Citiscope (a site I highly recommend to those readers who care about urban policy) has been focusing on Habitat III, the next major U. N. conference on cities.
Habitat III is to be held next month in Quito, Ecuador. For more than a year, global networks of mayors and local governments have been gearing up for what amounts to the Olympics of urbanism. Habitat III is arguably the world’s most important conversation about the future of cities. And it’s taking place at a time when rapid urban growth on all continents, especially Africa and Asia, makes that discussion more crucial than ever.
Officially known as the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III is a rare event in global policy circles — the one time every 20 years when heads of state and national ministers gather to discuss and debate urban policy. (The first Habitat conference took place in Vancouver in 1976.)
The gathering in Quito is expected to produce a sweeping but nonbinding global strategy on sustainable urbanization. Known as the “New Urban Agenda,” this strategy will include recommendations for fighting urban poverty, devolving authority to local governments and bolstering streams of municipal finance, among other issues. Diplomats are still negotiating the details, but once finalized in Quito, the document will join last December’s Paris climate agreement and other recent accords to create a global framework for sustainability.
The problem is that, thus far, U.S. Mayors are nowhere to be found. If the governance of cities is becoming increasingly central to the national and global future, “opting out” should not be an option.
In a different article, also posted to Citiscope, respected political scientist Benjamin Barber explains what he sees as the role of urban areas:
In my 2014 book “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities”, I proposed that cities may be to the future what nations were to the past — efficient and pragmatic problem-solving governance bodies that can address sustainability and security without surrendering liberty or equality. If, that is, they can work together across the old and obsolete national borders. And if they can assume some of the prerogatives of sovereignty necessary to collaboration.
In fact, cities are doing just this. A few years ago, the United Nations announced that a majority of the world’s population lives in cities, while economists recognize that 80 percent or more of global gross domestic product is being produced in cities. From the United Kingdom and China to the United States and Italy, authority is being devolved to cities.
One of the reasons that scholars like Barber have high hopes for cities is their recognition of the importance of civic trust (an essential element of social capital); polling shows that citizens’ trust in city governments remains high while, on average, only a third of citizens around the world say they trust their national governments. Two-thirds or more of those same citizens say they trust mayors and other local officials.
Although Barber doesn’t address it, I think one reason for higher levels of trust in city governments is the perception–largely accurate–that individual actors can influence local government. That perception is in stark contrast to the widespread conviction that ordinary citizens have no voice on the national stage. Much of the anger and hostility on display in our national politics comes from a feeling of powerlessness–a recognition that systemic and institutional forces are beyond the ability of average citizens to modify or control.
Cities, too, face institutional impediments.
In the United States, federalism has meant devolution of authority to states, not cities, and as a result, in states like Indiana that lack meaningful home rule, urban areas lack political power to decide their own fates. If the scholars who write at Citiscope and the political figures who support Habitat are right–if cities are going to be central to future governance– eliminating the barriers to genuine home rule will be critically important.
I don’t know about other cities in other states, but in Indiana, where cities are firmly in the thrall of our “overlords” in the state legislature, gaining the right to self-determination won’t be easy.