Barry Weisberg on the rights of the city

August 3, 2010

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Above is an alternative view of Singapore's central business district.

Our global cities contributor Barry Weisberg is in Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo. He reports for us as part of our continuing series, "Global Cities: Challenges and Choices.”

This week he takes a look at the increasing intrusiveness of national governments in the “Rights of the City.”

There are approximately five-dozen national pavilions and another four dozen city pavilions at the Shanghai 2010 Expo. In none of the exhibits is there any discussion about the changing nature of, and relationship between, cities and nation-states. Yet contemporary globalization has shattered the formal multi-scalar framework that views the international, national, sub national or city jurisdictions as discrete or sovereign entities. Nation-states often cannibalize cities.

One example is that cities suffer taxation without representation. Today, most cities pay far more to national governments than they receive and are commonly affected adversely by national policy, such as the 2008 recession. In most cities, the legal constitution of the national government deprives cities of the political and fiscal capacity to successfully address challenges. In many instances, such as the United States, the national government takes the revenue collected by cities and states, spends it on matters that adversely affect cities (such as war) and then mandates actions by cities without providing the revenue for implementation, called “unfunded mandates.” By contrast, in China, national policy is implemented in cities with substantial national revenues. Nowhere are the benefits of empowering cities more evident than in China.

The scholar Saskia Sassen in 2006 recently argued that “The national level is still the realm where formalization and institutionalization have all reached their highest level of development.” But if the nation-state and the market dominated the last four hundred years, cities are emerging as the primary economic and political unit of the future, with various forms of governance. These include the federal system, as in the United States; the multi-level framework of the European Union; the Socialist market system in China; and various innovations in developing countries. While nation-states are loosing power, cities must gain power. Because urban governance is closer to residents than nation-states, cities should be entitled to control public revenues and services. The powers of the city must include the authority for regionalization, denationalization and the management of the global market.

A report by the World Trade Organization, The Global Enabling Trade Report 2010, ranked Singapore and Hong Kong before any nation state in conditions that enabled trade. In these cities, largely free of national hindrances, factors such as trade policy, border administration, transportation and communications and business environment enabled trade, while in most nations, these factors thwart trade. In fact, national governments are of little or no help in addressing the challenges of urban governance, such as the urban footprint, horizontal growth, fragmentation of governance or competitiveness.

The trend today is the devolution of governance. Localization is gaining ground over globalization. But localization must be seen as both urban democracy and greater powers for cities within the global system, such as formal status in the United Nations and other transnational organizations. Cities should become parties to international treaties and agreements, regardless of the stance of national governments, as San Francisco did with the Kyoto Accords. What is now needed is for cities to become more than a commercial axis and to exercise global political rights, independent of the nation-state. Cities must increasingly free themselves from the tethers of the nation-state, or sub-national jurisdictions, which almost always deprive them of the required authority to govern urban life. This is evident with global warming, sustainability or competitiveness. The urgency of city rights is also illustrated by the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where the United States government and British Petroleum appear to have colluded to prevent local governments from actions that might have responded effectively to the oil spill.

In the Middle Age, some European towns actually possessed privileges or city rights within the context of the evolving nation-state. Today, a new paradigm of government is needed that is city centered and not beholding to the nation-state. It is the city, as Jane Jacobs noted, that offers us a multiplicity of choice. It is, at the city scale, that the contradictions between planning and people, rural and urban, growth and equality, between global and local imperatives, can be addressed, but only if the “Rights of the City” are paramount.

Barry Weisberg's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.