Why Mayors Need a UN-Like Organization of Their Own

The world’s mayors are running the biggest and most important cities in all of human history. They need to have a forum.

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REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

There can be no doubt about it: The world’s economic action is centered in its cities. More than half the people in the world live in metros, a figure that is projected to rise to nearly three-quarters by mid-century. The world’s 40 largest mega-regions (geographical clusters of cities, many of them crossing national boundaries) account for less than a fifth of the world’s population while producing two thirds of the world’s economic output and nearly 90 percent of its innovations.

A growing chorus of urbanists argue that mayors are the most innovative, pragmatic, and effective political leaders we have today. These local leaders continue to make progress on fronts where nation-states have been stymied by partisanship and self-interest, including climate change, environmental degradation, traffic congestion, terrorism, poverty, and the trafficking of drugs, guns, and people.

But if mayors are in the vanguard of policy innovation, too often they are compelled to go at it alone. They are  inadequately supported by and (at times) at odds with the nation-states in which they are embedded, and they lack the kind of institutional supports that presidents, prime ministers, and even business leaders take for granted.

It’s time for a U.N.-like organization for cities, a global parliament where mayors and other urban stakeholders and leaders can collaborate on policymaking—and from which they can disseminate best practices and standards.

Over the last six months, Benjamin Barber, author of the book If Mayors Ruled the World, and I have been working with my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Don Tapscott, a world-renowned expert on the impact of technology on society, and Steve Caswell, one of the pioneers of the email industry, to turn this notion into a reality. 

In a new two-part report, we build upon and expand Barber’s idea for a Global Parliament of Mayors, which would support and enhance existing organizations that already promote inter-city cooperation and knowledge-sharing, such as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, for example (founded in 1990); the United Cities and Local Governments; and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

A Global Parliament of Mayors would enable leaders from cities with different systems to compare notes and learn from one another on everything from mundane issues like sanitation, building codes, and transportation to more pressing ones like counterterrorism, global climate change, and the challenges of labor migration.

It would also provide a way to bridge and learn from very different models for urban governance. Some cities have powerful mayors and effective city councils, but many others have weak and dysfunctional leadership.

Though very much a real-world organization, its members would not sit in a formal council; they would be linked together virtually. Their dialogue would operate from the bottom up, with a priority of reaching actionable results rather than politically expedient ones. And though the group’s goal would be to produce a new paradigm for 21st-century leadership, there would be no enforcement mechanisms. In other words, there is no way this network would have the power to force mayors to implement policies they don’t believe in.

The good news is that the Global Parliament of Mayors is not just an idea. In mid-September, Barber will convene the body’s third planning meeting with the mayors of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, along with political advisors and urban specialists from around the world. Just a few days later, the Global Parliament of Mayors Interdisciplinary Workshop will kick off in The Hague, hosted by Mayor van Aartsen and Professor Jouke de Vries, Dean of Leiden University.

At the World Urban Forum in Medellin in April, I called for the U.N. to make cities the centerpieces of their forthcoming sustainable development goals to help overcome inequality, upgrade existing slums and prevent the growth of new ones, provide housing, transportation and access to safe public spaces and services, strengthen resilience in the face of climate change and other natural disasters, and more. With billions more people set to stream into cities over the next half century, we will be spending more money on city building than we have in all of human history. Now more than ever, we need proactive urban planning that protects public space while providing good governance and stable transparent institutions. We need better metrics and much more information on what works and what does not. And we need to understand what drives the growth and development of cities.

Urbanization is the grandest of the grand challenges we face, and mayors are the figures most crucial to addressing it. A Global Parliament of Mayors would give them the forum they need to do so.

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here