Can Mayors Save the World?

Untangling the theory that local ideas can fix global problems.


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.

This difference is clearest when you look at leaders who have had both kinds of jobs. Before Rahm Emanuel became Chicago's mayor, he served as a top policy adviser in the White House. Back then, he was seen as an obstacle to liberal immigration reform. Now that he's a mayor, he has become a vocal advocate of open immigration policies, creating scholarships for immigrant students, supporting immigrant-owned businesses, and instructing police officers not to ask people about their immigration status except in the case of "serious" crimes.

Why did Emanuel change his outlook on immigration so radically? Because his motivation changed: Instead of worrying about political jockeying, he found himself struggling with what to do about the many thousands of undocumented people who lived in his city.

That's not to say that issues like immigration can be solved entirely by mayors. Governments still have to keep track of people who enter and leave their national borders. And problems like human trafficking, refugee assistance, and worker migration require large-scale international cooperation.

But it's also important to remember that cities are more than just councils and mayors. "Cities are not governments, unlike the federal and state governments. They're networks," says Katz. As urban theorist Jane Jacobs wrote in her famed 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, "The economic foundation of cities is trade."

Urbanists often forget that part of Jacobs's work, Katz says. But what it means is that a lot of people and organizations, including hospitals, universities, companies, businesses, unions, and philanthropies, are investing money and thought in projects like creating jobs for 20-somethings and making sure buildings are sturdy enough to weather storms. This is what local innovation looks like: regular people finding work-arounds so that the stores they own or the homeless shelters they run can thrive.

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Democracy

In the broadest sense, this boils down to an argument for democracy.

"I don't believe that a bunch of technocrats in Washington are smart enough or sufficient enough to drive the country forward," says Katz. "There's a crowd-sourcing idea here — it's intensely democratic."

That's because local leaders understand what people want and need far better than national or international leaders ever could, glocalists say. "You pay taxes, and maybe serve in the military, and vote once in a while in the presidential election, and that's the only relationship you have with the nation-state," Barber says. "Locally, you're related to your workplace, your school, your church, your hospitals. ...Our real connections with the political entity are local."

Put another way, glocalization is a fight to make democracy something people can touch and feel. Cities are made up of tangible things like streets and subways and storefronts, but nation-states are deeply theoretical entities — we have to use symbols like flags and food to understand what they mean. In the same way, glocalists might argue, national and international leaders are trapped in the realm of abstractions and ideas. By definition, they’re too removed from people and their problems to create effective policy.

Still, a single city can only do so much in the battle against problems like global warming. Even if New York City significantly reduces its carbon emissions by sparking a bike-share craze, its efforts seem worthless if Atlanta and Los Angeles do nothing. If the glocalist dream has any chance of coming true, cities have to help each other. Local leaders need to form networks, exchange ideas, and share resources.

Fortunately, they already are. The C40 network of "megacities" was created in 2005 to mobilize action on climate change. The ICLEI is similar. Originally named the "International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives," the organization was created in 1990 and now represents more than a thousand cities in 84 countries.

Barber proposes taking this further by organizing an international "parliament of mayors." Importantly, this isn't EU 2.0: The Mayor Edition. There's a big conceptual difference between a global network that connects local leaders and a global body of governance.

The climate change example helps to clarify the difference. In a formalized network, mayors would reflect on ways to reduce bus exhaust fumes or make eco-friendly bike-share programs more popular. The G20, on the other hand, produces outcomes like this — abstract, wordy, and short on tangible action.

Glocalism attempts a complicated dance, trying to tie policy to what happens in neighborhoods across the world but stopping short of cries to dissolve the United Nations. It's still slightly unclear what lies between bike-shares and global revolution, but the theory is appealing, especially for Americans frustrated by Congressional gridlock. A subtle shift toward city-level leadership seems to be underway, and this may only be the beginning. "This is an incredibly disruptive period," says Katz. "Very dynamic, very volatile. We're going to see an explosion of this in this country and abroad."