Nonprofit journalism dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities

September 9, 2013

Richard Conniff reviews If Mayors Ruled the World by Benjamin Barber

On opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian border a few years ago, toward the rancorous end of the latest intifada, two municipalities found themselves at odds over an utterly mundane problem. Sewage was contaminating groundwater for both Tulkarm, on the Palestinian side, and Emek Hefer, in Israel—and also polluting the local Alexander River. International aid groups intervened, and the two mayors, who had cooperated in happier times, were able to set aside fierce regional animosities long enough to build a new sewage pretreatment plant.

Benjamin Barber, a senior research scholar at City University of New York, recounts the tale in his upcoming book If Mayors Ruled the World. He also paraphrases the advice Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s longtime mayor, once gave to the region’s many incendiary clergymen: “Spare me the sermons, and I’ll fix your sewers.” That kind of pragmatic thinking, according to Barber, is why cities may be our best hope for smart answers to the worsening environmental and other challenges of our time.

Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution make the same basic argument, though with a more strictly economic focus, in their new book The Metropolitan Revolution. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, they write, “it is clear that the real durable reshaping [of the economy] is being led by networks of city and metropolitan leaders,” including mayors, local universities, environmental groups, business interests, and cultural institutions. Both books suggest that new approaches now spread virally from city to city in ways that can make state, regional, and national governments seem irrelevant—if not antediluvian.

mayors-coverOur tendency to think about issues mainly in national terms, Barber said in a recent speech, has brought us to a dangerous impasse. Nations obsessed with their autonomy balk at letting outsiders have a say over what their greenhouse-gas emissions should be, or how much forest they should preserve. The result is a world where “pandemics and ecological catastrophes are allowed to flourish in sovereignty’s name.”

But “if we shift our gaze in thinking about global governance from nation states to cities,” Barber suggested, “things suddenly become possible that seemed impossible.” China and the U.S. may talk each other to a stalemate at climate-change conferences. But Shanghai and New York come away with “common solutions to common problems.”

Cities, in short, may have a better chance than nations to save the world. Barber thinks they’re already at it, through a variety of little-known organizations such as Metropolis, the Global Mayors’ Forum, or the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. “What cities have proven themselves able to do,” said Barber, “is network and collaborate across borders, which states and nations have refused to do.”

Cities are a better bet for international cooperation, he says, partly because they tend to be geographically separate. So—with a few exceptions such as Tulkarm and Emek Hefer—they don’t readily get caught up in border disputes or other zero-sum games. Also, they are almost by definition cosmopolitan, pulling in people and ideas from around the world. It’s no surprise that public-school students in New York City speak 168 languages, yet the polyglot index approaches 100 even in seemingly “all-American” cities such as Omaha or Nashville.

The nature of city life also encourages local government to view the world in practical terms. And the stark contrast with the ideological approach at the state and national levels can show up even in the least likely places. Utah legislators, for instance, generally vote to the farther right, and their attitude toward the environment is that they like it lightly roasted, or so it often seems. One hapless Utah congressman has even proposed giving the Border Patrol the power to suspend all environmental regulations within 100 miles of any U.S. border or coastline.

Meanwhile, in Utah’s capital, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker is actively working to out-Portland Portland, Oregon—with bikeways, rapid transit, and anti-sprawl “smart growth” planning. Among other forward-thinking achievements, the city has just opened a $125 million “net zero” public safety building—a headquarters for cops and firemen that aims to produce as much energy as it consumes. People in cities, says Becker, actually expect mayors to solve problems “other levels of government want to fight about.” Or as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has put it, cities are where “you deal with picking up the garbage,” and this is a can mayors don’t want to kick down the road. The necessity of solving problems in a timely manner may be why a recent Gallup Poll found that 68 percent of Americans still feel confident about local government, even while their faith in Congress and the White House hunkers down in the basement.

The movement by cities to solve big environmental problems is also a product of global trends. For the first time in our history, humans are now a predominantly urban species, and that amounts to a kind of mandate for the urban voice. We passed the halfway mark in about 2008, according to a United Nations estimate, and almost two-thirds of us will live in urban areas by mid-century. China alone will soon have 221 cities of a million or more people (versus just 35 in Europe), and worldwide in 2025 there will be 37 megacities (population 10 million plus), up from just two in 1970.

This trend to urbanization is good news at first glance, since urban populations eat up less land and consume less energy than their suburban counterparts. But it also suggests why cities have good reason to take the lead on environmental issues. When they are not figuring out how to make sure the garbage gets picked up this week, mayors also find themselves worrying about how to ensure an adequate water supply, treat sewage, prevent floods, deliver energy, move people efficiently around the city landscape, and otherwise serve a growing population in future decades, all in the looming shadow of climate change.

There is, of course, some danger that this urban movement will tend to make cities seem a little too idyllic—all San Francisco, not so much Detroit. Barber cautions in his book that in the least developed countries, 78 percent of city dwellers now live in slums. The large concentrations of people make cities unusually vulnerable, not just to social turmoil but also to environmental upheaval. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has experienced repeated catastrophic flooding; cities such as London, New York, and San Francisco, along with New Orleans, are now planning new infrastructure to keep the rising seas out of their streets. But at least cities are actually doing something, not just talking the problem to death.

Some of the more innovative urban initiatives aren’t explicitly about the environment. Instead, they’re about leading better, healthier, more pleasurable lives—not words traditionally associated with either environmentalism or cities. It’s as if cities had internalized behavioral economics: they don’t care if you do something for the right reasons. They just want to make it easier for you to do the right thing.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë was widely ridiculed when he introduced a bike-sharing system in 2007, and the program predictably hit some rough patches early on. But the idea of easy-access, short-term bike rentals proved so convenient that the Vélib’ now has 10 percent of the metropolitan population signed up. Parisian cachet also helped popularize the idea, and public bike-sharing systems now exist in about 165 cities worldwide, including New York City this year. The largest, in Hangzhou, China, makes the first hour of bike use free, with the aim of acting as a public transit feeder and helping riders cover the last mile to or from their stops. It has grown in just over four years to 61,000 bikes available at 2,700 stations around the city.

And that kind of success seems to be giving mayors the confidence not just to network with one another and try out big ideas on their own, but also to talk about them out loud, in a way that forces environmental change on the national stage. In Paris, notably, Mayor Delanoë recently marked the fifth anniversary of Vélib’ by declaring “that automobiles no longer have a place in the big cities of our times.”

This time nobody laughed.

Richard Conniff’s articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and other publications. His latest book is The Species Seekers, published in 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

What to Read Next