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Cities as the Forerunners of the 21st Century: An Interview with Benjamin Barber

Thijs van Lindert wrote “Cities as the Forerunners of the 21st Century: An Interview with Benjamin Barber” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Shifting Paradigms (Humanity in Action Press 2016). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon.

Little by little, cities are taking over the world. In the 1950s, New York City was the first city with more than ten million urban dwellers. Today, there are 29 of these megacities globally. According to the United Nation’s (UN) World Urbanization Prospects, 54 percent of the world population already resides in cities. This figure will only grow. It is estimated that by the end of this century, 90 percent of the world population will live in urban areas. (1) Much of this growth is occurring in the global South and East, where urbanization rates are accelerating. Places like Mexico City, São Paulo, New Delhi, Mumbai and Jakarta, each already home to more than 20 million people, will thus only gain demographic weight in the decades to come.

Urbanization is, however, not a new phenomenon. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, it has been an object of study for human geographers and sociologists. The demographic projections and increasing power of cities, however, have now also caught the attention of political scientists.

Benjamin Barber is one of them. The American scholar is the author of the thought-provoking book If Mayors Ruled the World – Dysfunctional States, Rising Cities. (2) In this work, Barber praises the city for its practical methods in solving problems, which led him to the ambitious idea of creating a “Global Parliament of Mayors” (GPM) to save global governance. The GPM will be an institutionalization of preexisting forms of inter-city cooperation. In September 2016, the inaugural GPM will convene in The Hague, the world’s self-proclaimed “capital of peace and justice,” to establish its governance legitimacy and address an agenda of cross-border issues selected by the mayors involved. It is also for this reason that Barber regularly visits the Netherlands to speak with Dutch mayors about the ideas expressed in his book.

Mayors Mastering the Art of Global Governance

When I meet with Barber, he has just arrived from a meeting with the mayor of The Hague. (3) On this rainy day, he is on a mission to sell his vision of the future. Given the increasingly multipolar character of global politics, many of Barber’s colleagues observe that inter-state cooperation is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. (4) They predict deadlocks and stalemates in important fields of global governance, including, for example, migration, international justice, trade, finance, security, or climate change.

As others have become skeptical about the future of inter-state cooperation, Barber believes that cities are a way out of political inertia. While acknowledging the failure of states to combat major transboundary problems of today’s world, he advocates a more prominent role for cities and their mayors. In Barber’s view, cooperating cities could formulate democratic answers to the most perilous challenges of our time. Because large cities operate both locally and globally (what Barber calls “glocally”), they are, according to him, more capable than states in protecting and defending the interests of humankind as a whole. The potential of states to tackle transnational issues is, according to Barber, constantly undermined by inter-state competition, parochial interests, and territorial sovereignty. His response to our states failing at solving urgent global governance issues? Letting mayors do the job.

He illustrates this argument with examples of cities taking a lead in, say, protecting the environment. “There is no issue on the human agenda more important than climate change. States are doing nothing, and cities are doing a lot,” Barber says. Even though the outcome of last year’s COP21 Sustainable Innovation Forum in Paris can be considered a moderate success of inter-state cooperation, Barber insists that cities were already doing much more than states to fight pollution and global warming. He talks about the failed attempt of world leaders to come up with a meaningful answer to global warming during the UN Climate Change Conference of 2009 in Copenhagen. While prime ministers and presidents failed to reach an agreement on their carbon emissions, mayors of European cities also gathered in Copenhagen to take on the responsibility that the world leaders had failed to. The mayors voluntarily decided to strive for a greener world by setting benchmarks to reduce emissions. Realizing that 80 percent of carbon emissions stem from urban regions, they understood that they could make a difference, even when states did not.

Barber also finds that mayors are perhaps more willing to act because 90 percent of cities are located near oceans and rivers. Furthermore, megacities like Shanghai and New Delhi are very motivated to take action to deal with smog. Perhaps this is why there are so many inter-city associations that fight for a more sustainable world, such as the International Council for Local Environmental Issues (ICLEI), the C-40 Cities Leadership Group, Europe’s Energy Cities, and the European Union’s Covenant of Mayors, which consists of cities that aim to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

“In almost all the significant areas cities are big-time actors. The one thing they do not do is fight wars. If we were to only have cities, would we have war?” Barber easily brings more examples to the table. He insists that cities often deliver more meaningful action than states. They can be far more pragmatic and effective in securing rights at, literally, street level. Cities are frequently more progressive than the nation-states in which they are located. Liberal cities in the US, such as San Francisco and Denver, were among the first to recognize same-sex marriage, long before this would eventually be signed into law at the federal level in 2015. The same happened in places such as Mexico City, which surpassed the federal state to endorse same-sex marriage and decriminalize abortion. Steps, still unimaginable in Mexico’s rural areas.

Barber stresses that cities could also be forerunners when it comes to the rights of undocumented immigrants. In light of the practical challenges that come along with having undocumented immigrants in urban spaces and the contributions that immigrant workers make to urban economies, cities across the world should consider issuing “City Visas” to their undocumented residents. Through these visas, immigrants can be granted access to public services. In his first “State of the City” speech, the current mayor of New York, Bill De Blasio, said:

“We will protect the almost half-million undocumented New Yorkers, whose voices too often go unheard. We will reach out to all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status – issuing municipal ID cards available to all New Yorkers this year – so that no daughter or son of our city goes without bank accounts, leases and library cards simply because they lack identification. To all of my fellow New Yorkers who are undocumented, I say: New York City is your home too, and we will not force ANY of our residents to live their lives in the shadows.” (5)

De Blasio kept his promise and launched the “IDNYC Program” through which ID cards are issued that can be used to open a bank or credit union account and to obtain residential benefits from the city government. Applicants are not questioned about their immigration status. According to Barber, who is very enthusiastic about such initiatives, cities are just starting to explore their capabilities in the field of immigration. Expressing that cities should not turn a blind eye to the informal city that lies behind the formal façade, he considers the initiative of City Visas for undocumented immigrants as an example of, what he calls, “formalizing the informal.” Even though city governments still fall within a state’s jurisdiction, they demonstrate the ability and willingness to maneuver pragmatically for all people within the city walls. Barber says:

“The fact is there are lots of people in the city that do not have national status who have children, who need jobs and who have rights. Those rights are in effect not recognized by national law. But cities are playing a very large role in helping define ways to recognize and acknowledge the rights of immigrants, even when they are undocumented. Of course, the formal law remains that undocumented migrants are ‘illegal.’ This is an area in which indifference, not malevolence is the problem. Because, the national government says: ‘these people are illegal and they don’t exist.’ Mayors, however, see that they do exist.”

Barber tells me that mayors are pragmatic: they want to take care of the people in their city. If being pragmatic results in city visas or other inclusive initiatives for immigrants, it is an important sign of inverted or collateral rights recognition. Barber says, “Cities and mayors that defend rights may not always do it in the explicit vocabulary of human rights, but they might do it in a way that ends up acknowledging and recognizing rights. That is perhaps even more important than the quite abstract idea of rights.”

Cities as the Centers of Diversity and (Micro)Diplomacy

In If Mayors Ruled the World, Barber underlines that cities attract people from various economic and ethnic backgrounds. This unique mixture of different people with diverging opinions, values, and ideas makes cities a fertile ground for universities and start-up companies that profit greatly from this melting pot of classes and cultures. My hometown, Amsterdam, has people from 188 nationalities. Though it is not a city of the scales of Washington, D.C. or Berlin, it is, in terms of the nationalities that it encompasses, the world’s most diverse city.

Cities, thus, are the world’s centers of diversity. Whether Lagos or Kuala Lumpur, Paris or Sarajevo, cities are the foci for people to exchange and mediate their differing thoughts. Diplomacy and diversity are therefore not only key elements of global fora like the UN or the Bretton Woods institutions. They are also the true cornerstones of cities.

In essence, the city is a dense and heterogeneous population living on a very small surface. For all those different individuals to be able to peacefully live together, cities need (canalized) conflict. Policies and behavior in neighborhoods, municipalities, and cities are built upon the constant mediation of the various interests and ideas of the groups that inhabit them. Cities are consequently in a constant process of change that is, in many cases, fueled by the collaboration between municipal governments, entrepreneurs and citizens. The mediation of diverging interests and values of the individuals of the city is, in effect, diplomacy at the micro-level.

On the other hand, the heterogeneity of city populations could also lead to “parallel societies.” Many groups in the city do not live together but rather live next to each other. For instance, how many of the urban poor and the urban rich actually intermingle? Cities and their inhabitants are increasingly facing problems related to rising socioeconomic inequality. The gini-coefficients are growing within cities, between urban and rural areas, as well as between urban regions. The growth of gated communities in many cities of the global South and East, often only a few feet away from slums, symbolize that inequality is becoming one of the major problems in and for megacities. We see such polarizing tendencies in cities of the global North as well. While the process of gentrification can certainly have positive effects on neighborhoods in the short-run, it raises the costs for the less fortunate urban dwellers. It often forces them out.

The economic logic of the 21st century city can have other devastating effects. Public spaces, like squares and parks, where people can mingle and exchange ideas, are, according to Barber, the democratic heart of the city. I ask him, therefore, what he thinks of the privatization of public space, also coined “mallification,” where private actors increasingly take over public space:

“There is an unplanned danger. The takeover of public space by commercial space privatizes it inertly. It might not be the intent, people just want to sell their goods, but on their way to do that, they privatize public space. It creates serious problems for rights because most rights that we exercise – such as the freedom of speech or the freedom of assembly – are rights that can only be meaningful in public space. If there is no public space, by definition there are no rights. Imagine that you have the right to assemble and demonstrate but there’s just nowhere to exercise them. Some states in the US recognize that shopping malls, even though privately owned, have a public character and therefore the owners cannot ban protests, signs or people. Other states, like New Jersey, argue that malls are private and can do what they want. So in New Jersey shopping malls can keep certain people out and ban protests.”

When I argue that we gained a new type of public space with the creation of the internet, where people from across the globe can exchange views, Barber objects, saying, “The internet is not a public space. It could be and should be a civic space, but almost the entire web is now segmented. Facebook is not a public space: it is a space of friends where you can reject people you do not like. The whole idea of a public space is that people you do not like can come and talk to you, and you have to listen and other people you do not like can also be there.”

The Market and the City

Our world is becoming increasingly urban. Villages and cities have always attracted people. This has to do with power in numbers. People leave the countryside for the city, simply because it offers greater prospects for security and personal as well as economic development. Many newcomers to the world’s larger cities initially need to accept having to informally settle in places such as the slums of Mumbai, the townships of Johannesburg, or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Yet, in relative terms, these cities offer better access to jobs and services, higher incomes, and greater opportunities for education and development.

The acceleration of urbanization puts a lot of pressure on cities. Violations of the right to housing become especially clear in cities in the global South, where slums are removed and residents are pushed into transit camps far from their sources of income.

The concept of “The Right to the City,” introduced by the French urban sociologist Henri Lefebvre, may be a helpful instrument for human rights practitioners and urban movements to counter these forced evictions. Until now, there seems to be too little codification of the rights of urban dwellers.

Forced evictions still happen across Africa and Asia, where cities want to be competitive, attract multinational corporations and obtain “world-class status.” Or they happen simply in preparation of large-scale events that bring prestige. The world witnessed this during the Olympics in China in 2008 or in Brazil in anticipation of the FIFA World Cup in 2014. Doesn’t this demonstrate that cities, just as states, simply fail to cope with market forces? Barber responds:

“The global forces of illegitimate predatory capitalism operate against every level of democracy: the national, the provincial and the local. At the local level of the city they are just as dangerous. The question is how do you respond? The general answer is: you respond to predatory markets with democratic regulatory institutions. The reason markets are so predatory is not that markets have become more hungry or because of capitalist firms, but because we have less state. We have given up on the state and it is privatized. The cause of the exploitation by capitalism of world markets comes from the failure of the state, not from capitalism itself. Capitalism is doing what it is supposed to do. And capitalists are realistic: if the state says ‘you can’t do that,’ they won’t do it.”

I ask Barber, “So that has to be done at the state level not at the level of the city?” He argues, “Well, I actually think cities are more likely to take a strong democratic stance. And they already have! The state of California and its cities have much higher emission standards for cars. The minute they decided that, the whole automotive industry became furious. They stated, ‘We can’t make cars that go 40 miles to the gallon.’ You should hear them now, they are even boasting: ‘We get 50 miles to the gallon and we have great performance too!’ [Laughs] I both hate and admire capitalism. I hate it, because it has the wrong goals, but I love that when you give it the right goals through democratic procedures, it is very good at adapting and giving us what we need.”

Towards a ‘Global Parliament of Mayors’

For Barber, cities are the democratic heartlands of the world. With the creation of a GPM, for which he is currently lobbying mayors of cities from all continents, democracy is taken to the global stage. At first glance, it seems a bit odd to put the mayors of smaller cities like Amsterdam or Quito at the table with those of larger and mightier metropolises such as Washington, D.C. or Beijing.

Barber immediately recognizes that there are indeed enormous variations in the size of cities and in the ways they are governed. He insists that cities can find common ground in the problems that they share, such as in the fields of pollution, transportation, housing, immigration, healthcare, education, and security.

Barber takes the early Greek city-state (polis) of Athens as the starting point of democracy. He argues that democratic principles were blurred when they were transported to the level of the nation-state. Elected mayors who are in touch with the needs of the very diverse people of their cities, however, combat globally shared problems locally. This “glocal” and democratic basis of cities and their mayors makes them extremely suitable to tackle transboundary issues. I ask him whether it is not an obstacle that in many autocratic regimes, as well as in a liberal state like the Netherlands, mayors are not elected, but appointed. Barber replies that the diversity of cities and their rulers should not be seen as a problem, but rather as an asset:

“Some cities have a strong city council with a weak mayor, some have a strong city manager, some have an elected mayor, some an appointed mayor and some have no mayor at all. But however mayors were chosen, whether elected or appointed, whether they are strong or weak, whether the cities are big or small; what I have seen is that being the mayor of a city shapes you. No matter how they got there. Despite all the variations, the ultimate fact is that mayors do embody, incarnate and represent their cities. Therefore it is good to have them represented in the GPM.”

The GPM is an unprecedented experiment in democratic global governance by, for, and of cities. Barber explains that in the GPM there will be different levels of representation, depending on the size of the city, and that there will be a rotation system for the smallest cities. It all sounds very compelling, but currently about 46 percent of the world’s population still lives in the countryside. Shouldn’t we fear that people living in rural areas will become underrepresented with the rise of cities and the possible creation of a GPM?

“First of all, when the people of rural areas stop being overrepresented in most of the world’s systems, I will start worrying more about them. In the US, the rural counties have 20 senators who represent 15 percent of the population and can freeze the senate and forge the majority. In France as well, la France profonde still is politically more important than Paris, even though Paris is the jewel on the ground. The reality is that right now most political structures are over representative of the countryside. Besides, if the rural regions feel unrepresented, why don’t they get a ‘Global Parliament of Rural Regions’?”

But Barber also states that he uses quite a broad definition of the city. In the GPM, he would like cities to represent their larger regions:

“I understand that cities are not just about the city limits drawn in the 15th, 18th or 19th century. Cities are about metropolitan regions. This is the reason why you have a Committee of the Regions here in Europe. If you think about cities only as these little things, then representation is a problem. But think of cities as suburbs, exurbs and the agricultural districts around it, from which local food comes in. Then you are not talking about 52 percent of the world’s citizens, but 95 percent of the world population.”

To illustrate that we should not be blinded by the official city boundaries, Barber takes the case of Detroit that has suffered from major economic problems in recent years. He argues that Detroit can only be seen as bankrupt if it is defined by the old borders of the 19th century. Those borders do not represent, from Barber’s optimistic point of view, all of Detroit’s taxpayers, the people it employs, or the people that enjoy its great museums. He insists that we must consider the ten counties around Detroit, which form the Detroit metropolitan area:

“While Detroit was going from two million to 700,000 inhabitants, they grew from three to five million. While Detroit was going bankrupt, they became the number four region of productivity. While the manufacturing industry and car industry was disappearing from downtown Detroit, those ten counties became one of the most important centers for information knowledge. So if you define Detroit by the region that surrounds it, the region it serves, then it has no problems.”

As we wrap up, Barber leaves me with the conviction that cities are, just like Greater Detroit shows, resilient. They are indeed leaders in a way that states are often not. Therefore, I am very curious about how the first meeting of the GPM will work out. (6) The creation of a GPM platform does not mean that cities can solve all global problems by themselves. “Mayors will have to work together with states, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and citizens,” I say. Barber agrees but adds his core motivation to serve as a preacher for the city: “Right now cities are just underappreciated, undervalued, and are not making enough noise on their own behalf. So I am here to make a lot of noise for cities!” 

•     •     • 

About the Author 

Thijs van Lindert is an Analyst at the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. He previously worked as an Analyst at the Strategic Studies project of Amnesty International and he participated in the Diplomatic Studies Programme of the Clingendael Institute, The Hague. Van Lindert has also worked at the European Parliament as a Pat Cox Fellow and co-edited two books: The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World and Shifting Power and Human Rights Diplomacy: Brazil (Amnesty). He holds an MSc in Sociology and an MSc in International Relations.


van Lindert, Thijs. “Cities as the Forerunners of the 21st Century: An Interview with Benjamin Barber" In Shifting Paradigms, edited by Johannes Lukas Gartner, 13-22. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2016.


1. “World Urbanization Prospects 2014,” United Nations, accessed Jan. 31, 2016, http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup.

2. See: Benjamin Barber’s contribution to: Doutje Lettinga and Thijs Van Lindert. (eds), The Future of Human Rights in an Urban World: Challenges, Opportunities and Threats (Amsterdam: Amnesty International 2014), accessed Jan. 31, 2016, www.amnesty.nl/UrbanWorld.

3. Personal interview conducted in March 2015 in The Hague, the Netherlands.

4. See: Ian Bremmer, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World (New York: Penguin, 2012). Richard N. Haass, “The Age of Nonpolarity: What Will Follow U.S. Dominance?” Foreign Affairs 87, no. 3 (Mar. 2008): 44-56. Thomas Hale, David Held, and Kevin Young, Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation Is Failing When We Need It Most (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).

5. Bill Di Blasio, “State of the City,” Feb. 10, 2014, accessed Mar. 26, 2016, http://pix11.com/2014/02/10/ transcript-mayor-bill-de-blasios-fist-state-of-the-city-address.

6. Follow the Global Parliament of Mayors project at www.globalparliamentofmayors.org.

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