The Rise of Cities and a Global Parliament of Mayors

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Building on a foundation of intercity cooperation aimed at addressing the increasing dysfunction of nation-states in dealing with global crises, Benjamin Barber proposes a governance revolution: the founding of a new global legislative body comprising the world’s cities called the Global Parliament of Mayors.

Dr. Barber delivers an address at NLC’s 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville, Tennessee on Nov. 6, 2015. (Jason Dixson)

This is a guest post by Dr. Benjamin Barber.

The age of the dominion of nation states, four centuries long, is over. Their national borders and insular sovereignty no longer accommodate the borderless interdependence of the 21st century world. Cities on the other hand are rising, their pragmatic capacity to solve problems and their inclination to cooperate across borders making them more successful politically than any other political bodies. That is hardly surprising, given that cities are much older than the nation-states to which they belong, and much more multicultural and hence open, transactional and tolerant as well. More than half the world’s population now live in cities (75 percent in the developed world) and over 80 percent of global GDP is produced by them. Moreover, cities are viewed by citizens as home, their own community and neighborhood to which their attachment is more traditional and visceral that their link to the nation state.

Little wonder, then, given this irresistible rise of cities to political preeminence, that a governance revolution is underway. This revolution is the consequence of two trends: the first, a devolution revolution in which, as Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne explained last spring, England will “deliver radical devolution to its great cities,” giving them “levers to grow their own local economies.” The second trend, grounded in the results of the first, is the manifest capacity of cities to work together across borders in addressing such common global issues as climate change, refugees and crime. As Mayor Bill di Blasio of New York City has said, “when national governments fail to act on crucial issues like climate, cities have to do so.”  Climate and sea rise have been particular concerns of cities, 90 percent of which are built on water: rivers, lakes, oceans and seas. Although the COP 21 meetings in Paris finally achieved a modest general agreement, it appears that real implementation will depend on cities where 80 percent of greenhouse emissions are generated and the political will is present to act.

Both devolution and global urban cooperation are fact not theory. The leadership of mayors in addressing the real problems of citizens from climate change, education and inequality to transportation, pandemic disease and security has inspired trust by citizens in local government more than double that of their trust in national politicians. And cities are already cooperating through associations like the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors; but they are also collaborating across borders in successful global urban networks which go far beyond the beguiling but modest sister cities program and that embrace institutions like the UCLG (United Cities and Local Government), the environmental collective ICLEI, the Hiroshima-based Cities for Peace, and the C40 Climate Cities founded by Mayors Livingston of London and Bloomberg of New York. It’s not just that cities can collaborate, they do!

Building on this foundation of intercity cooperation aiming at addressing the increasing dysfunction of nation-states in dealing with our global crises, I proposed in 2014 in my book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities that the time had come for a governance revolution: the founding of a new global legislative body comprising the world’s cities that I called the Global Parliament of Mayors. Mayors responded enthusiastically, and theory is on the threshold of becoming practice.

On September 10-12, 2016 in The Hague (The Netherlands), the inaugural convening of the Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM) will launch. This founding will take place in the “city of peace and justice” that in 1922 became home to the League of Nations Permanent Court of International Justice, in 1945 became host to the International Court of Justice and since 2002 has hosted the International Criminal Court.

How deeply fitting that The Hague and its visionary mayor Jozias van Aartsen, the former Dutch foreign minister, along with his colleagues in the Dutch G4 cities, should host the establishment of this new experiment in global democratic governance and mutual justice in our roiled age of global anarchy and pervasive injustice. For as the successive world courts in The Hague aspired to bring a degree of justice to international public affairs, the GPM aspires to encourage cities and their mayors to work together across borders to realize the public goods and global interests their citizens share in common but have yet to be secured by their national governments.

The establishment of a Global Parliament of Mayors as a governance keystone in the organizational arch of impressive urban networks alluded to earlier will build on their extensive achievements. It will act as an experiment in organizing and deploying the common power of cities; and in affording them common policies and laws through common legislation – but on an opt-in basis by individual cities. The opt-in approach will emphasize the bottom-up federal nature of municipal governance and the ultimate sovereignty of citizens themselves in authorizing legitimate governmental authority. Participation, collaboration and consensus will be the working methodology of the GPM, not top-down mandates via hierarchical decision-making.

Initial participants will include up to 125 motivated cities led by public officials keen to act. More than a hundred have already been engaged in the two-year planning process under way, along with numerous urban networks, NGOs and urban experts. These cities come from North and South, from municipalities large and small, from every economic bracket and every continent. In time, through virtual meetings on a digital platform, as well as innovative representative mechanisms, the GPM will be able to represent and include a preponderance of the world’s urban population. The aim is not just to represent traditional municipalities but emerging “metro-regions” that encompass old cities and newer suburbs and exurbs, as well as surrounding agricultural regions.

The GPM will not compete with or encroach upon sovereign nations, but will rather work to cooperate with them and with the United Nations in solving common global problems. The GPM cannot pretend to represent everyone, but will manifest the ultimate right of urban majorities across the globe to take action together, across borders, in domains where the global agenda has been stalled or thwarted. In this it will serve a sustainable and just planet and all those who live on it.

Ultimately, the founding of the GPM in September 2016 is an experiment in democratic urban governance 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, represents a historic and constructive moment in unruly and dangerous times.

About the Author: Dr. Benjamin Barber is a senior research scholar at The Graduate Center, CUNY, founder of the Global Parliament of Mayors Project and the Interdependence Movement, and Walt Whitman Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University.

He is the author of eighteen books including the classic Strong Democracy, the international bestseller Jihad vs. McWorld, and his latest work, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, which is the foundation for Barber’s current project aimed at establishing a Global Parliament of Mayors.

His honors include a knighthood from the French Government, the Berlin Prize of the American Academy, the John Dewey Award, and Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Social Science Research Fellowships. Barber has also written for the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the L.A. Times as well as The Nation, The New Republic, and The Atlantic.