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Will mayors rule the world?
Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris

While nations talk, cities act has been a long-standing mantra for mayors around the world. But is this really true? If you ask political theorist Benjamin R. Barber, the answer is yes. In 2013, he released the book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities wherein he argued that some of the greatest threats and challenges of our time are being met by a state of paralysis from nation states and supranational institutions.

Democracy on a national and global level is failing, he writes, and we need alternative solutions to the issues that we face across borders — including climate change, terrorism and illegal trafficking. To Barber’s list of challenges facing nation states we can add citizens’ faltering trust in established institutions and national leaders’ ability to address the challenges of the day, which has only grown stronger during the global pandemic. While modern democracies evolved along with the nation state, Barber questions nations’ capacity for democratic governance in the future. Cities, he believes, are our best hope of filling out the ‘governance gap’ that has emerged.

Whether one is fully on board with Barber’s thesis or not, there is no denying that the points he raised haven’t become any less relevant since 2013. On the contrary; the last five years in international politics have exposed deep dysfunctions inside liberal democracies, with politicians either actively undermining democratic norms and institutions or struggling to uphold their legitimacy.

At the same time, the role and influence of cities on the world stage seems to be on the up, as evidenced in the continued growth of city diplomacy through large, formalised networks such as C40 Cities, Metropolis, 100 Resilient Cities and the Covenant of Mayors. Networks like these now facilitate city-to-city partnerships and cooperation between local urban administrations and their respective stakeholders at a scale never seen before. Through them, city partnerships have shifted focus from city-to-city cooperation (or ‘twinning’) to wider regional, national and international city diplomacy, where strategy and alliance capability building is front and centre.

Cities across the world have many things in common. They are melting pots of cultures, nationalities and identities. Often, large cities and the people within them have even more common with fellow metropoles and metropolitans than with the surrounding rural areas and the countrymen that reside there. Large cities are global hubs for commerce, innovation, technology and education, and powerful entities on both national and international levels. The question is to which degree cross-city collaboration can move beyond being symbolic multilateral networks to become global ecosystems, operating as engines for change.

In many ways, cities do not have much of a choice in whether or not to make this transition. The UN’s New Urban Agenda and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change both acknowledge the importance of cities and local governments in achieving the SDGs and reducing global carbon emissions. A recent study showed that at least 65% of the 169 targets contained in the SDGs can only be achieved through actions taken by local governance³.

On the surface, it looks as though the new city networks are starting to meet the challenge head-on. The C40, which has grown to such a size and reach that it now incorporates 1 in 12 people worldwide, has affirmed its commitment to a Global Green New Deal in efforts to strengthen local economies while building a more equitable future by cutting emissions from the sectors most responsible for the climate crisis. Mayor of Los Angeles and chair of C40, Eric Garcetti, recently commented, “When it comes to climate action, no one is doing more than cities, but no one is doing enough. We are entering a make-or-break decade for the preservation of our planet and environmental justice for every community”.

Proclamations and statements of commitment aside, to which degree are cities actually capable of creating the change that national governments seem to be failing to deliver? This seems to be the million-dollar question for the decades to come.

While the signs are promising for now, the barriers are also many. Cities are bound by national and federal legislation that defines their responsibilities, powers and revenue sources. City governments can then navigate within these frameworks. Ultimately however, decision-making is spread across multiple different levels of power and changes of direction in national policy can severely impact even the most powerful cities. As an example, while the London government is doing what it can to signal to the world that the city is still ‘open for business’ (exemplified through the slogan #LondonisOpen), the city cannot escape the economic fallout of the national Brexit referendum, and the governance of London will continue to be affected by the decision to leave the EU. While conflicts of interest between urban and the national politics is nothing new, we may see the contrast becoming more pronounced as cities take a more prominent role in global diplomacy and politics through the new collaborative networks.

“City networks need to continue to prove their value, not just as soft exchanges of information but as organs for more tangible outcomes in terms of policies and actions.”

When the future of these networks is discussed, it is usually with an implicit focus on so-called ‘Global Cities.’ These are leading best-practice metropoles, mostly in developed countries, that tend to perform well on the more than 300 existing benchmarking indices designed to measure a city’s success. Yet what sometimes gets lost in this conversation is the fact that most future urban development will take place in the world’s developing regions. What values, wishes and demands will the megacities of tomorrow — nearly all of them located in Africa and Asia — bring to the table, and to which degree can cross-city networks and collaborations avoid becoming an elitist club for rich metropoles in developed nations? When cities are not aligned with Western ideals, could collaboration fall apart? How do city networks position themselves in a world where regionalisation is becoming a clear geopolitical trend?

Phot by Bryan Angelo

Another potential barrier to future cross-city collaboration is the growing influence of corporates on local government. In 2017, the steamrolling online retailer Amazon announced their intention to build a second corporate headquarters in North America (Amazon HQ2). With the promise of providing 50.000 new jobs, the potential was huge for city governments. A bidding war ensued, with Arlington, Virginia eventually winning out. While this particular bidding war was remarkable for the size of its prize, fierce competition between cities for attracting jobs and talent is nothing new and is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

However, it could present a challenge for deepening cross-city collaboration, especially in the case of bidding wars that create a race to the bottom for tax breaks and redirect urban investments to offer incentives for the corporation. Cities could over-pay (risking the winner’s curse) for the non-guaranteed promise of jobs and create a salary race-to-the-bottom through trying to compete on cheap labour. The existence of city networks allows corporate actors to not just reach one city council but to cooperate across a pool of cities, as they might find themselves needing similar solutions or wanting to compete for services.

Cities have always competed as much as they have collaborated and there’s no indication that this still won’t be the case in the future. In spite of competition, city networks give cities the opportunity to act in a coordinated manner. They offer an approach to aligning ambitions, achieving mutual agreement and sharing knowledge on how to best reach certain defined goals.

Lastly, with the rapid increase in the number and reach of inter-city networks over the last decades, there is a risk of diluting the impact and legitimacy of each individual network by spreading efforts and resources too thinly. Related to this, a 2020 survey of international engagement in 47 cities also found that ‘(…) inadequate funding and resources for international engagement, insufficient training in city diplomacy, and the failure of national and multilateral bodies to fully recognise and formalise city engagement in diplomacy’ are among the key issues facing city networks and the mayors that engage in them.

Evidently, it will take more than good intentions for cities to become the foremost drivers of global change. Yet while mayors may not rule the world any time soon, there is no doubt that cities and their governments will have an important role in shaping the global agenda and solving the challenges facing us. City networks need to continue to prove their value, not just as soft exchanges of information but as organs for more tangible outcomes in terms of policies and actions. To become real engines of change in the coming decades, cities around the world must overcome challenges related to navigating multilevel governance while also prioritising collaboration over competition when it comes to furthering common goals.

As with any decision-making about the future, urban governance and leadership will find themselves walking a tightrope between making long-term plans that ‘lock in’ certain actions and allowing for new ideas and technologies to change urban development paths — allowing future generations to create their own vision of what a city should be.