England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance, Economy and regeneration

The end of cities

Everyone’s talking about cities. Last week the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Financial Times hosted the Chicago Forum on Global Cities at which speakers such as Madeleine Albright and Rahm Emanuel argued that cities drive political, social, and economic policies and can solve critical world challenges.

This is part of a growing body of thought that sees cities as the pre-eminent centre of economic and political power in the 21st century.

A key text for this movement is Benjamin Barber’s 2012 book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional National, Rising Cities.

Mr Barber’s argument is that ‘in this new age of interdependence, independent and sovereign nation-states are no longer capable of addressing global challenges of equality, justice, and sustainability.

The political focus is thus shifting rapidly to towns, cities and metro regions. It is in municipal governance that politicians and citizens alike are finding practical and democratic solutions to pressing local and global problems.’

And of course we seeing a version of this in the UK, with the drive towards city devolution settlements with elected mayors set out in the Queen’s Speech last week.

Jim O’Neil has been appointed to the lead the drive towards a Northern Powerhouse in the Treasury having argued as chair of the RSA City Growth Commission that ‘Man-Sheff-Leeds-Pool…could generate many agglomeration benefits’.

In many ways this is a reversion to the historic norm. The city predates the modern nation state by several millennia. Cites are at the heart of our understanding of politics and democracy. As a driver of growth, cradle of creativity and as a field of exchange for social, political, and economic capital, the city is core to human existence.

But, at the Local Government Information Unit, some of our recent work on resilience suggests that in the city’s very success may lie the seeds of its unmaking. In the large mega-cities of the developing world – São Paulo, Mumbai or Lagos – we see a re-neighbourhooding of the city as their size outstrips the capacity of people to move around and across them.

Our work suggests that social, economic and environmental resilience are co-dependent and that this holistic form of resilience is strongest in highly networked places in which a wide range of actors engage communities in their own governance, to share information, make decisions and control resources.

By giving people greater control over decision-making and by organising governance in a manner less dependent on an outdated framework that keeps all power in the centre, we can seek to develop the adaptability, intelligence, and interconnectivity that resilience is founded on.

This happens most often at neighbourhood level – which is partly why we see a commercial shift to that level. That is not to say you don’t need some co-ordinating governance and a level of connection between different areas, what we’ve talked about as connected localism, but what emerges is a vision of the city as a cluster of networks rather than as a single political entity.

This notion of resilience encapsulates how institutions, communities and cities are interconnected across and within places. It is where these three areas come together that complex challenges are solved.

It is not clear that the current bullish discourse around city governance and leadership has caught up with this emergent reality; that the city is many places not just one.

While it makes sense to position a mayor as the international figurehead, it may not make sense any more to see them as a single point of governance. The city of the future may be too big, too vibrant, too commercially diverse to govern from one place.

Why does this matter for us in the UK? A city like London, very much a city of neighbourhoods and governed largely by 32 boroughs has high levels of resilience built in – though its housing crisis threatens this to some degree and we might wonder whether the Greater London Authority will continue to play a useful role.

Similarly, the Manchester mayoral model looks likely to be a co-ordinating figurehead across the 10 authorities.

But the detail on all of this is still emerging so we still need to think about what a city and its governance should look like and to make sure that we create bigger, better cities fit for the future, not the recent past.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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