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.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.