Mayors ruling the world? No thanks

Mayors gather at a planning session for the Global Parliament of Mayors. Image: GPM.

In September, the first planning session of the Global Parliament of Mayors took place in Amsterdam: a conference about mayors, for mayors, attended by mayors, moderated by mayors and hosted by a mayor, all triggered by a book about mayors: If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities by Benjamin Barber.

In this book, the current political system and its leaders are dismissed as dysfunctional. Defined by borders and with an inevitable focus on national interests, they are not an effective vehicle to govern a world defined by interdependence. Mayors, presiding over cities with their more open, networked structure and cosmopolitan demographics could do it better – or so the book argues.

Yet it's difficult imagine how a world governed by cities could be a viable alternative to a world governed by nations. The current generation of mayors may well be successful precisely because they do not rule the world; because they can focus on smaller, more immediate, more local responsibilities, which means that their efforts generate quicker and more visible results. It seems unwise to remove that focus by giving them global responsibilities.

Giving mayors a greater slice of world governance also raises democratic concerns. Just over half the world’s population lives in cities. That's an impressive proportion, but it also means that the other half does not live in cities – so if a mayoral parliament did have extensive powers, who would represent the other half? 

Another problem is that, in some countries, the mayor is not an elected figure. In the Netherlands, mayors are appointed by the national government, while in Ukraine, the mayor is simply the most highly-ranking politician in the municipality. In most countries, voter turnouts for local elections are still significantly lower than those for national elections.   

It has been claimed that cities are a more effective vehicle to deal with global problems like climate change and migration, but I fail to see how an escalation of world problems can ever be addressed through a de-escalation (from nation to city) of the scale of governance. Mayors aren't well-placed to reimagine large-scale energy strategies or tackled the root source of global migration: a fundamental global disparity of wealth.    

 

The global political system should clearly recognise which decisions should be taken at which level

The idea of a Global Parliament of Mayors raises questions, not answers.. What is the exact nature of this proposition? Historically, the idea of the parliament was invented as a dialectical instrument to control power once the necessity to separate powers had been recognized: to pass, modify or reject laws proposed by Kings or governments. So which power does the parliament of mayors control? Whose laws does or doesn’t it pass? To whom does it direct its difficult questions? Without an answer to the above questions, the proposition that mayors would rule the world through a global parliament of mayors feels like little more than a combination of recklessness and naiveté.   

In such a context, I would not advocate to replace national governments with a parliament of mayors. I would prefer to give a new relevance to the notion of subsidiary, in which the increased importance of cities is recognized and actively crafted, but where they are integrated in a global political system that clearly recognizes which decisions should be taken at which level.   

Reinier de Graaf is a partner of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. He directs the work of AMO, the research and design studio established as a counterpart to OMA’s architectural practice. Over the last several years, he has overseen OMA's planning work in several emerging cities and led AMO's research on the Megacity.

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Brizzle

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, in Bristol. Image: Getty.

This week, we’re off to an English city that, to my shame, I’ve been neglecting: Bristol, the largest city in the south west, and indeed the largest city in the south outside London.

I’m joined by Sian Norris, founder of the Bristol Women’s Literary Festival, to talk about the city she’s lived in since her childhood. She tells me what makes Bristol so liveable, why it’s struggling with inequality, and how it’s coping with the recent influx of London expats bidding up house prices.

Since we’re on his patch, I also spoke to Marvin Rees, who since 2016 has been the elected Labour mayor of the city. He tells me why he was so keen for Bristol to host the Global Parliament of Mayors, and why local politicians need to work together after Brexit. Oh, and he talks about his transport plans, too.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Skylines is supported by 100 Resilient Cities. Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, 100RC is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.

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