Democracy or Sustainability? The City as Mediator

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In an ideal world, democratic regimes pressured by informed (and alarmed!) citizens would presumably move aggressively to address global warming. After all, protecting the future of the planet with vigorous policies, curbing carbon emissions, and incentivizing alternative (renewable) energy would (and should) come naturally to conscientious nations responding to energized citizens. Democratic deliberation is designed precisely to help selfish individuals reformulate their interests in the language of the communities to which they belong—to move from “me thinking” to “we thinking.” Deliberation substitutes for the short-term horizons associated with present-minded special interest thinking the long-term horizons associated with future-minded thinking. At its best, democracy allows private opinion to be shaped by shared civic belief and the discipline of inter-subjective (“scientific”) knowledge. Applied to climate change, the deliberative process should produce successful and sustainable environmental policies.

It is pretty obvious, however, that we do not live in an ideal world. In the real world of corrupted, minimalist government dominated by money and special interests in which we currently dwell, democracy is hardly at its best. Under the sway of market fundamentalism, we actually instruct citizens to eschew deliberation: to think of their task as expressing impulsive private preferences, encouraging them to regard the public good as little more than an aggregation of those preferences. We allow them to confound opinion and knowledge to the detriment of judgment. Sometimes we even seem to think that by denying expert science we honor “democratic” thinking—as if shared ignorance and democracy are the same thing.

In this corrupted version of democracy, “now” trumps “later,” today takes precedence over tomorrow, and no one recognizes that more expansive democratic social contract about which Edmund Burke spoke: the democratic contract that encompasses not only the interests of the living, but the interests of those who are gone and those as yet unborn. This kind of inter-generational thinking can only be cultivated in a setting of prudent deliberation; contrarily, our short-term present-mindedness shrinks the temporal zone and privileges narcissism.

Consequently, our democracy—under siege from corporate capital and beholden more to the private sector than to public goods—tends to augment rather than to mitigate the crisis in sustainability. The word sustainability should push citizens out of the “now” temporal zone and allow them to temper today’s needs by considering tomorrow’s responsibilities. But when citizens fail as deliberative judges of their own long-term interests, it suggests that a benevolent tyrant with an understanding of climate science is more likely to address climate change effectively than so-called citizens; that is to say, that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist government is more likely to act responsibly than the U.S. Congress. How can advocates of democratic governance respond to so perverse a conclusion? Do we give up on democracy? Or on sustainability?

Neither. What we must do is to challenge the notion that it is democracy that is culpable. The lassitude of nations in the face of the climate crisis—demonstrated once again in the failure to slow the pace of warming of the four rounds of meetings since Copenhagen (COP 15), the most recent in Warsaw (COP 19)—is in truth a result of a democratic deficit. For when states are held captive by money—business and banking interests, as well as a wholly corporate-owned media that, far from informing the public, participates in misleading it—it is not democracy but the failure of democracy that is to blame. In the United States, the Supreme Court has been complicit in democracy’s corruption. Its stunning decisions not only recently in Citizens United (which treated corporations as persons with free speech rights) but in Buckley v. Valeo in the 1970s (which treated money as speech) have given the corruption of democracy by money constitutional legitimacy. Meanwhile, faux “charitable” lobbies such as ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, a tax deductible “charity” to which taxpayers unwittingly contribute) give private corporate power a public voice in thwarting sustainable policies by buying off lawmakers, often dictating to them the precise language of prospective legislation that serves their special interests.

Yet even were democracy less compromised than it is today, even were it more an argument against than the rationalization for plutocracy it has become, democracy would remain trapped inside the box of national sovereignty. Hence the dilemma: bordered and blinkered independent states confronting borderless, interdependent problems. Every challenge we face today crosses borders. Climate change; terrorism; economic markets in labor, commodities, and capital; health pandemics; crime; drugs; weapons of mass destruction; and technology are all global in their causes and consequences. No Chicago warming, only global warming; no Brooklyn flu, but Mexican pig virus and Hong Kong flu; no state-based war, but malevolent NGOs like Al Qaeda and civil wars that know no patriotism.

We confront this planet of brutally interdependent challenges with antiquated nation-states, wrapped up in their sovereignty and independence and incapable of meeting the new perils. We have HIV without borders, war without borders, immigration without borders, a digital web without borders, but we do not have citizens without borders or democracy without borders. On this devastating asymmetry between problems and responses rests the future of our planet. Unless we find ways to globalize democracy or to democratize globalization, humankind will be at ever-greater peril.

I want to suggest that we can find an answer to this perplexing dilemma, and thus to our inability to address climate change effectively through democracy, by changing the subject from states to cities; from prime ministers and presidents to mayors. For our most ancient and enduring political bodies—our towns and cities—offer an attractive alternative to dysfunctional nations. Let interdependent cities do globally what independent nations no longer can do: let mayors and their neighbors, the citizens of the world’s cities, address climate, regulate carbon, and in this way, guarantee sustainability through cooperative action.

There are good reasons why cities can effect changes nations cannot. We have always been what Edward Glaeser calls “an urban species.” Today more than one-half of the world’s population is comprised by urban dwellers; in the developed world, more than three-quarters. China is growing new cities of more than a million at a dizzying rate, while global megacities in Africa and Latin America are making New York and London look positively modest. Moreover, nearly 80 percent of GDP as well as 80 percent of greenhouse gases are generated in cities. Cities create much of the problem, and cities can contribute significantly to the solution if they can maintain access to their resources and act with some autonomy in the face of the obstructive national government to which they are constitutionally subsidiary.

The city in fact stands at the beginning of our history. Human civilization was born in cities, and democracy was first nurtured in the polis. Cities are the most enduring of political bodies. Rome is much older than Italy, Istanbul older than Turkey, Boston older than the United States, Damascus older than Syria. Cities are where we are born, grow up, go to school, marry, and have children; where we work, play, pray, grow old, and die. They define our essential communitarian habitat in a way that nations cannot.

Nations are too large for participation and engagement, but too small to control and contain the global centers of power; too big for community and association, but too small for the world economy. Cities are closer to us, more human in scale, more trusted by citizens. Where less than half of Americans trust the president or the Supreme Court and less than 10 percent trust the Congress they themselves elect, 70 percent or better trust their mayors and municipal councilors.

To respond effectively to climate change then, we need to restore democracy to its deliberative roots in competent citizenship; we need to liberate popular government from money and reinstate it as a domain of civic competence and citizen participation; and we need to help democracy cross borders that are ever-more obsolete to address global problems. Enter the city. For the bottom line is we will only have environmental sustainability when we have sustainable democracy. And democracy is sustainable today above all in cities, which are local but also global—are glocal, both devolved downward to the local level of the city, and simultaneously linked through networks that encompass the global.

Cities have then an enormous potential for ecological cooperation. Indeed, they are already actively engaged in seeking sustainability within and across their borders. While nation-states are growing ever-more dysfunctional, cities are increasingly proving themselves capable of deliberative democratic action on behalf of sustainability, both one by one but also through little known but highly effective intercity associations that allow cooperating cities to do what nations have failed to do. If presidents and prime ministers cannot summon the will to work for a sustainable planet, mayors can. If citizens defined by the province and nation are spectators to their own destiny and tend to think ideologically and divisively, neighbors and citizens of towns and cities are active and engaged and tend to think publicly and cooperatively.

The devastation of extreme weather events like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy in the United States and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines notwithstanding, the United Nations–sponsored framework meetings aimed at nation-states never gained traction. The effort to improve and extend the Kyoto Protocol since Copenhagen in 2009 (COP 15)—right through Cancun in 2010, Durban in 2011, Doha in 2012, and Warsaw in 2013 (COP 19)—has engendered only frustration. A less familiar story, however, is the story of the mayors who also gathered at Copenhagen (at the invitation of Copenhagen’s mayor, who had formerly been Denmark’s environmental minister) as a kind of urban Rump Parliament to do informally, city to city, what nation-states had not done in their formal (and futile) proceedings. With 80 percent of carbon emissions coming from within metropolitan regions, it was clear to the mayors that cities could make a difference even when states did nothing. And with 90 percent of cities built on water—rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans—it was clear to them that if they did not act, they would likely become the first victims of climate change and ocean rise. They also knew that there were already intercity associations engaged in emission reductions; that individual cities were in a position to address climate change forcefully, with or without the help of their national politicians. Their actions converged with the activities of such intercity associations as ICLEI and the C-40. In the years since Copenhagen, mayors and their networks have had a significant impact on greenhouse gases.

Before Copenhagen and after, intercity organizations such as CityNet (the Asian city network), City Protocol (the Barcelona-based web network partnered by Cisco Systems) and UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments) were permitting the viral sharing of best urban practices and promoting networking and cooperation. UCLG may be the most important global political body no one has ever heard of. Although it brings together thousands of cities around the world in an annual congress and ongoing cooperative projects arising out of urban challenges, its name evokes blank stares among schoolchildren who can easily identify the Concert of Nations, the League of Nations, and the United Nations. Yet there are dozens of these associations besides UCLG: Cities for Mobility, CLAIR or the Council of Local Authorities, CityNet and Delgosea, Southeast Asian city networks, ICMA and INTA, global management and development organizations, the League of Historical Cities, Mayors for Peace, Metropolis (the world organization of major metropolises), Sister Cities International, and many others.

None, however, have had the impact of the growing handful devoted to combating climate change. Among the most important are these:

(Click here to view table as larger pdf.)

Many other networks not specifically devoted to the environment nonetheless also concern themselves with climate change—for example, EuroCities, Metropolis, United Cities and Local Governments, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The efficacy of the cooperation around sustainability such networks pursue reflects some simple realties. As we have noted, 80 percent of carbon emissions come from cities (corresponding to the approximately 80 percent of GDP generated by cities) and hence can be addressed in cities, whether or not their host states wish to cooperate with one another; meanwhile, nine of ten cities are built next to the very waters that, through climate warming, are likely to inundate and destroy them. Moreover, the density that is the city’s greatest virtue, giving the city dweller a much smaller carbon footprint than exurban residents have, also makes cities the primary generators of greenhouse gases and pollution (witness Beijing!). Given such conditions, voluntary cooperation within and among cities has the potential to address a significant part of the environmental challenge, nation-state intransigence notwithstanding.

Among the active global networks listed above, the best known and most effective have been ICLEI and the C-40 Climate Leadership Group. With fifty-eight city members in 2012, the C-40 works closely with the Clinton Climate Initiative and describes itself on its website as a “network of large and engaged cities from around the world committed to implementing meaningful and sustainable climate-related actions locally that will help address climate change globally. Our global field staff works with city governments, supported by our technical experts across a range of program areas.” The C-40 was created in 2006 by London’s then-mayor Ken Livingston, and “forged a partnership in 2006 with the Cities program of President Clinton’s Climate Initiative (CCI) to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency in large cities across the world.” Its leadership since then has involved Mayor David Miller of Toronto (crazy Rob Ford’s sane predecessor) and the current chair, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York (whose Bloomberg Philanthropies proffered a grant that allowed for the full integration of the CCI Cities Program). The C-40 Steering Committee—Berlin, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, London, New York City, Sao Paulo, Seoul, and Tokyo—plays a key role in guiding and directing the collective.

The C-40 has seized the limelight, but ICLEI—the older and more established, if more modest, International Council for Local Environmental Issues (with 1,200 members across seventy countries)—has a much longer history of significant intercity cooperation. Formal city networks are not, however, the whole story. Urban-based non-governmental organizations and concerned groups of citizens with environmental agendas also network through journals, citizens’ collectives, and “movements.” Useful online informational websites such as,,, and the Streetblogs network abound. In the crucial domain of sustainability, a few stand out, including the Garrison Institute’s site,, and especially Sustainable Cities Collective. In other words, city-to-city cooperation also takes place at the civil society and citizen level, on and off the web, where borrowing, imitation, and shared experimentation are as important as formal governmental networking.

To take one example, in 1997, with a push from Mayor Leoluca Orlando of Palermo, the European Union founded “The Car-Free Cities Network.” But banning cars from cities is nearly as old as cities themselves. In the early 1920s (as depicted in my book, The Death of Communal Liberty: A History of Freedom in a Swiss Mountain Canton), the Swiss canton of Graubuenden imposed a brief cantonal ban on the newfangled automobile, less to protect large cities (of which it had none) than to protect its narrow-gauge Raetian railways system, but astonishing for that era in any case. And recently, it has been citizens and civic NGOs that have taken the lead in the urban battle against the automobile, promoting pedestrian-only zones, encouraging bike-share schemes and bicycle lanes, organizing recycling campaigns, and campaigning for conversion to cleaner energy in public and private buildings, all of which hold the potential to impact sustainability profoundly.

New York City, an urban sustainability leader, was only the most recent of more than three hundred cities worldwide that have introduced bike-share programs (including more than thirty cities in France, thirty in Germany, a dozen in the United States, and at least four in China, including Shanghai and Beijing), with cities like Bogota mandating weekend bikes-only traffic on major thoroughfares (“ciclovias”). Bike-share programs are often associated with other civic issues and movements, which broadens their membership and increases their civic power. Portland, Oregon, was the first city to do this back in 1965, reflecting its status as a global green leader. In Tucson, Arizona, the bike-share campaign came out of a movement focused on the homeless and reflecting anti-war (!) sentiment; it was launched under the rubric “bikes not bombs.” For decades, China’s urban transportation depended heavily on bicycles (including those hauling one-ton flatbeds!), but today, in the new age of automobiles, cities in China have come back to bike share as a way out of urban congestion and pollution.

Individual cities have also pioneered emission reduction programs tailored to their particular urban environments that can be imitated by other cities with like circumstances. Three salient projects in Los Angeles, New York, and Bogota have both embodied and been inspired by analogous programs in other cities. In Los Angeles, the target was the port; in New York, the aging building infrastructure; in Bogota, the car-clogged surface transportation system.

When Anton Villaraigosa was elected Mayor of Los Angeles in 2005, he moved to address carbon emissions, as both the state of California and many California cities were doing. Although the freeways might have seemed the most likely target for action, it turned out that the port—America’s largest—was responsible for up to 40 percent of the city’s emissions. A diesel powered freighter can use fifty to sixty megawatts of power during just a few minutes of offloading cargo. After the election of Barack Obama, the mayor tried to get the support of the Obama White House to green up his city’s vast port facilities, but when it became apparent such support was beyond the capacity of the White House, Villaraigosa embarked on a local program of public/private initiatives focused on two goals: getting container ships and tankers to turn off their idling diesel engines while in port by providing titanic electric cables that would access dockside electrical sources; and upgrading the engines of the twelve thousand or so trucks coming in and out of the port each day. Over his term of office, Mayor Villaraigosa was able nearly to halve emissions from the port, resulting in city-wide reductions in greenhouse gases of almost 20 percent.

In New York City during the same period, as part of his PlaNYC program calling for congestion fees and other green measures, Mayor Bloomberg targeted the Big Apple’s energy weak spot: a residential and office building infrastructure as old as any in the nation, and one that leaked heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. Although the city’s high population density and low automobile use make it one of the lowest emission cities in the United States, its old building infrastructure presents serious problems for energy use. Bloomberg’s new insulation standards for new construction and mandatory retro-fitting of old stock, along with some special measures like painting the city’s ubiquitous black tar rooftops white, resulted in a significant reduction in energy wasted—perhaps 8 percent of total energy usage.

In Bogota (as in so many other Latin American cities), inefficient public transportation on roads clogged with private cars not only wasted energy but created impossibly burdensome commuting times of three hours or more each way for workers living in suburban favelas and slums trying to get to inner city jobs. Mayor Antanus Mockus looked to new systems of surface transportation being developed around Latin America and introduced dedicated surface bus lanes, curbed on both sides to prevent other traffic from encroaching and with stops every three or four blocks only to keep buses moving and attract people. The impact on both emissions and traffic flow of this new surface rapid transit system was immediate: for roughly 5 percent the cost of building an underground system, Bogota got a rapid transit surface system that pulled people from their cars to the buses and cut commuting times by as much as two-thirds, improving the working conditions for hundreds of thousands of commuters even as it curbed carbon emissions.

These three cities had three different, city-specific approaches, each one resulting in significant energy savings and reduced carbon emissions, and all of them easy to copy and adapt to conditions in cities around the world. But diversity of conditions shaping climate change is the universal reality. In India, for example, cell phone towers are the second largest users of energy. In Europe, on the other hand, the region in Germany south of the Elbe River (that traverses Hamburg) is one of the nation’s largest industrial zones, where 29 percent of CO2 gases are generated by industry, 18 percent by the service economy, 22 percent by residential dwellings, and 29 percent by transportation. Its challenges are quite different from, say, Oslo’s, where a stunning 65 percent of emissions come from transport but where other carbon sources are much less potent. In Brussels, 55 percent of the emissions come from residential infrastructure, suggesting a situation more like New York’s. In nearby Rotterdam, however, up to 77 percent of emissions derive from petrochemical refineries.

Like Los Angeles, New York, and Bogota, then, cities everywhere must explore their own particular environmental contexts and develop appropriate approaches—though ideally in ways that can be shared by and imitated in other cities. There are a number of nearly universal green programs, including bike shares and downtown pedestrian zones, that have spread from a few cities in Latin America and Germany to cities all over the world. But most cities still must develop their own unique menu of strategies. Take one example, the old Hansa League city of Hamburg in Germany, both a city and a Land (state) that has produced a compound approach using a number of parallel tactics.

Hamburg is a great German port city connecting the great trading cities along the North Sea as the medieval Hanseatic League once did, a city whose population is expected to rise to two million by 2030. But Hamburg has done much more than address its port issues. Recognized for its innovations as the European Union’s 2011 “Green Capital”—it was Germany’s first electric city back in 1882!—under Mayor Olaf Scholz it has today become an urban wind capital of Europe. Like London, which deploys England’s largest turbine combine in the Thames estuary (covering up to 30 percent of is energy needs), Hamburg deploys turbines both in and around Hamburg proper. (Germany derives nearly 8 percent of its energy from nearly 25,000 wind turbines, a preponderance in the windy northern Laender around Hamburg.) But the city does not rest content with wind energy. It also has a growing fleet of zero-emission (hydrogen) buses, low sulfur ships, and “compact neighborhoods” that try to create low energy use communities with reduced carbon footprints through ecological building design, green transportation, and pedestrian zones. It supports research on storing energy, a significant problem with wind energy, which is often created at times when it cannot be used and has insufficient storage technologies to permit it to be used later.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, although it is a city defined by its port and global sea trade in material goods, Hamburg under Mayor Scholz has opted to focus on trade in non-material goods: on the knowledge economy and new technologies that enhance productivity and prosperity without burdening the environment. Mayor Scholz has been notable in trying to mediate the classic debate that pits sustainability against development, making conservation an enemy of consumerism (an argument I take up in my book Consumed). Scholz believes that avoiding consumerism and trade (as Club of Rome pessimists such as Ashlock Khosla urge us to do) is unrealistic and corrosive of not just prosperity but equality (which prosperity and productivity alone can secure). Though it is hard not to agree with Khosla that if consumerism is capitalism’s only driver, and capitalism is the engine of global growth, achieving sustainability will be difficult, it is also true that pitting development and social justice against sustainability is a losing proposition either way. On a rapidly urbanizing planet where more than three-quarters of the population in the developing world already live in cities, Scholz is understandably dubious about the more extreme versions of the argument for radical anti-growth strategies; about the dour claim, for example, that cities are “parasites on nature” and hence “entropy accelerators,” rushing hubristic humankind towards rapid extinction.

Although he is certainly not a techno-zealot, Scholz insists that cities cannot and must not turn their backs on their own urban virtues in pursuing the reduction of emissions. The pessimism of Club of Rome skeptics like Khosla produces self-fulfilling prophecies. But when proper attention is paid to the natural creativity and innovation of the city (upon which Richard Florida has written so compellingly), the knowledge economy can produce both prosperity and sustainability, growth and social justice. By preferring incentives to penalties and developing “Umwelt” environmental partnerships with more than a thousand private companies, Mayor Scholz has pointed a sustainable way forward that does not put prosperity or justice at risk.

Hamburg has the unusual advantage of being both a city and a province (“Land”) where the mayor can control the finances and assets of both the city and the surrounding countryside. Generally speaking, cities in federal states where there is some vertical separation of powers (as in Germany, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, and the United States) enjoy more autonomy and jurisdictional independence than those caught in unitary, centralized states like France, Japan, and the United Kingdom. But either way, cities need to find ways to maximize their authority in dealing with issues the nation-states that control them won’t or can’t deal with, whether it is through combating climate change or mitigating its consequences. Many cities such as San Francisco and New York are increasingly invested in planning for, dealing with, and ameliorating the consequences of an ocean rise that looks ever-less avoidable. London built its first Thames Estuary flood barrier back in the 1970s (used nowadays five or six time a year). In New York today, engineers are looking to thwart storm surges with sea walls or to plug subway entrances with soft rubber air balloons (lower Manhattan’s subways were flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012). San Francisco, with its expansive bay waters, is also focusing on mitigation strategies. Meanwhile, in Seoul a highway cutting through the city has been reconverted to the ancient canal it once was, restoring water to its proper place in the urban center.

Social justice issues, then, can and do intersect with sustainability issues. In Indian cities like Mumbai and Pakistani cities like Karachi, the informal economy offers answers to questions of both climate change and social equity. In Karachi, for example, it is estimated that 15 percent of the population of 20 million people live in informal housing (squats), and even more are employed in the informal economy. In this way, the per se appalling work children do in combing vast garbage dumps in Mumbai’s slums looking for usable, sellable, and recyclable detritus (see Katherine Boo’s book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers) actually contributes meaningfully to recycling material goods and to the informal economy—that is to say, it becomes a way out of the slums. As Herbert Giradet, the co-founder of the World Future Council and the winner of the United Nations 500 Award to environmental achievement has argued, cities must find ways to “regenerate” themselves, to move (in the language of John van Tunen) from the ancient “Agropolis” to today’s “Petropolis” to a future “Ecopolis.” Hernando de Soto (in his provocative The Mystery of Capital) and other champions of exploiting and eventually formalizing the informal economy in the name of greater social equity suggest how that might be done. Such innovative urban strategies are vital, for while cities comprise less than 3.5 percent of the planet’s land mass, they make up half its population and generate more than 80 percent of its wealth, its GDP, its pollution, and its greenhouse gases. With megacity populations of 33 million (Tokyo), 32 million (Chungking), 20 million (Seoul and Mexico City), and 18 million (Jakarta, Delhi, Sao Paulo, and Osaka), and new cities of over a million springing up like mushrooms in China, the challenge of urban growth is now. Cities such as Dekwa, in the South of Sweden, are potent models for what is possible. With a zero-emission rating today, with trees being used for biomass energy yet forests replanted as part of the same process, with a mayor who back in 1995 (a full year before the original 1996 Kyoto Protocol) called for a total ban on carbon, and with a bipartisan council since then seeking other innovative routes to sustainability like recycling ashes in nearby forests and using sludge and waste as biomethane fuel, the town of Dekwa has piloted on a small scale what might be possible on a large scale in every city in the world.

Cities and their networks can achieve much. But we also need to recognize that much of what constitutes cross-border cooperation and informal governance grows out of voluntary actions undertaken by individual citizens and civic associations in response to common problems. The result can be innovative programs that spread virally rather than legislatively, via choice and public opinion as well as mayoral leadership rather than via legislation or collective executive fiat. This kind of soft governance is crucial in changing actual human behavior and reflects the kind of bottom-up governance likely to make our unruly world modestly ruly. Cities don’t have to wait for states to achieve a measure of security or a degree of sustainability. Civil society doesn’t have to wait for city government to take action. And citizens don’t have to wait for civil society to work together. The web stands ready, bypassing traditional forms of political association, a global network in waiting, informal for now, becoming as formal over time as we choose to make it.

If cities are a key to democratic sustainability, however, their jurisdictional authority and global reach need to be amplified. I will conclude by offering two proposals for furthering and formalizing developments that are, to be sure, already underway: first, to convene a global parliament of mayors as a keystone in the rising arch of intercity networks already in place; and second, to launch a global urban party that focuses on the politics of urban public goods, for the global good turns out to be urban goods aggregated. A global parliament of mayors, for which a planning process has already been launched, and a new political movement in the form of an urban party exploiting the global urban majority that already exists, can together comprise a palpable and viable strategy for global sustainability and social justice; for combating climate change without surrendering democracy.

The notion of a global parliament of mayors is set forth in the final chapter of If Mayors Ruled the World in considerable detail, and I will not elaborate it here. It envisions a bottom-up and opt-in institution whose success will depend on consensus from participating cities and on the shaping national interests by global public opinion. The Parliament itself—better called an “audiament,” or place of listening!—would represent several tranches of cities, from those of just half a million to megacities with tens of millions; it would focus on sharing information and best practices, developing common strategies, and bridging the many distinct collaborative silos into which intercity efforts too often separate themselves. As what I have called the keystone in the arch of intercity networks, it would thus help make the local global. In as much as its success would depend more on public opinion than on mandatory legislation—on soft, bottom-up governance than on hard, top-down government—it would not have the look or feel of some vast new global bureaucracy, a kind of fearful “world government” patrolled by black helicopters and bent on creating some vast European Commission style regulatory agency for a supine planet. On the contrary, with a majority of cities in which the global majority live agreeing on common practices and opting into common regulations, the outcome would be a strong form of local democracy with a global face.

The good news about the GPM is that it is already an idea city mayors in the United States, Latin America, Europe, and Asia are exploring. Meetings have been held in Seoul, Korea, and New York, with mayors, as well as NGO and other civic leaders, participating. Meetings are planned for Amsterdam and London later in 2013, with a possible pilot parliament envisioned for late 2015 or 2016. The GPM is an idea with legs, and the legs belong to standing mayors hoping to walk the talk of collaboration, taking the reality of intercity cooperation to a new level. (More information on Interdependence Movement can be found at

The politics of establishing a successful global parliament of mayors will obviously depend on the actions not only of mayors but of engaged urban citizens committed to sustainable global goods. This points to a second strategy, complementary to convening a GPM: establishing and developing a global urban party for universal sustainability (GUPUS) among whose objectives would be the GPM. Politics delimited by national borders remain ideological and dualistic: Tories and Conservatives, Christian Democrats and Socialists, Republicans and Democrats. Yet such party divisions reflect the political divisions of nineteenth century nation-state industrial capitalism and have little to do with today’s struggle for sustainability, global public goods, and citizens without borders inhabiting a knowledge-society planet. The old parties are inclined to the ideological reductionism and rigidity that mark too many national politicians. An urban party seeing in urban public goods a manifestation of global public goods could reorient politics: it could precipitate a pragmatic, cross-border movement whose ultimate goal would be an effective democratic framework for sustainable living.

The obsession with power and ideology has led many today to forget that politics is instrumental: a way to create the infrastructure for the non-political living that defines the values and purposes of human life and that is defined by all the things we care about, from love and art to religion and culture; from work and play to health and happiness. The politics of the city have always been more about these simple goods than about grand political principle, which is why mayors are problem solvers and pragmatists, and why you cannot “close” a city the way you can “shut down” a national government. Put another way, life is not about politics; politics is about affording life its full scope and potential, about doing what must be done to create conditions for liberty, equality, and justice, and then getting out of the way so the fruits of liberty, equality, and justice can be enjoyed. Statists think politics is the purpose; libertarians and market fundamentalists think politics has no purpose. True strong democrats grasp that self-government is what allows politics to serve us without subordinating us and hence seek a strong democratic constitution. With the help of mayors, strong democracy is what city politics does locally. With the help of global public opinion and a global urban party, it is what a global parliament of mayors can do globally. Finally, both democracy and sustainability are “glocal,” a dialectical idea in which the tensions between what is democratic and what is sustainable—the tensions that have animated this essay—can be overcome and transcended.

  • Benjamin Barber

    Benjamin R. Barber (1939-2017) was a Senior Research Scholar at The Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society of The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, President and Founder of the Interdependence Movement, and Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science Emeritus, Rutgers University.
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