From nation-states back to city-states

20. November, 2014

Perhaps we have been focusing on the wrong patient. Instead of looking for remedies to make nation-states more democratic, perhaps we should re-focus on cities as the locus of our political activity?

Benjamin Barber is one of the advocates of such a paradigm shift. In his view cities are the places where most stuff happens. This isn’t anything new given the growing urbanisation levels since the 19th century and the estimates that in low and middle income countries cities will be growing with an unprecedented rate in the next decades. This on its own wouldn’t be that interesting, yet Barber tries to make a bolder point. For him cities are the places where change for the better can be done in a non-partisan way. Because the bulk of what city mayor’s are asked to do does not really involve making moral choices based on our political ideology (unless you are a libertarian who doesn’t support public goods in any form). In addition, there certainly are shared problems, pollution being the most obvious one, where cities could and should learn from one another.

While readers may have some reservations about seizing the opportunity for technocratic rule that cities offer (and it may just be my partisan leanings that suggest this), there are indeed quite a few innovative practices coming from cities which are worth exploring. Another prominent advocate of city power, Michael Bloomberg, has highlighted practices like participatory budgeting, which we have covered before, and bike-sharing, both of which have originated in cities. Institutions like MIT’s Changing Places research hub are focusing exactly on coming up with more effective and greener ways of organising city life, from foldable cars (the project unfortunately seems to have stalled after 2012) to their latest invention RoboWall that aims to make the most use of small living spaces:

(If you are feeling hungry for more techie solutions to urban problems, have a look at this list from Wired – it includes permeable pavements and pothole patrols. Some innovations are somewhat Big Brother-esque though, I’m talking to you Graffiti-busting drones)

Putting robotic walls aside, Barber’s arguments do seem to be gathering support. The already mentioned Bloomberg was able to cut New York City’s carbon footprint by roughly a fifth of its previous volume in a country notorious for political disagreement, to say the least, on whether climate change exists and if something should be done about it. This concentration of power in mayoral positions can go both ways, with mayors having the means to enact ruinous policies, yet mayors like Bloomberg will make the argument that their work comes with greater accountability than for most politicians. Their policies are enacted on a smaller scale with the whole urban community being able to observe the results, while it’s much easier for MPs and Ministers to shirk from being held accountable for long term nation-wide policies that are much harder to keep track of.

The take-away conclusion seems to be that within cities there’s a lot more that can be done in a non-partisan way, even without going as far as giving up on the idea of a nation-state.

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

/ raksts

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