The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Mayors don't need the help of a World Association of Cities

As Benjamin Barber's If Mayors Ruled the World progresses steadily towards the bookstores, Andrew Stevens and Jonas Schorr reconsider his proposal for a World Association of Cities but remain unconvinced of the need, arguing that strong mayors are already doing everything such an Association would purportedly enable them to do.

Cities: London

Topics: City networks, The global urban agenda

Peter Carlisle, Mayor of Honolulu, and Kazumi Matsui, Mayor of Hiroshima, on parade during the 2012 Pan-Pacific Festival in Honolulu, which promotes goodwill between Japan and Hawaii. Photo: Daniel Ramirez (CC BY 2.0)
Previous Image Play/Pause Next Image

In April 2012 we set out our thoughts (here and here) on the emerging map of global governance for cities. We pointed out the shortcomings of the overduplicated and unreformed array of urban networks and initiatives, many of which are forums rooted in the norms and contours of 20th-century inter-municipalism rather than a meaningful representation of the demands and realities of the widely heralded "urban century". Our intention was to provoke debate by drawing attention to the need for "some serious bureaucratic Darwinism" of this complex of competing bodies lacking public legitimacy or equipment for purpose. On the other hand, we can see cities increasingly engaging in international diplomacy on their own, a domain traditionally reserved for national governments.

If you do need any convincing of the existing foreign policy clout of mayors, consider the following. The then governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, and his protégé in Osaka City Hall, Toru Hashimoto, have both managed to wrong-foot the national administration in Japan over the past year, stoking regional tensions through provocative acts such as purchasing the Senkaku Islands and inflammatory rhetoric such as denying the claims of victims of wartime sexual slavery. Elsewhere in Japan however, Hiroshima mayor Kazumi Matsui has followed his predecessors in using his office to promote the cause of denuclearisation, spearheading the global Mayors for Peace movement.

An "Audiament" of mayors

Matsui is the kind of internationalist mayor applauded by offbeat political theorist and champion of the global borderless interdependence movement Benjamin Barber, whose work we covered in our previous articles and who has responded in his forthcoming If Mayors Ruled the World, which will be released later this year:

"In a thoughtful discussion citing my argument here, Andrew Stevens and Jonas Schorr suggest that 'instead of grandiose schemes like a global senate of mayors, we must concentrate on creating popular democratic demand for city networking, and on giving more power and media visibility to the knowledge exchange efforts that cities already pursue.' My proposal for a parliament of mayors is no grandiose scheme, however, no mandate for top-down suzerainty by omnipotent megacities exercising executive authority over a supine world."

We remain sceptical as to the merits of grafting new structures on top of the existing — by Barber's own admission largely invisible — array of competing inter-municipal networks and associations. Barber suggests that a new "World Association of Cities" is required to bring about a shift towards governing structures which match the aspirations and realities of the urban century. Replete with a "modest secretariat", it would gently introduce the climate of acceptance for his parliament of mayors. As this incrementalist institution would have no operating legal basis in international law, Barber envisions an "Audiament" of "listening" mayors, underscored by the need to work for consensus rather than nation-statist umbrage and UN-style walkouts when differences flare up.

The book's loose structure, however, fails to make a compelling case here. As laudable as this constructive goal is, it remains doubtful that layer upon layer of municipal talking shops could ever bring about the kind of wider acceptance of city networking through popular demand and media visibility we have called for. While Barber helpfully attempts to present evidence of current global activity which could be consolidated and built upon, he concedes bodies such as the UN Advisory Committee of Local Authorities are "not very active".

Cities doing it for themselves already

So what if bureaucratic Darwinism isn't enough? Perhaps some creative destruction to eliminate the inactive bodies is required to accelerate the process towards visible, legitimate and effective urban leadership on the global stage?

We say this because this urban leadership is already happening without the help of such associations, both at the unrecorded and — as Barber mantains — "mundane" level of city-to-city knowledge-sharing (through research and study visits), and through the accelerating and already well-embedded "smart city" movement arising between city authorities, academia and the private sector.

The private sector is already in on the act, with McKinsey, KPMG, Arup, Siemens and Aecom, among others, all investing considerable resources in not only augmenting their offer around urban infrastructure but playing visible roles in using thought leadership to embed their own brands inside the global urbanisation community. A World Cities Network has already come together as an umbrella group to represent some of these commercial concerns.

A growing field

The political polemic Barber offers in his landmark, if occasionally garrulous, book arrives at a crucial juncture for the learning of cities and may elicit the same levels of critical interest and discussion as such accessible and popular works as Ed Glaeser's The Triumph of the City (2011), City by PD Smith (2012) and most recently Leo Hollis' Cities are Good for You (2013). But these books, as interesting (and occasionally flawed) as they are, mainly take "successful" cities as stand-alone entities and either skirt around inter-urban cooperation or avoid it altogether by contemplating intra-city networks. A lesser-known but no less compelling or instructive is Zachary Neal's The Connected City (2013) which considers that activity between cities is no less important than activity within them, be it regionally, nationally or globally. For Neal, while mayors' authority may be circumscribed by the whims and edicts of national or regional governments, as actors on the world stage the political and economic ties they set in motion, for instance at gatherings such as the C40, are often quickly followed by social and cultural linkages.

If Mayors Ruled the World does fail to acknowledge the work of others who have also toiled in this particular vineyard, chiefly The Global Urbanist's own Michele Acuto and his study of "the eclectic link" between global cities and international relations, Global Cities, Governance and Diplomacy (2013), and Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley's The Metropolitan Revolution (2013). While Acuto considers the "inattentional bias" of "the active political presence of cities in the dynamics of global governance and diplomacy" (as he calls it, "the urban link"), Bradley and Katz like Barber concentrate on the upended like-it-or-not reality that economic activity is focused primarily on and between metropolitan areas and that "pragmatic" mayors rather than bickering and dithering national legislators get things done, and therefore that we need to rebout our political systems accordingly.

Impartial fixers

The "pragmatic" mayor as city fixer is nothing new. Time's "Town Hall Titans" feature of 2005 approvingly covered pre-crash Europe's principal big city mayors — Paris' Bertrand Delanoë, Berlin's Klaus Wowereit, Rome's Walter Veltroni and Amsterdam's Job Cohen — and cited iconic New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia's maxim: "There is no Republican, no Democratic, no socialist way to clean a street or build a sewer, but merely a right way and a wrong way."

Barber repeats this in the form of the late mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek's chiding of quarrelling rabbis and imams with the statement: "If you knock off the sermons, I'll fix your sewers." The flow of poetry carries throughout the book, but really more solid analysis is required to challenge the nation-statists who jealously guard their eminent domain in foreign affairs, regardless of the private sector's shift towards what some critics now dub "neoliberal urbanism".


blog comments powered by Disqus