Cities and municipalities notable for the successful way they are being governed are appearing in many places, not only in developed countries but in other ones too. When we look a little closer we can see that this is a phenomenon which has been developing over the last three or four decades.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the Brazilian city of Curitiba came to prominence for several reasons, but especially for its rapid transport system and its long buses which were the first to have exclusive traffic lanes. Two decades later in 2000, the Bogotá TransMilenio appeared on the scene and quickly positioned itself as the most used rapid transit network in the world. By 2014, a quarter of Bogotá citizens used it daily, more than two million people. A similar impact has been produced by the Metrobus of Mexico City, which in 2015 recorded days in which it had one million users.
I will now turn to a case that has become almost a cliché, that of Medellín, which has gone from being one of the cities most renowned for urban violence to reinventing itself as an attractive and innovative city, full of places to sit and talk and drink coffee, as well as magnificent schools. A large numbers of successful companies have also located there. It is true, as chronic pessimists warn, that there are still many issues to be resolved, but if we compare the situation today with that of 35 years ago, the result is indisputable; Medellín is one of the most attractive cities in Latin America. Another exemplary case is that of Guayaquil, Ecuador, which in just twenty years has changed from a situation of deterioration and decline to one of having a clean and friendly environment with magnificent options for pedestrians and motorists, and where significant efforts have been made to improve the quality of life of its inhabitants.
A 2014 FAO report drew attention to some small-scale urban and peri-urban agriculture initiatives that have flourished in cities in Latin America and the Caribbean such as Tegucigalpa in Honduras; Rosario in Argentina; Quito in Ecuador and the municipality of El Alto, in Bolivia as well as the islands that make up Antigua and Barbuda. These are, of course, small-scale solutions by comparison with planetary food production figures, but they still constitute virtuous experiences: they have succeeded in reversing, to varying degrees, the economic difficulties and food shortages of entire communities.
One could continue to list cases of success in the management of municipalities and cities such as the cases where the alliance between town halls and universities is turning certain local health systems and hospitals into models for their countries. In Spain there are municipalities, such as Abrera, in Catalonia, which are exemplary in terms of their financial management. In a study of the cities with the best quality of life in the world, Montevideo heads the ranking for Latin America. In recent years, several young Venezuelan mayors have won world-class awards for city management in the midst of enormous difficulties.
The Barber Thesis
The previous references serve as an excuse to comment on the proposal of Benjamin Barber, policy theorist, contained in his book “If mayors ruled the world.” Barber is not an enemy of the Nation-State but his approach faces up to a reality: the dysfunctionality of state structures that attempt to deal with the great challenges that go beyond national borders such as climate change and smaller scale issues that make up citizens’ agendas such as public transport and health care. The Nation-State is dysfunctional: it acts like an elephant intent on passing through the eye of a needle or like an ant struggling to remove a rock from the road.
Barber’s idea is not a magic solution nor is it yet fully developed but it contains a number of elements that call for an evaluation of its hypothesis to be made. He starts from the fact that half the inhabitants of the earth live in cities and constitute the dominant force of the global economy. It is in the cities where cultural, economic, technological and political innovations are generated. They are, as Barber himself says, the incubators of the planet. And it is in large urban centres that in recent decades agreements have been reached between citizens and the authorities to find practical solutions to everyday problems.
Cities have shown that mayors of different ideologies or political affiliations – liberal or moderate left, Christian Democrat or Social Democrats – can be excellent managers, depending more on their formation and their will than on their ideological lineage. They have also been mayors who have reached agreements with their communities to act against crime, solve the complex issue of waste and set up guidelines for the coexistence of different interests. And there is more.
Cities find it easier to establish agreements between themselves to address matters of common concern. Between them there are no sovereignty barriers, for example. When planners assess the results of public policies, they always find that there are cities whose results stand out above the average, regardless of their size. There are local governments whose achievements in reducing vehicle pollution exceed the average of their countries. The list of achievements by mayors of cities large and small is not negligible and nor should Barber’s proposal be so regarded.
Barber notes that there are already cases where alliances between cities have tested the viability of governance models that transcend boundaries of various sorts, including language ones. His thesis is significant: global problems can be dealt with more efficiently from cities than from nation-states. He calls this model glocalism, a global network of cities, and goes even further than that; in his book he proposes a World Parliament of Mayors, which could be created voluntarily. Together, mayors could not only increase the power of cities in the management of common concerns but also improve the exchange of best practices and mutual support.
The case of sanctuary cities in the United States
We are currently seeing an interesting variation in the role of mayors and cities and the processes of social change underway in the United States. The newly installed administration of Donald Trump has proposed a series of decrees through which it seeks to develop a policy of social exclusion and deportation of undocumented immigrants, including the so-called “dreamers” and families some of whose children are US citizens.
Currently there are 300 cities in the US, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Fort Lauderdale and New York that call themselves “sanctuary cities” because far from seeing a problem in diversity and the social inclusion of all, including undocumented immigrants, they have worked successfully to integrate all of their residents, and while reducing inequalities and citizen insecurity, have also revived public spaces while producing visible gains in local economic growth.
The mayors of the sanctuary cities have come together in a block to resist the changes proposed by Trump. However, in his decree the President has included provisions to eliminate federal contributions to education, policing and many other programs in sanctuary cities without addressing the evidence that these mayors have successfully handled the challenges of immigration and social inclusion, inter alia, by more closely and effectively managing their own resources and the contributions that the federal government proposes to withdraw from them.
It’s likely that Trump’s decrees will stop the work of these mayors and this will produce a negative social and urban impact on the cities concerned. Perhaps the matter will end up at the Supreme Court, which might examine it from a progressive angle regarding the importance of local power.
The reactions to Barber’s innovative proposal have been as varied as might have been expected. From an extreme centralist perspective, it has been said that the claim that mayors can develop planetary policies is fanciful. But this approach is, I think, the shortest way to close the debate a priori. In fact, on the basis of Barber’s proposal, paths and solutions that we are unable to imagine today are likely to be opened up. Rather than refuse to evaluate Barber’s proposal, perhaps it would be wiser to analyse how to extract solutions to common problems from it. The joyful experiences of many cities that found imaginative routes for old scourges suggest that we should.
Leopoldo Martínez tweets at @lecumberry