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.

 
 
 
 

Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.


In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?