The European: Mr. Barber, what is more interesting to you: local elections or the political scramble on the national stage?
Barber: There’s a direct relationship between the two. The current dysfunction of the Washington government highlights the importance of local elections.
The European: How so?
Barber: As nations become increasingly ineffective, gridlocked and dysfunctional, cities are taking their place not just as local problem solvers – which they’ve always been pretty good at – but also as collectives that start to tackle global problems like climate change, that nations are unable to redress on their own.
The European: You suggest that cities are not only better suited for battling cross-border problems but also allow for a more representative form of democracy. What is wrong with the nation state?
Barber: It’s too big for internal democratic participation and yet too small for our globalized, interdependent world. But that hasn’t always been the case. For 400 years, the nation state was the perfect size: it was bigger than the city state but smaller than the empire. Back then, it was still able to serve democracy and to meet the demands of its citizens. Today, in our asymmetrical world, problems and challenges are almost exclusively transnational. Climate change, drug trafficking, diseases, financial whitewashing – these are all borderless issues, but we still have these 17th-century, outdated nation states that try to deal with them one at a time. But that no longer works!
The European: Why?
Barber: Our world is far too interdependent for singular, one-sided solutions. When I was a kid growing up in New York in the 1940s, my mom would say: “Don’t go to New Jersey, there’s a flu across the river.” Today we worry about the Hong Kong flu and West Nile virus.
“City officials enjoy far greater trust than government officials”
The European: So coalitions of cities would be better suited to address issues like financial regulation or rising environmental pollution?
Barber: They already are! Look at Europe: at the state level, cooperation is slacking because of the euro crisis, but the cooperation between European cities works just fine. Cities can organize more easily, which puts them in an advantageous position to address issues like climate change. Organizations like ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) or the United Cities and Local Governments – the most important organization nobody has ever heard of, as I like to call it – have made enormous progress in this issue area. But there are other areas where this is more difficult.
The European: Which ones, for example?
Barber: National security is one example. But even in that domain, cities are a key player if only because they are often the prime targets of terrorist attacks. So they do have an interest in working together and they increasingly do so. New York City removed its intelligence squad from Washington after 9/11 and redeployed it to twelve cities all around the world. Financial regulation is probably the toughest domain, but even in that issue area, cities will win the upper hand.
The European: What makes you so sure about that?
Barber: The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities. In the developed world, it’s even as high as 78%, which means that in the long run, cities control the majority, and in the democratic world we inhibit, that translates into power and leverage. Of course cities, just like nation-states, are also being pressured by banks and corporations, but I believe that cities can deal with that more efficiently because of transparency and local participation.
The European: Cities are more transparent and less corrupt than national governments?
Barber: Surprisingly enough, the level of city officials in jail is comparably higher than that of national politicians – that’s not due to the fact that local government is more corrupt but simply because it is more transparent and therefore accountable. Many presidents, like Berlusconi for example, and government officials belong behind bars, but it’s difficult to fully expose and investigate their actions and motives. And this state of affairs is also reflected in trust levels: City officials enjoy far greater trust than government officials.
The European: Do you believe that this contributes to the fact that local politics are becoming more important than their national counterpart?
Barber: Absolutely. People watch national politics for the spectacle but they are much more engaged in and knowledgeable about local politics. People won’t be able to tell you who the members of the Supreme Court are or even what the last vice president was called. But they will know the name of their local councilman or mayor – simply because they deal with them on a regular basis. Mayors are neighbors; government officials aren’t.
The European: Do you think that a local sense of belonging will replace the national one?
Barber: Yes I do. Identifying us as nationals of a given state only points to things like a distant national identity, tax collection or possibly military engagements. But cities tell us a lot more about people. It’s where we were born, went to school, got married, raised kids, worked and eventually die. Cities are the warp and woof of our lives. Therefore, our political and civic ties with cities are much closer to our personality than our national political ties.
The European: In Britain, the central government was for a long time afraid of powerful mayors. The popularity of Boris Johnson seems to confirm that notion.
Barber: The same was true for New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Three years ago, in a speech he gave at the MIT, he highlighted that he controlled a police force that is larger than certain national armies, that his city had its own relation to the UN and that it even had its own foreign policy. He said: “Washington doesn’t like it, but I don’t really care about that”. It’s understandable that national governments are deeply worried about the power of certain mayors.
The European: Even though the nation states still have instruments to control local politics.
Barber: They do indeed have jurisdictional, legal and financial control over cities and regions. So they can undermine and shape local politics. But that’s a short-term power. In the long run, the city will prevail because it is home to the majority of the population. There will be formations of “urban political parties” that organize around the power of cities, focus on the needs of urban dwellers and will ultimately be able to control national politics and gain more political autonomy for their city.
The European: What about the places outside of cities? Isn’t a central government needed to supply – say infrastructure – to the more remote regions of each country?
Barber: Let me make it clear that the cities I refer to are not 19th-century, delimited inner cites. I am talking about metro regions that encompass the large majority of the population all over the world. Also, the leverage of cities doesn’t necessarily stop rural regions from having their say. Mayors of cities could also represent the rural regions surrounding their city. In fact, for a very long time, rural zones actually had the upper hand in national politics even though they were home to the minority of the population. Even today, we can see examples of this. The Tea Party largely represents the rural areas and is now controlling the Republican Party and thereby the House of Representatives and the US government. 15% of the country are dictating paralysis to the other 85% who hate it. That’s insane! The situation in Germany, China or France is quite similar.
The European: But you still want the state to fulfill certain functions?
Barber: I am a political scientist and I am not so foolish as to think that the nation state will go anywhere. I am merely recognizing the reality of this shift of power towards cities and I believe that it is a good thing – not only for transparency and democracy, but also for global governance. I am happy with a powerful nation state as long as it is representative of the democratic majority, in a world in which the latter is increasingly urban.
“Cities are a great place for social experiments”
The European: You have talked about the many advantages of cities and how they are ideally suited to address all sorts of challenges. With this in mind, wouldn’t it make sense to found new cities to try out policies and technologies in a safe space?
Barber: Not really. I think the world already has an awful lot of cities and I don’t think that we require the establishment of new cities as laboratories because the existing cities already are. Bike-share programs that now exist in three to four thousand cities in the world started in unlikely places like Porto Alegre in Brazil. Participatory budgeting is another example of a trend that developed in Latin America and has now spread to many other places. It shows that cities are a great place for social experiments, but do we really need ad hoc cities for this? I don’t think so. Corporate actors have undertaken such efforts in the past but the results and reactions were always mixed – at best.
The European: For example?
Barber: Take Disney’s Celebration in Florida. It’s a town that is supposed to represent the spirit of Disney’s movies. But it became a dreadful failure because they didn’t understand community planning or even community life itself. There are many other prominent examples. Even Dubai is a city that’s been created ex nihilo. In China, new cities are also springing up like mushrooms.
The Europeans: How will this process continue in the years and decades to come?
Barber: There will undoubtedly be an increase in urban experimentation, especially in the developing world. We will witness suburbs that will be included into existing cities or even be transformed into whole new ones. It highlights the attractiveness of the “Urban” or “Cosmopolitan”. Although we already have plenty, we are still eager to build or found new cities.
The European: You have talked about enduring cities like Istanbul, Rome, Cairo. How high is the chance that another such urban center could emerge?
Barber: There will be competition and that’s good, but these enduring cities will remain dominant, powerful and important for very good reasons. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there is no room for new or newer cities to rise.
The European: Which ultimately depends on what the mayors of these cities make out of it.
Barber: That’s correct, leadership is extremely important. Some cities with a very rich history, notably Detroit, have fallen from grace because of corrupt or ineffective leadership. Other cities, like Stuttgart or Frankfurt, have proven that good leadership can foster innovation, success and wealth. Those cities exercise more influence than their population would allow for and this is mostly due to their excellent local politicians. Leadership is key to a city’s success.
Did you like the conversation? Read one with Thomas Piketty: “The myth of national sovereignty helps big corporations screw us over”