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Government / Local politics

11 things we learned from Benjamin Barber’s talk on the future of the city

Benjamin Barber is the author of If mayors ruled the world, a 2013 book which argues, well, you can probably guess. He’s now putting his ideas into practice, by creating the Global Parliament of Mayors – a group of over 120 mayors which will hold its first meeting in The Hague this September.

Yesterday evening, Barber gave a lecture at an event in The Shard, London, hosted by the Centre for Cities as part of its ongoing City Horizons events series. Here’s what we learned about Barber and his ideas.

1. He thinks cities have nothing to lose but their chains

Barber stressed that he’s not an urbanist by background, but a political theorist. But, at risk of understatement, he’s become a bit of an evangelist for the possibilities of city-led government. “Cities are not a level of government,” Barber argued. “Cities are the original human community.”

Elsewhere in his talk, Barber noted that “cities generate 80 per cent of the GDP of the world” – yet they’re forced to hand their riches over to national governments, which generously let them have less than a third of that back to spend as they see fit.

His solution is for cities to recognise their own economic strength – to be less deferential, and take the power back. (How they can do this in a country as centralised as Britain, where all power derives ultimately from parliament and most cities don’t have mayors, is not exactly clear.)


2. He’s not a fan of national government

The reason Barber is so enamoured of cities is simple: because he thinks national governments are failing. On a host of issues – refugees, climate change, terrorism – he argues that governments have proved themselves constitutionally incapable of putting short-sighted national interests aside and working together to find solutions.

By way of example of national failure, he pointed to the Paris climate accords, which came out of last year’s COP21 UN climate change conference. “The saddest thing I can think of is the name COP21,” Barber said, “because that means there were 20 other meetings.”

He also noted that national governments, in the US or Belgium for example, have periodically shut down – and nobody has really noticed. “Imagine we closed Liege. Or Amsterdam, or Louisville.”

3. He’s not a fan of simple countryfolk either

“For 5,000 years, the rural population has dominated the world,” Barber argued. “It’s responsible for many of the problems we have today.”

By way of example he gave the US tea party and Vichy France. Yes.

4. Some of his ideas don’t sit well with the US constitution

Barber noted that cities in Colorado had attempted to ban fracking within their domain – but the state supreme court had overturned the ban as unconstitutional. By the same token, he noted that attempts to ban assault rifles in the US had been overturned by federal courts, citing the second amendment.

His solution is for “a thousand cities” to implement one of these policies at the same time, and to dare opponents to take them to court. This is, to be fair, a refreshingly novel approach for an American to take to the country’s constitution.

5. He’s got a nifty one-liner explaining why cities are more co-operative than countries

“When Germany gets bigger – as its neighbours learned – Belgium and Poland get smaller. But Brussels, Berlin and Warsaw can all flourish together.” In other words, national interests are often a zero-sum game; urban interests aren’t.

(See? We told you boundaries were important.)

6. He preferred Mayor Bernie to candidate Bernie

Barber was full of praise for the way Bernie Sanders had run Burlington, Vermont. He was rather less enamoured of the populist let’s-blame-Wall-Street rhetoric he’d used in his campaign to be the Democratic party’s candidate for president.

“I told him if he ran the way he ran Burlington he might have a chance,” Barber said. “But he ran an ideological campaign because that’s what happens at national level.”


7. John Kasich is not on board with his ideas

While we’re talking about failed US presidential candidates, Barber noted that Ohio governor John Kasich had passed a law requiring the state’s cities to fix their sewers. The mayors had respectively asked who would be paying for this upgrade. “You are,” Kasich told them.

In other words, one of the big problems facing cities is unfunded mandates – when they are handed the responsibility to fix a problem, but not the fiscal power to actually do so.

8. He thinks metro regions are the future…

Barber traces many problems faced by cities to the fact that we draw the boundaries in the wrong place. “The division between city, suburb, exurb and countryside is artificial,” he argued. “Medieval cities had it about right: the city was the market town for the surrounding rural area.”

In other words, the thing we think of as the city is actually just the most visible part of a much wider economic system. “In the long term,” Barber said, “we will have to think about metropolitan regions. But there will be suburbs that don’t want it.”

9. …and continental Europe is working on it

In 2014, Matteo Renzi’s government in Italy introduced a new layer of government. The città metropolitana are nine regions consisting of cities, their commuter towns and their rural hinterlands. Initially, the national government created 10; the autonomous regions added another five to the list.

In the same way, France has established 15 “metropoles”. Such regions, Barber argued, solved the problem of separating cities from their hinterlands.

That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, however. “The question is, do we then lose the traditional qualities of mayors – localism and personal connections?”

10. If all else fails, sell the art

In 2013, when Detroit went bankrupt, the administrators were reported to be considering selling some of the art in the Detroit Institute of Art.

The result was an outcry from the surrounding areas.  “Officials from suburban counties have warned that if the city’s bankruptcy managers sell any assets in the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA)…  they will cut their contributions to its funding,” reported the Guardian. “The combined income from three counties surrounding the city is worth $23m a year to the museum, a sum that represents almost 75% of its operating budget.”

For the last few decades, as Detroit has sunk further and further into the fiscal mire, the counties around it have been quietly booming. The slow collapse of the city’s downtown may not have pressured the suburbs into admitting their dependence on the city – but Barber suggested that the promise to sell off some Van Gogh might have succeeded where economic collapse had failed.

Thanks to the Centre for Cities for arranging the event as part of its ongoing City Horizons events series. 

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

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