global elite of mayors who are divorced from the urban problems of “ordinary” cities and their citizens.

If we don’t reflect carefully on the obstacles and potential fallout from cities asserting their governance agenda on both the national and the global stages, we could ultimately see new political conflicts over who has the right to govern urban territories.

Decentralization Dangers

Decentralization may seem to be a relatively new path towards strengthening urban governance, but in fact cycles of decentralization and centralization have long been with us.

Before the advent of the contemporary nation-state, city-states such as the Hanseatic League as well as medieval and pre-modern cities grew and developed through networked trade routes, largely independent of national-level governance. One consequence was the emergence of “urban communities” with autonomous rules and laws, city-level forms of association and local governance institutions.

Often, however, this form of local governance failed to survive conflict with other potential sovereigns. The reasons for this may be useful for us to understand today.

The nation-state emerged as the dominant form of sovereignty and governance in modern times because it was better equipped than city-states or empires to marshal financial resources, armed support and political legitimacy to prevail in war. Whether the nation-state will prove a historic aberration or whether violent suppression of would-be city-states is possible, now that technological prowess has replaced standing armies as the determining factor of military might, remains to be seen.

Even so, the battles that raged leading up to the consolidation of the nation-state as the dominant form of territoriality are worth remembering. The complex eddies around globalization — such as the return of toxic nationalism in the United States and Europe or the breakdown of supra-national governance systems such as the European Union or the Latin American grouping Mercosul — illustrate their continuing relevance today.

Even if nation-states do devolve significant autonomy to their cities, it is not clear that local governance will be a panacea. Problems with indefinite borders, after all, pose challenges to any established borders of governance — including cities. While local governments may offer more space for experimentation in governance styles and strategies by virtue of their size and number, there is no guarantee that cities will be more successful or innovative.

Moreover, if cities remain at the forefront of national economic growth, national authorities will continue to want to “capture” those gains. Independent of the political conflicts this may produce, any such disassociation of cities from their host nations could have significant negative effects on rural areas, which would increasingly rely on national authorities to redistribute urban gains. Without this response, the future of the nation-state would be threatened.

Some would argue that such challenges can be positive, if only because the cadre of “global mayors” speaking for cities on the world stage so far has had a progressive agenda. But decentralization is neither necessarily innovative nor inherently progressive.

For example, the “decentralization revolution” over the past several decades in the developing world began to shift state power to the local level. Yet in the case of several neoliberal regimes in Latin America, this devolution — undertaken due to economic necessity as much as political ideology, and generally unsupported by national funding — had mixed results at best. In some cases, such as in the satellite cities ringing Argentina’s capital, this process has led to increased polarization and inequality.

We also cannot necessarily equate a more “horizontal” governance model with better and more egalitarian democracy, especially if cities’ administrative borders no longer correspond with their physical footprints.

Reinterpreting Territoriality

The problems that lead to demands for territorial change are not fixable with a one-size-fits-all solution of expanded urban autonomy. Rather, the territoriality of urban governance is likely to shift in unpredictable ways, perhaps even producing new experiments with forms of governance that are more flexible, virtual, demand-driven or sector-based.

Different sectors may require different scales of governance, such that services might be fairer and more efficient if multiple territories opt in. Transportation could be a good example of this. Likewise, some territorial boundaries, such as those determining citizenship or perhaps even action on climate change, might be counter-productive if their definitions are linked too closely to territory.

Other boundaries, however, such as those imposed for taxation, may allow for more discussion of inequality — although with regard to equitable redistribution of gains, revenue-sharing across territories can serve the same function.

These sorts of inventive interpretations of urban territoriality have arisen throughout history. New York City’s Catskills watershed reserve area is an early example of a city expanding its resources footprint beyond its administrative borders. More recently, São Paulo has made strides toward metropolitan governance, seeking to improve transit integration between the city centre and periphery beyond municipal boundaries.

Any exploration of creative territoriality for the modern context will require a nuanced, adaptive and context-based approach that may include — but should not be limited to — increasing the autonomous power of cities and the visibility of mayors on a global stage. The latter also may call attention to the opportunities at hand. But this should be recognized as only the first step in inching towards new sovereignties that enable us to better address the contemporary problems of our times.

Citiscope is a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope. org.

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