Power to the City

On the 28th of September the Dutch documentary producer Tegenlicht (backlight) aired an episode called ‘Power to the City’. It consisted mainly of interviews done with advocates for a new form of governance and democracy, in which the city is the most important administrative level.

Towers in the city. Once a symbol of power reserved for religious buildings, in successive times governments, tradesmen, and capitalistic institutions build towers as a sign of power. Picture: Kungsgatan, Stockholm. By Sascha Benes

Towers in the city. Once a symbol of power reserved for religious buildings, in successive times governments, tradesmen, and capitalistic institutions build towers as a sign of power. Picture: Kungsgatan, Stockholm. By Sascha Benes

From this documentary one can distinguish two main streams in the discussion about autonomous cities. There are those who want a complete cancellation of the nation state linked to a reinstatement of the city state, as was common in the dawn of democracy, in the ancient Greek polis. This view was represented by Benjamin Barber, known for his book If Mayors Ruled the World’. Then there are those who argue that we should rethink the hierarchy of administrative institutes. As most of us are raised with the idea that the nation state is the highest level, under which states, provinces and bundesländer (german states) might exist, and as the lowest form, the city. The city should be at the top, with the nation state as a servant. Bruce Katz, known for: ‘Metropolitan Revolution, represented this line of thought in the documentary.

You might wonder why this change is necessary. The main idea behind these two streams is is more or less the same: the nation state, as an aged institution designed 400 years ago, is no longer able to deal with the complexity of our time. It doesn’t allow cities the autonomy, and thus the flexibility, to compete in a fast changing world that requires a pragmatic and fast way of decision making. In addition, the nation state is seen as an institution which stands to far away from its citizens. Real democracy does not longer exist, as we once every four years vote for representatives, who are inadequate to deal with our local issues. Cities stand close to their citizens and have politicians who understand the city, because they are often  “locals”.

In the documentary Barber says that: “nation states are really becoming increasingly dysfunctional. They are not dealing successfully with their own problems. They are not dealing successfully with the global problems that are increasing in this new millennium that we face. I have been thinking a lot about how we can have institutions that can work globally, not just locally … Nation states are defined by their independence, by their sovereignty, by their borders and their territories. Where cities are defined by their interactivity, their trade, their mobility, their openness, their entrepreneurship, their creativity and their imagination, and above all their diversity and multiculturalism. Cities are open, where states are closed. Cities connect and cooperate, where states compete and are rivals to one another. When we change the subjects from states to cities and from presidents and prime-ministers to mayors and city councillors. A remarkable thing happens in the character of the politician, because the national politicians is defined by partisanship, ideology, posturing, and high principle. The mayor the city counsellor is defined by pragmatism, prudence, non-partisanship, an unwillingness to declare I’m on the right or the left, and a preference for solving problems” (Barber in Tegenlicht, 2:30)  

Several examples were used to show this strength and vitality of cities. The mayor of Seattle tells how he impressed friend and foe, when he introduced a higher minimum wage. The Mayor of Eindhoven, Rob van Gijzel, shows with pride the creative industry in the former Philips factory, as an example of a city that, when Phillips moved 30% of the jobs abroad, had the strength to become the “world’s smartest city”. Finally Hamburg was shown as an example of a city which has a proud history of autonomy, because it is both a city and a bundesland. To emphasize the better practice of democracy, a case was shown in which a group of Hamburg’s citizens stood up against their mayor and demanded that the city would buy back it’s power grid. A referendum decided in favour of the group of citizens and the grid was bought back for half a billion euro’s.

As much as I like the idea of bottom up governance and increased autonomy for cities, the story was a one-sided commercial for autonomous cities. The only critical note, a question by the interviewer concerning weaker regions, was being waved aside by the interviewee as nonsense, and is not explored any further.

But the interviewer had a good point. What about the weaker regions?! Van Gijzel says there is no such thing as a weak cities or regions. Aren’t there? Of course there are, just look at a city like Detroit and tell me there are no weak cities and regions. What happens to solidarity between cities and rural regions? This solidarity might be safeguarded when there is some form of national government, but what when Barbers idea becomes a reality? Will cities cherry pick rural regions when they need farm land and natural resources? Will weaker cities and regions have the bargaining power to stand up to multinational corporations, in the way Seattle did when raising the minimum wage, now that multinational corporations are as powerful as nation states? Just a few months ago, Hamburg (that proud city mentioned earlier), starred in a German documentary titled: ‘the plundered state’, brought on its knees by private investors in PPP (public private participation) projects. So, not only weak cities might have problems with the influence of private organizations. Is there, as Barber claims, no competition between cities? Well, what happened to the ideas of Florida and his creative class? As far as I know there is a lot of competition between cities, for everything from high educated workers to (global) investment. That’s why they come up with silly slogans like “Stockholm, the capital of Scandinavia”.  Will an international council of cities have the power to deal with all the issues Barber promises us, or will we just become even more divided? I could go on for a while.

There are many questions that need to be answered. We must have a more serious debate about the pros and cons, and possible solutions to those cons. At the moment Barber makes it sound like all the evil in this world is incorporated in the nation state, and all that is good is found in our cities. For the time being cities are incorporated in our nation states and the borders between good and evil are not that clear. Personally I always get a little bit afraid if there are only positive sides to something. Hey Tegenlicht, where is the voice of the opposition?!


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Written by Sascha Benes. Follow him on Twitter, Linkedin and .