The Global Parliament of Mayors can lead the devolution revolution

This week sees the inaugural sessions of a new global governance body, aiming to create a platform for common action on crucial global challenges that manifest themselves as urban crises. To start with: climate change and migration.

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As the European Union unravels around the recent “Brexit” vote and right-wing populist nationalism, and the United States engages in a presidential primary that seems as much about whether the republic will have a future as about who will occupy the White House, the challenge to citizens is whether they can survive this daunting new interdependent world.

It is a world of terrorism without borders, climate change without frontiers, immigration without documentation and inequality without precedent — and given that the 400-year-old idea of the nation state is in trouble, the challenge is daunting indeed. For with its stubborn commitment to an archaic idea of sovereign independence rooted in zero-sum international relations, the nation state has become increasingly dysfunctional.

In my 2014 book “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities”, I proposed that cities may be to the future what nations were to the past — efficient and pragmatic problem-solving governance bodies that can address sustainability and security without surrendering liberty or equality. If, that is, they can work together across the old and obsolete national borders. And if they can assume some of the prerogatives of sovereignty necessary to collaboration.

In fact, cities are doing just this. A few years ago, the United Nations announced that a majority of the world’s population lives in cities, while economists recognize that 80 percent or more of global gross domestic product is being produced in cities. From the United Kingdom and China to the United States and Italy, authority is being devolved to cities.

[See: The New Urban Agenda needs to recognize a future of city-to-city networks and trade]

Out of these developments has come the call for a Global Parliament of Mayors, a new body by, for and of cities to address the crisis in democratic governance. As I suggested in the book, it’s time to think about cities rather than nations, mayors rather than prime ministers. After all, their pragmatic capacity to solve problems and their inclination to transactional cooperation across borders makes cities more successful politically than any other extant political body. And their defining diversity makes them far more like the world to which they belong than the mono-cultural states through which they are governed.

To be blunt, cities are emerging as the de facto sovereigns of the 21st century.

The enduring vitality of the metropolis, now fully restored, is hardly surprising. After all, cities are much older than the nation states to which they belong, and much more open and multicultural — and hence more transactional and tolerant — than mono-cultural states, as well.

Moreover, citizens tend to view the city as the primary source of their identity; it is in the neighbourhood that many of our deepest attachments are rooted. States are in their origin abstract and contrived — more “imagined” than given. Cities are where we are born, grow up, go to school, marry; where we play, pray, create and work (thus “the creative city” in Richard Florida’s phrase); where we retire, cultivate our grandchildren, get old and die.

[See: Cities on the world stage: Players or spectators?]

Little wonder, then, that a devolution revolution is underway. As Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City has said, “When national governments fail to act on crucial issues like climate, cities have to do so.”

Civic trust

Cities have of course been cooperating for millennia, from the ancient Mediterranean League of Cities to the Hansa League of the 10th century (now reborn as the New Hansa). Today, climate and sea-level rise have become particular concerns of cities, 90 percent of which are built on water — on rivers, lakes, oceans and seas.

“On average, only a third of citizens around the world say they trust their national governments, while two-thirds or more trust mayors and other local officials.”

In December, the COP 21 meetings in Paris finally achieved a modest general agreement, calling for nations to prevent temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius over average temperatures in the preindustrial era. Still, it appears that real implementation of this cautious and (scientists say) insufficient goal will depend on cities, where 80 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions are generated and the political will is present to act more forcefully than nations are likely to do.

[See: Habitat III must make climate change a top priority]

Indeed, with the work of such networks as ICLEI and the C40 Cities, cities will be a key to the success or failure of the Paris Agreement. Climate change is thus one of the three leading issues the new Global Parliament of Mayors will take up this week in its inaugural session.

And there is no time to lose: Unless COP 21’s modest goals are exceeded by the hard cooperative work of cities, humanity will face a devastating sea-level rise of up to six metres by the end of the century, inundating many great coastal cities around the world. As always, the wealthy will move while women and children, and the poor more generally, will be forced to stay in place and suffer the consequences. Trust in democracy will continue to wither.

Yet polls show that civic trust is city government remains high. On average, only a third of citizens around the world say they trust their national governments, while two-thirds or more trust mayors and other local officials.

No wonder cities are not only cooperating within nations through national municipal associations but also are collaborating across borders in successful global urban networks such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Eurocities, Metropolis and the Compact of Mayors, as well as the United Nations’ Habitat programme, which will convene its third world meeting of cities next month at Habitat III. All of these go far beyond the beguiling but modest “sister cities” programme, proving not just that cities can collaborate — but that they are doing so.

[See: Habitat III should bolster city-to-city cooperation and learning]

Building on this foundation, mayors from around the world will convene this week in The Hague for the Global Parliament of Mayors, which aspires to become a capstone governing body in the broad arch of urban networks. Hague Mayor Jozias van Aartsen will host more than 70 cities large and small, from the Global North and Global South, developed and developing, seaside and land-locked. They will be joined by 30 urban networks and municipal NGOs committed to urban cooperation.

Glocal self-government

The Global Parliament of Mayors will make real the heady idea of empowering cities to speak in a common global voice and develop a platform for common global action. It will aim at common action on crucial global challenges that manifest themselves as urban crises.

“The Global Parliament of Mayors arises from the fundamental impulse to secure a “glocal” (global and local) means of effective self-government, and hence to empower cities and their citizens to act forcefully, consensually and in unison.”

The parliament will focus on two issues in particular. First, it will seek to address the crisis of climate change. Here, cities need to help realize the modest goals of the Paris climate agreement by acting as the engines and enablers of national states whose divisive ideological politics can stand in the way of climate action.

Second, the gathering will focus on the crisis of refugees — economic refugees seeking jobs and political refugees fleeing war and oppression. As with so many other issues, it has been cities that have borne the real burden of the movements of millions of people seeking sustainability and survival.

[See: Habitat III can help migration drive city development]

The Global Parliament of Mayors arises from the fundamental impulse to secure a “glocal” (global and local) means of effective self-government, and hence to empower cities and their citizens to act forcefully, consensually and in unison.

Its aim is neither to compete with nor to encroach upon sovereign nations. On the contrary, it aspires to cooperate with them and with the United Nations in solving common global problems that traditional governing bodies have found difficult to address. At the same time, however, the parliament will insist that cities have not just a responsibility but a right to act on behalf of their citizens, who represent a growing majority of the world’s population and more than 80 percent of its wealth generation.

The Global Parliament of Mayors cannot pretend to represent everyone. But it will manifest the ultimate right of urban majorities across the globe to take action together, beyond the confines of the borders of the states to which they belong — above all, in domains where the global agenda has been stalled or thwarted.

[See: Citizens are telling cities and national governments to cooperate]

After all, the social contract entails an agreement between individuals and a popularly empowered government in which individuals consent to obey the sovereign in return for the sovereign’s guarantee to secure life, liberty and property for those individuals. When a sovereign can no longer assure the ends for which government is established — when, in modern terms, sustainability and security are at risk — that sovereignty is in default.

In such a context, citizens have a right to reassume their natural rights and shift their obedience to such governing bodies as can assure sustainability along with life and liberty.

Municipal sovereignty

We are a long ways from having to embark on a municipal revolution. But the empowerment of cities today and the claim of the Global Parliament of Mayors to legitimacy ultimately do rest on a logic of rights: the right to life and liberty.

[See: The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization]

It is unlikely that this logic will need to be invoked to undertake the common urban work both states and cities are likely to welcome. Yet in the face of a sovereign default by nations, there is a new legitimacy for cities to act rooted in a version of municipal sovereignty. Cities acquire the right to govern by virtue of their capacity to do so, whether they act (ideally) in harmony with nations and international bodies like the U. N., or act despite resistance from such bodies.

Ultimately then, the founding of the Global Parliament of Mayors this week will be an experiment in democratic global governance by cities that will depend on the vision, prudence and courage of its founding mayors and those who come to join them in The Hague. This innovative cross-border exercise in democracy and responsibility — rooted in the leadership of visionary mayors and their engaged citizens, and founded on the right of citizens everywhere to sustainable and free lives — represents a historic and constructive moment in unruly and destructive times.

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Benjamin Barber

Benjamin Barber is the first distinguished senior fellow at the Fordham School of Law’s Urban Consortium, president and founder of the Interdependence Movement and founder of the Global Parliament of Mayors, a project that has grown out of his book “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities” (Yale University Press). He is also Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Rutgers University.