11 things we learned from Benjamin Barber’s talk on the future of the city

Benjamin Barber in 2010. Image: Erich Habich/Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Barber is the author of If mayors ruled the world, a 2013 book which argues, well, you can probably guess. He’s now putting his ideas into practice, by creating the Global Parliament of Mayors – a group of over 120 mayors which will hold its first meeting in The Hague this September.

Yesterday evening, Barber gave a lecture at an event in The Shard, London, hosted by the Centre for Cities as part of its ongoing City Horizons events series. Here’s what we learned about Barber and his ideas.

1. He thinks cities have nothing to lose but their chains

Barber stressed that he’s not an urbanist by background, but a political theorist. But, at risk of understatement, he’s become a bit of an evangelist for the possibilities of city-led government. “Cities are not a level of government,” Barber argued. “Cities are the original human community.”

Elsewhere in his talk, Barber noted that “cities generate 80 per cent of the GDP of the world” – yet they’re forced to hand their riches over to national governments, which generously let them have less than a third of that back to spend as they see fit.

His solution is for cities to recognise their own economic strength – to be less deferential, and take the power back. (How they can do this in a country as centralised as Britain, where all power derives ultimately from parliament and most cities don’t have mayors, is not exactly clear.)


2. He’s not a fan of national government

The reason Barber is so enamoured of cities is simple: because he thinks national governments are failing. On a host of issues – refugees, climate change, terrorism – he argues that governments have proved themselves constitutionally incapable of putting short-sighted national interests aside and working together to find solutions.

By way of example of national failure, he pointed to the Paris climate accords, which came out of last year’s COP21 UN climate change conference. “The saddest thing I can think of is the name COP21,” Barber said, “because that means there were 20 other meetings.”

He also noted that national governments, in the US or Belgium for example, have periodically shut down – and nobody has really noticed. “Imagine we closed Liege. Or Amsterdam, or Louisville.”

3. He’s not a fan of simple countryfolk either

“For 5,000 years, the rural population has dominated the world,” Barber argued. “It’s responsible for many of the problems we have today.”

By way of example he gave the US tea party and Vichy France. Yes.

4. Some of his ideas don’t sit well with the US constitution

Barber noted that cities in Colorado had attempted to ban fracking within their domain – but the state supreme court had overturned the ban as unconstitutional. By the same token, he noted that attempts to ban assault rifles in the US had been overturned by federal courts, citing the second amendment.

His solution is for “a thousand cities” to implement one of these policies at the same time, and to dare opponents to take them to court. This is, to be fair, a refreshingly novel approach for an American to take to the country’s constitution.

5. He’s got a nifty one-liner explaining why cities are more co-operative than countries

“When Germany gets bigger – as its neighbours learned – Belgium and Poland get smaller. But Brussels, Berlin and Warsaw can all flourish together.” In other words, national interests are often a zero-sum game; urban interests aren’t.

(See? We told you boundaries were important.)

6. He preferred Mayor Bernie to candidate Bernie

Barber was full of praise for the way Bernie Sanders had run Burlington, Vermont. He was rather less enamoured of the populist let’s-blame-Wall-Street rhetoric he’d used in his campaign to be the Democratic party’s candidate for president.

“I told him if he ran the way he ran Burlington he might have a chance,” Barber said. “But he ran an ideological campaign because that’s what happens at national level.”


7. John Kasich is not on board with his ideas

While we’re talking about failed US presidential candidates, Barber noted that Ohio governor John Kasich had passed a law requiring the state’s cities to fix their sewers. The mayors had respectively asked who would be paying for this upgrade. “You are,” Kasich told them.

In other words, one of the big problems facing cities is unfunded mandates – when they are handed the responsibility to fix a problem, but not the fiscal power to actually do so.

8. He thinks metro regions are the future...

Barber traces many problems faced by cities to the fact that we draw the boundaries in the wrong place. “The division between city, suburb, exurb and countryside is artificial,” he argued. “Medieval cities had it about right: the city was the market town for the surrounding rural area.”

In other words, the thing we think of as the city is actually just the most visible part of a much wider economic system. “In the long term,” Barber said, “we will have to think about metropolitan regions. But there will be suburbs that don’t want it.”

9. ...and continental Europe is working on it

In 2014, Matteo Renzi’s government in Italy introduced a new layer of government. The città metropolitana are nine regions consisting of cities, their commuter towns and their rural hinterlands. Initially, the national government created 10; the autonomous regions added another five to the list.

In the same way, France has established 15 “metropoles”. Such regions, Barber argued, solved the problem of separating cities from their hinterlands.

That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, however. “The question is, do we then lose the traditional qualities of mayors - localism and personal connections?”

10. If all else fails, sell the art

In 2013, when Detroit went bankrupt, the administrators were reported to be considering selling some of the art in the Detroit Institute of Art.

The result was an outcry from the surrounding areas.  “Officials from suburban counties have warned that if the city’s bankruptcy managers sell any assets in the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA)...  they will cut their contributions to its funding,” reported the Guardian. “The combined income from three counties surrounding the city is worth $23m a year to the museum, a sum that represents almost 75% of its operating budget.”

For the last few decades, as Detroit has sunk further and further into the fiscal mire, the counties around it have been quietly booming. The slow collapse of the city’s downtown may not have pressured the suburbs into admitting their dependence on the city - but Barber suggested that the promise to sell off some Van Gogh might have succeeded where economic collapse had failed.

Thanks to the Centre for Cities for arranging the event as part of its ongoing City Horizons events series. 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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How do North Koreans get to work? A guide to transport in the DPRK

Buhung station, on the Pyongyang Metro. Image: Jodie Hill.

Like so much else in North Korea, the country’s transport can be divided into categories: Pyongyang and not Pyongyang.

In the capital, centrally-run transportation is, compared to other extremely poor countries, efficient, cheap and well maintained. Outside Pyongyang, by contrast, the state has withered away – albeit not quite as Marx imagined it would. The near total collapse of state run transport infrastructure has left room for a wide range of enterprising North Koreans to make their living in the transport sector – provided, of course, a chunk of those proceeds makes its way back to the party.

So how do North Koreans get around Pyongyang?  

Here’s a homemade map of the city’s transport section:

A homemade map of the Pyongyang transport sector. Image: Michael Hill.

Some notes on all this. The names for Subway stations are translations of the Korean names, but bear no relation to their location. I filled in the (unnamed) trolley bus and tram stop names myself, with reference local landmarks; in fact, those systems both stop way more than my map implies.

What’s more, the Gwangmyeong/Bright Future station is closed, and has been for years – out of respect for Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Sung who are in a nearby mausoleum, which used to be Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang pad. The tramline to Gwangmyeong/Bright Future is also not really part of the public transport network, but is just for visitors to the mausoleum.

Getting about

A subway ticket costs just 5 North Korean Won (9,500 won to the dollar at black market rates). If you need to transfer you will have to buy another ticket, there are no travelcards or season tickets. You can check the best way to get where you are going at most stations (possibly all) contain interactive maps.

Pyongyang subway interactive map. Image: Jodie Hill.

Just press the name of the station you wish to travel to from the list along the bottom, and the route from your current station to your destination lights up. This may or may not be overkill for a network with just two lines and 16 stations.

Incidentally, the logo has the word 지 (ji) which is the first syllable of 지하 (jiha) which means underground. The title just means “Information board”, and the question is, ‘Where are you going?’

Some stations are 360ft (110m) deep, double the depth of the deepest station (Hampstead) on the London Underground.

The escalators at Buhung/Revival station escalator. Image: Jodie Hill.

While this bomb shelter might be useful one day, for now it just means Pyongyangites add ten minutes to their planned journey time – which encourages many people to take the tram or trolley bus instead. When you finally get down to the platform you won’t have long to wait – at most 5 minutes during peak times, 10 minutes off peak.

The North Korean government never misses a chance to propagandise: every station has a theme. For example the station name Gaeson means “Triumphant Return”; it’s situated near where Kim Il-Sung gave his first speech as ruler. Inside the murals depict crowds attentively listening to him. The style is not dissimilar to the grandeur of subways in the former Soviet Union, but with much less emphasis on the workers and modernist art and a lot more on the rulers.

The trains themselves were made in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s. There are allegedly some new trains – but they look suspiciously like their older counterparts given a lick of paint and an electronic information board. The old East German stock has been moved onto the national rail network. While these days powercuts are much rarer than in the 1990s (when, for long periods of the day, the subway didn’t operate at all), a torch and something to read might be advised just in case you get stuck.

The central figure is Kim Il-Sung. Image: Jodie Hill.

The ‘showcase’ station is Buhung (“Revival”):

Images: Jodie Hill.

The others are much the same only without the chandeliers and with much dimmer lights.

Above ground

While electricity is hardly plentiful in North Korea, compared to oil it is pretty abundant. Therefore, buses have gradually been phased out: now trolley buses and trams then form the backbone of the transit network in Pyongyang. As regular as the subway, but with a bigger network and not requiring a long escalator ride – or walk, as the escalators often break down – this is the most popular way to travel around Pyongyang.

The ticket price is again just 5 won (about 0.4p). The trolley bus vehicles were mostly manufactured domestically, while the trams are second hand from communist era Prague. Power cuts are much more frequent on the trolley buses and trams than on the subway: passengers on an affected service are expected to push.

The rail network is rarely used for commuting. Even for those way out in the plush satellite town of Ryeongsong (at the far north of the map, and home of Kim Jong-Un and many other top party cadres), those not high enough ranked for a car take the trolleybus rather than the train to commute to work.

Venturing out of the capital, the official transport network shows signs of near collapse. As far as I am aware, the only other city with a tram network is Chongjin, but it’s hardly extensive – a one line system, eight miles long. It suffers from much more regular power cuts than its Pyongyang counterpart, and relies on hand me down trains from the capital. Many cities have a trolley bus service on paper – but most have no service at all or, at best, a skeleton peak hours service only.

The national rail network is worse. Before you can even get a ticket you must apply for permission – a process that can take days – though nowadays this can be circumvented with a bribe. Tickets are cheap, usually just a few hundred won (a few pence), but with frequent power cuts, journeys take even longer than the 12mph average speed suggests they will. While Kim Jong-Un’s travel habits are unknown, both his father and grandfather liked to travel by private train, and this would lead delays of 24 hours for people travelling in the same area. Freight takes priority over passenger rail, and virtually the entire network is single track and with no sophisticated signalling equipment, meaning trains often have to wait for a long time to let others pass.

A map of the network. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of these problems lot of passenger traffic has moved onto the roads. Enterprising Koreans who have obtained licenses, as well as state operated enterprises (particularly people associated with the police), have bought second hand buses from China and now use them for inter-city transport.

Reports vary about whether travel permits are required for bus travel, and about how hard they are to obtain. Prices fluctuate due to changes in the oil price and vary wildly by region. A journey from Nampo to Pyongyang (about 30 miles) costs $5. A journey of similar length between two cities in the north east costs around $15, while in the north west just $2.

Journeys are not comfortable. North Korean roads are often unpaved, always potholed, and the buses were not in great condition even when they left China. Nevertheless they link the emerging market economy together.  

North Korea road map:

A map of the network. Blue routes are all paved, others mostly unpaved or paved a very long time ago. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

For shorter journeys, taxis are now an option in most medium sized cities and even in some rural areas. There are at least four taxi companies operating these days in Pyongyang.

North Korean won won’t get you very far though: taxi drivers want dollars (two of them), to take you anywhere plus another 50 cents for every kilometer you travel, about three times the cost as in North East China. The only network outside Pyongyang I know in detail is one run by a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin, which recently imported dozens of almost new taxis from China. Payment is accepted in North Korean won, Chinese RMB and US dollars; a 10 minute journey costs 1 dollar.

Taxis are beyond the means of most North Koreans, though. The backbone of North Korea’s transport infrastructure is formed by bikes.


Bicycles were illegal in Pyongyang until 1992, and this ban was strictly enforced – but since it was lifted, bike use has really taken off. In smaller towns they often serve as a status symbol as much as transport, much as cars do for many in the west. The wealthiest now ride electric assisted bikes imported from China, though the Ford of North Korea is the Pyongjin bike company, which has cornered 70% of the market according to the leading North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

It is still technically illegal for a woman to ride a bike, but this ban is not strictly enforced. (I know of one woman who used to ride her technically illegal bike to her technically illegal small business, a bicycle repair shop.) Legally, every bike needs a license plate, and each rider needs take a test and get a license – but this too is mostly unenforced.

It is illegal to ride on North Korea’s mostly empty roads. This ban is not enforced in most cities, but is in Pyongyang, where the government has started creating cycle paths on the pavements as well as a bike hire scheme. If you can’t afford a bike yourself, a ‘bicycle carrier’ will give you a lift for about five US cents per kilometre – although, like a land based Ryanair, you have to pay more for bags. Both customers and workers in this sector tend to be very poor.

North Korea’s transport mirrors the North Korean economy. Pyongyang just about manages to present itself as a communist city. Outside the capital, though, secret policeman, state-operated enterprises and sole traders make a living – and sometimes a fortune – keeping the country moving among the remains of a communist economy which never delivered.

With thanks to Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange and Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours for helpful conversations.  

Michael Hill wants you to be his third twitter follower so you can see more versions of the Pyongyang transport map.