Cities on the world stage: Players or spectators?

At the Chicago Forum on Global Cities, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (right) argued that cities are seedbeds of economic and scientific innovation globally. (Chicago Forum on Global Cities)

CHICAGO, United States — Is the future of the world to be decided mostly in cities, as they rocket past housing 55 percent of mankind in this decade, headed for as much as 75 percent by mid-century?

Statesmen, economists, journalists and diplomats differ dramatically on the question. And they tangled on the topic with no clear winners on a pair of high-powered panels at the Chicago Forum on Global Cities held here last month.

The pro-city case was straightforward — that mayors and other city leaders are pragmatists, problem-solvers, on-the-scene deal-makers. They’re obliged to deal with real people and produce tangible results. Most are free of the partisanship that freezes much decision making at the nation-state level.

Panelists such as former U. S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson argued that cities have become the quintessential human community, not just home to more than half the world’s peoples but the seedbeds of economic and scientific innovation globally. So national governments should “let go” and let cities exchange ideas, act as engines of growth and forge partnerships across the globe.

Benjamin Barber, author of the recent book, “If Mayors Ruled the World,” went a step further, arguing that nation-states have bred a world of “chaos, fragmentation and disagreement.” His chief point of evidence: the nations’ “dismal” record of failure to reach agreement on how to control climate change — arguably the gravest peril now facing all of mankind.

By contrast, said Barber, such organizations as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and ICLEI, a global alliance of cities focused on climate issues, have been successful in challenging each other to find practical, real-world answers in reduced pollution.

National prerogatives

But the nation-state advocates were not without champions, including another former U. S. treasury secretary, Robert Rubin (now co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations), and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a past United Kingdom foreign minister.

Rubin’s criticism of the city-first theory was pragmatic — without nation-states, how would essential functions be carried out? Who would protect the world’s cities and their people against foreign attack, devise environmental protections, finance low-income housing or collect the revenues nations need to finance a vast array of social services?

Rifkind offered a caveat to the idea of cities as global players. The talk of cities such as London being “progressive, dynamic and modern” is true, he said, but for only half their populations — the remainder of their people are relatively poor, sometimes migrant communities that “don’t feel any more international than people elsewhere in the country.” The vast majority of global city residents, he argued, “aren’t that well off, don’t have international jobs, don’t get on an aircraft flying around the world to do their thing.” And national identity, he argued, “remains ultimately the determinant of a person’s loyalty and commitment.”

What’s more, Rifkind argued, “If cities tried to run the world collaboratively we would have such a fragmentation as to make it impossible to deliver any meaningful answers.”

‘Power in numbers’

The doubters failed, however, to quash the enthusiasm of the city advocates. One was Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, who said her administration had “legislated to give local governments a power of general competence” — namely power to undertake any function they like except defense and negotiating treaties. National governments, she suggested, “need to let go and let cities find their way in the world,” letting them innovate to “be engines of growth and innovation for their country.”

Paulson noted that even with good national policies, “how well cities are managed is tremendously important.” His NGO, the Paulson Institute, works on fostering better city management, for example, by bringing Chinese city leaders to such cities as Miami, Portland and Chicago to compare notes on traffic, infrastructure and other key issues.

Former U. S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright emerged as an interesting arbiter of the discussion. She said there are limits to what cities can accomplish, citing the recent civic disturbances in Baltimore. “Should the mayor of Baltimore spend more time at the climate talks?” She clearly didn’t think so.

But it’s also true, Albright said, that fostering “groups of mayors is a very good idea — they learn from each other and there’s a power in numbers.” Her ideal? “A partnership among the cities and the nation states.” Then she added: “I do believe the big cities should be at the table” in critical international climate negotiations coming later this year in Paris.

The middle ground Albright’s position suggests is itself a dramatic breakthrough. The idea of significant city representation at critical United Nations negotiations would have been almost unimaginable through the 20th century. The world’s cities are clearly on a trajectory toward a broader global role.

Click here for a roundup of Citiscope coverage of the role of cities in global talks before the United Nations.

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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio

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