Can Mayors Save the World?

Untangling the theory that local ideas can fix global problems.

Reuters

People elect a mayor to get the trash off of their sidewalks. Maybe prominent leaders like New York's Michael Bloomberg don’t don coveralls and hop on the 4 a.m. pick-up shift, but they're responsible for making sure someone does — and they're held responsible if someone doesn't. When it comes to abstract global challenges like climate change, however, mayors usually get a pat on the head and a seat on the bench.

But maybe not anymore.

"Cities have started to say, 'Screw what they’re doing at the nation-state level, which is nothing,'" says Benjamin Barber, author of the forthcoming book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. "We can do something about this locally."

Barber is part of a growing group of scholars, policymakers, and theorists who think urban leaders should play a bigger role in solving the world's problems. Cities can be more than just home to more than half of the world’s population, they argue. They can also be the locus of global change.

The tagline to CityLab, The Atlantic's upcoming summit on city-level innovation, reflects the same idea: "Urban solutions to global challenges." But it’s a little difficult to reconcile the two phrases in that promise. How can complex "global challenges" be addressed by "urban solutions," which are, by definition, specific to a certain place and circumstance?

As with any battle of political philosophies, it’s easy to get lost in (or bored by) mind-blowing levels of abstraction. But there are a number of concrete ways to think about how cities might be the agents of global change.

Go Big or Go... Small

At the end of World War II, Winston Churchill urged the nations of Europe to become allies once again. The key to the future, he said, was to "recreate the European Family, or as much of it as we can... We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living."

This kind of idea was especially common at that time. In the 1950s, pan-Arabists like Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nassar wanted to unite Arab nations from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea. Science fiction writers dreamed of the Galactic Empire and the Federation, outer space’s multi-planet actors. And in the 1990s, the European Union became history's largest petri dish for transnational governance.

At the other end of the spectrum, agrarian idealists believed that the best political unit was a small, lightly governed community. As Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787, "I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural." That was before the industrial revolution, but even today, many would argue that farmers' markets and walkable communities are the most powerful solutions to global warming.

The mayors' movement argues something in the middle. Proponents of this line of thought, which is sometimes called "glocalization," argue the nation-state has failed. "The federal government has basically sent the signal, 'We won't be resolving any of this for the foreseeable future,'" says Bruce Katz, the director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program and co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution. "And that's a somewhat similar story around the world." For that reason, glocalists say, we should stop expecting big, centralized governments to solve the world's problems and start looking to cities for innovative solutions.

In part, that's because local leaders see the way issues like climate change actually play out on the ground. It's one thing for the leaders of the 20 most powerful countries in the world to sit around negotiating ways to reduce carbon emissions; it's another for Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop to fortify beach boardwalks so they won't be destroyed in the next Hurricane Sandy. "Cities can do more than lobby and advocate," Barber writes in his book. "They can directly affect carbon use within their domains through reforms in transportation, housing, parks, port facilities, and vehicles entirely under their control."

Of course, most glocalists aren't pushing for a total take-down of multinational governing organizations, and they acknowledge powerful players like private companies. The difference is in emphasis: Local leaders, they argue, see the tangible effects of abstract problems, and that means they can provide concrete policy solutions.

Local leaders also have different motivations than national politicians, glocalists claim. "Mayors are, by definition, non-ideological problem-solvers. They're pragmatists — they have to be," Barber says. If cities don't function smoothly, people's trash won’t get picked up. Their sewers won't work. Their kids won't be able to go to school. Especially in the United States, where national leaders are locked into ideological camps and party-line negotiations, there seems to be a fundamental difference in what national and local leaders can actually accomplish.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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