Speaking of Cities…

Citiscope (a site I highly recommend to those readers who care about urban policy) has been focusing on Habitat III, the next major U. N. conference on cities.

Habitat III is to be held next month in Quito, Ecuador. For more than a year, global networks of mayors and local governments have been gearing up for what amounts to the Olympics of urbanism. Habitat III is arguably the world’s most important conversation about the future of cities. And it’s taking place at a time when rapid urban growth on all continents, especially Africa and Asia, makes that discussion more crucial than ever.

Officially known as the U. N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III is a rare event in global policy circles — the one time every 20 years when heads of state and national ministers gather to discuss and debate urban policy. (The first Habitat conference took place in Vancouver in 1976.)

The gathering in Quito is expected to produce a sweeping but nonbinding global strategy on sustainable urbanization. Known as the “New Urban Agenda,” this strategy will include recommendations for fighting urban poverty, devolving authority to local governments and bolstering streams of municipal finance, among other issues. Diplomats are still negotiating the details, but once finalized in Quito, the document will join last December’s Paris climate agreement and other recent accords to create a global framework for sustainability.

The problem is that, thus far, U.S. Mayors are nowhere to be found. If the governance of cities is becoming increasingly central to the national and global future, “opting out” should not be an option.

In a different article, also posted to Citiscope, respected political scientist Benjamin Barber explains what he sees as the role of urban areas:

In my 2014 book “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities”, I proposed that cities may be to the future what nations were to the past — efficient and pragmatic problem-solving governance bodies that can address sustainability and security without surrendering liberty or equality. If, that is, they can work together across the old and obsolete national borders. And if they can assume some of the prerogatives of sovereignty necessary to collaboration.

In fact, cities are doing just this. A few years ago, the United Nations announced that a majority of the world’s population lives in cities, while economists recognize that 80 percent or more of global gross domestic product is being produced in cities. From the United Kingdom and China to the United States and Italy, authority is being devolved to cities.

One of the reasons that scholars like Barber have high hopes for cities is their recognition of the importance of civic trust (an essential element of social capital); polling shows that citizens’ trust in city governments remains high while, on average, only a third of citizens around the world say they trust their national governments. Two-thirds or more of those same citizens say they trust mayors and other local officials.

Although Barber doesn’t address it, I think one reason for higher levels of trust in city governments is the perception–largely accurate–that individual actors can influence local government. That perception is in stark contrast to the widespread conviction that ordinary citizens have no voice on the national stage. Much of the anger and hostility on display in our national politics comes from a feeling of powerlessness–a recognition that systemic and institutional forces are beyond the ability of average citizens to modify or control.

Cities, too, face institutional impediments.

In the United States, federalism has meant devolution of authority to states, not cities, and as a result, in states like Indiana that lack meaningful home rule, urban areas lack political power to decide their own fates. If the scholars who write at Citiscope and the political figures who support Habitat are right–if cities are going to be central to future governance– eliminating the barriers to genuine home rule will be critically important.

I don’t know about other cities in other states, but in Indiana, where cities are firmly in the thrall of our “overlords” in the state legislature, gaining the right to self-determination won’t be easy.


  1. Home rule for Indiana cities would benefit both cities and the state. And if we want more say-so in governance, we should look into changing the Indiana Constitution to permit the citizen initiative as well.

  2. The first step in gaining the right to self determination for our Indiana cities is to abolish gerrymandering. Not until there is FAIR representation for all citizens will there develop the quality of life necessary for anything close to sustainability. Like all other advancements, however, Indiana will lag behind the rest of the country thanks to ignorance, racism, and fear, the trifecta of the ruling political party.

  3. “Our community has to be able to say to people that we can offer you something different, something of value,” he said. “It can’t just be about keeping what we have. It has to be about making the investments in things that make us better and stronger.”

    Those investments would be a lot easier, he said, if the state were a better partner. Instead, it often seems like mayors are on their own at best, and left to fight a meddling legislature at worst.

    This statement is from the Mayor of Tipton, Don Havens in an interview with Matt Tully of the Star. This interview places a face on the very problem Sheila writes about.

    Here is the link:

  4. Hmmmm. Our world government (UN) is sponsoring improvement planning for our local (cities)(tribal) governments.

    One thing we know for sure is that the world in the near future has to be much, much different than our world. The detail not yet apparent is will it be dystopian or utopian or some of each. I think that based on the evidence of today we can eliminate utopian but it’s easy to envision either of the other two.

    Interestingly if rational thought supercede the global “basket of deplorables” IMO both our fledgling world government and our essentially ancient tribal governments will have led the way.

    Are we collectively capable of building still or have we devolved into victims of chaos?

    I’d love to finish this book but doubt if I will be allowed to.

  5. Teresa Kendall – thanks for the link, it was an informative interview.

    I am disgusted that our governor and legislature are willing to foolishly spend taxpayer money to sue the federal government because they don’t like the fed having any power over their decision making, yet the gov and state legislature fights to maintain control over city and county governments.

    Their desire for absolute control over everyone and everything has caused great damage to each of us. It is a blatant statement of “Do as I say, not as I do”.

  6. Theresa Bowers; your assessment of gerrymandering is on target. To me it is a political merry-go-round; gerrymandering translates to the earlier (maybe earlier) bugaboos of “red-lining” and “white-flight” which in turn produced further gerrymandering. We are caught in a time-warp regarding the continuation (escalation) of gerrymandering and the Twilight Zone of the possibility of Trump in the White House. Indianapolis remains a backward, Bible belt, redneck haven for those who want to return to the mid-1950’s. Beyond here there be dragons.

    Will Mayor Hogsett or any Indiana big city mayor be involved in Habitat III in an attempt to pull us out of this status quo?

  7. I recall hearing years ago from an urban expert that he thought cities were still in the experimental stage, and that he didn’t know whether they would work out or not. He apparently did not see the future well. It is noteworthy that our politics has become an urban-rural thing. I read recently that 27 our of 30 of our largest cities have Democratic mayors, and this even in super red states. That should tell us something, and with the continuing exodus from the farms and small towns to urban areas and millennials who are decidedly liberal it is just a matter of time before liberal government such as that after WW II will return. Our present task is to agitate for an earlier return to Keynesian sanity in the marketplace, truly progressive taxation etc. while awaiting the day.

  8. There is only one way to house the 10B people coming on the planet and that is in cities.

    The rest of the planet left with suitable weather will have to be devoted to energy harvesting in terms of food or power plus water reservoiring.

  9. You can contrast city and federal and state government by looking at what each produces: the cities are faced with a stark reality – the trash has to be picked up, the snow has to be plowed no matter. The state on the other hand can spend millions arguing against equal rights for LGBT; the US Congress votes 60 times to appeal Universal health Care. Do they act like they care?

    The top of the government pyramid has become almost completely dysfunctional. They talk about all they achieve, but it’s mostly about diverting voter attention away from what they are really working on and for whom. It’s almost never the large constituency, usually a very small one.

    The cities at the bottom of the pyramid don’t have the insulation from voters that the state and feds have that allows them to ignore their constituents. and get re-elected.

  10. Trump said he’ll abandon the Paris Climate accord, and he has plenty of supporters who feel the same. Since fear rules America in 2016, I don’t see us collaborating or listening to anything being done on a global stage.

    Indiana is decades behind our more progressive communities. It’s regressive in many areas because ALEC and Koch’s make the rules in Indy. Look at all the out of state money flowing into Todd Young’s campaign!

    As an example of our backwardness, we were mandated by the EPA to separate storm and sewers in our cities via the Clean Water Act of 1972. We just started that project in the last couple of years…40+ years later.

    While the rest of the world moves forward, I’m afraid the USA is heading for more chaos and upheaval.

  11. The cities are the residents’ laboratories for all their architectural landscaping and construction WORK,what they write about as captions and tables January 1 through December 31, including Education tours and field trips for youths from birth to 25 years (for Representatives): This is 2016 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Lakes_Megalopolis a far flight from South Americans’ older civilizations https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Lakes_Megalopolis

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