Increasingly in recent years, we have seen growing calls by city governments for more autonomy and new international forms of collaboration. Make no mistake: In so doing, local authorities are seeking to restructure the areas in which they operate in ways that could fundamentally shift longstanding forms of global governance dominated by nation-states.
The movement toward an expanded international role for cities has been enshrined in documents that resulted from the recent Habitat III conference on urbanization. It also has been replicated in multiple new collaborative organizations and activities — the Global Parliament of Mayorsin September, the C40 Mayors Summit that took place last week and more.
This is a natural response to trends of globalization and participatory governance, as well as to the fact that some of the most pressing problems of our times are occurring at the urban scale. However, it would be naive to think that national governments will sit by idly as cities and mayors seek to enter and guide global conversations on their own terms. What can we learn from past historical experiences as we forge ahead?
Globalization, while weakening national boundaries, has helped reinforce the importance of the local scale. Lower barriers for cross-border investment, communication and collaboration have allowed cities to make a de facto entrance onto the international stage. Economic globalization has empowered firms and foreign investors to select particular cities for investment in activities that drive both local and national economic growth, such as real estate, finance and services. This means that cities are increasingly becoming the stage upon which the economic future of a nation is set.
National governance structures often have proven unwieldy when dealing with the localized effects of such global problems as climate change, the flow of migrants and refugees, and informal urbanization. Further, trends in technology and the embrace of decentralization have facilitated the emergence of fine-grained, highly participatory governance strategies that are most easily applied at smaller scales.
Against this backdrop, city governments are on the right track in seeking to carve out spaces to outline a more context-specific urban agenda for dealing with today’s global problems. And far from being ghettoized as the site for society’s most pressing social problems — as was the case not that long ago — cities are now identified as key areas of investment opportunity and innovation.
Global mayoral elite
However, any shift toward city-level responsibilities must be accompanied by a corresponding expansion of the governance capacities of local governments, particularly with respect to fiscal and political resources.
Proponents of stronger, more autonomous authority at the local scale advocate an international governance system that shifts decision-making to effective, nimble and highly democratic local governments while also promoting international cooperation and collaboration. On the one hand, doing so brings problem-solving down to the local level, where knowledge of what will and won’t work in that context may be greatest. On the other hand, such efforts allow more direct knowledge transfer across cities.
Decades ago the scholar Janice Perlman started such “co-learning” efforts with her 1987 creation of the MegaCities Project, an experiment that helped create an international conversation about what was working best in cities around the globe. One might even see the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Initiative or Deutsche Bank’s Urban Age project as continuing this storied tradition. (The Rockefeller Foundation supports Citiscope.)