Can cities save the world? Benjamin Barber, Edward Glaeser and others say they can

These guys could learn a thing or two. Image: Getty.

So here's a question for you: can cities save the world?

This may seem a tad unlikely. (Seriously, have you seen cities? Crowded, dirty places, full of bloody people.) But it's a question you encounter rather a lot in urbanism circles – so we thought it was about time we explained how everyone came to be asking it.

The most comprehensive explanation of why cities could, in fact, save the lot of us came in a 2013 book by the American academic Benjamin Barber. If Mayors Ruled The World is a long book – 400 pages, a dozen chapters, plus brief case studies of enough mayors to fill a small bus – so I'm not going to do it justice in a short comment piece.

But its central thesis is straightforward enough. Nations, Barber argues, are inevitably moribund, ideological and obsessed with their own sovereignty. Cities, by contrast, are naturally co-operative, pragmatic, and used to solving problems.

In this situation, Barber asks, which political units would you trust to save humanity from its own destruction?

The Peace of Westphalia has a lot to answer for

We've probably been a bit flippant there (did we mention it was a long book?), so let's unpack this a little.


Nations are supposed to have complete control over their own destiny, thanks to the magical doctrine of national sovereignty. This, so the theory goes, allows them to set whatever policy they like within their own borders. And, if you can set any policy, you can solve any problem.

National sovereignty in the form we understand it now is a surprisingly recent invention – it dates back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, and in which the major continental European nations agreed to respect each others’ territorial integrity. (This came as a pretty welcome development to the people of the largely German-speaking Holy Roman Empire, who had spent much of the previous three decades getting the crap kicked out of them by a succession of non-German speaking armies.) It's a neat theory, with just one tiny problem: it doesn't work.

For one thing, it's the sort of flannel you probably have to be at least a medium-sized nation to believe in the first place. Luxembourg, say, is probably rather less convinced of its own ability to control its own destiny than France.

More than that, though, many of the problems facing the world today – migration, climate change, terrorism, getting multinational corporations to stop pissing about and pay their bloody taxes – are international in character. Reducing carbon emissions; preventing Starbucks from simply moving its profits to a more tax-friendly territory; re-housing the thousands of people arriving on Europe's southern shores – solving any of these problems will require national governments to be able to cooperate with each other.

And the source of their power, paradoxically, prevents from doing this. Because sovereignty is meant to be absolute and indivisible, it's perceived as a zero sum game: if it's shared, it's lost.

So it is that a head of state who works with their peers to tackle any of these problems will tend to find themselves accused of giving away their nation's precious sovereignty. Look at the dysfunctional relationship between European governments and the EU; or the US's inability to ratify all sorts of international treaties down the years. In ideology-fuelled national politics, there will always be mileage in accusing your opponents of betraying their country.

In other words, the doctrine of national sovereignty gives nations the illusion that they have complete control of their destiny. In practice, it just gets in the way of fixing things.

There’s no neo-liberal way of emptying the bins

That's the bad news. The good news is that cites don't have to deal with these problems.

For one thing, they don't have an inflated sense of their own importance: very few cities in the modern world have full sovereignty, so they are used to ducking and diving and cutting deals with other authorities (national governments, mostly) to get their own way.

It’s also probably easier to see the benefits of co-operation when you don’t have physical borders to make you feel that a gain for one country is a loss for another. Whatever the rivalry between London and Paris, the French capital isn't going to attempt to annex Bromley any time soon.

Most importantly, though, cities actually have to deliver. National politicians can argue about whether the economy is turning around, or the education system getting better, or the national defences getting stronger til the cows come home, and it'll probably be years before its clear who was right. But if a city stops emptying the bins, or the local tram network falls over, you know about it immediately.


The result of this is that, while national government may be ideological, mayors have to be practical. Prime ministers, presidents and national legislators can argue about the science of climate change; but mayors actually have to deal with the flood waters that are swamping their streets.

For the same reason, they’re also more likely to be centrist. As another urban theorist, Harvard's Edward Glaeser, is fond of saying, there's no left- or right-wing way to empty a trash can. That’s why, for all the difference in their background and rhetoric, there was a remarkable degree of continuity in policy between London’s first mayor, "Red" Ken Livingstone, and his uber-Tory successor Boris Johnson.

So. Nations are moribund talking shops; cities have both the attitude and the motivation required to actually solve problems. Barber's conclusion is that the way forward is for cities to share ideas on the best way of doing things; in the long term, he suggests a "parliament of mayors" as a step towards global governance.

It's an ambitious idea – perhaps a utopian one, too. But it might be one worth trying nonetheless. Because, while it may not clear that cities can save the world, Barber makes a depressingly convincing case that countries can't.

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

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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