Cities of the World, Unite!
Global governance has failed. Nation-states are on the verge of collapsing. Progressives all over the world are suffering defeat after defeat, and are likely to continue doing so. We need to reboot the system. To all of you, rebels, radicals, revolutionaries: it is time we retreat, gather our forces and bring the fight to a ground where it can be won.
These are tough times for those who fight for progress. Whatever hope was sparked by the post-2008 crash social movements seems to have dissipated. All the while, it feels like regressive forces all over the world are in high tide. Every nomination, every policy announcement made by President Trump paves the way to the moral bankruptcy of a country that once saw itself as the “leader of the free world”. Brexit was a serious blow for the European ideal – an ideal that, let’s be honest – had long been betrayed by Europeans themselves in their treatment of Greece, Spain and Portugal. Countries like Russia and Turkey have veered towards authoritarian paths. Latin America is facing economic and political turmoil. The Middle East has reached unprecedented levels of chaos. The world order born after World War II is rapidly collapsing. International coordination has failed to tackle the most urgent issues of our time: global warming, structural inequality, and the worst refugee crisis in recent history. Nation-states, the very foundations on which this order was built, are crumbling. The collective indignation we share from one Facebook post to the next is worth nothing.
Let’s face it: we are losing.
It is about time we change our strategy.
It is high time we reboot the system.
It must start with the only sensible strategic move we have left: retreat. To all of you rebels, radicals, revolutionaries: let’s regroup and gather our forces for the battles to come.
Let’s plan our next move from behind the walls of our cities.
A retreat, not a defeat.
Cities are where we can make change happen.
Nations were never the end of the road. Eras dominated by city-states have often been accompanied with unprecedented creativity in human history. Cities such as Ur, Babylon, Athens, Carthage, Rome, Venice or Genoa were not only political entities: they were also cultural and artistic centres. These places were laboratories where politics and modern administrative methods were first invented. Progress is not linear, and a new golden age may be ahead of us. Cities may well be the unit on which we can build our common future.
More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and the proportion could reach 70% by the middle of the century. New York, Tokyo, London, Paris, Beijing, Rio… Over the last few decades, a limited club of world cities have been concentrating more and more of the population, financial, cultural and intellectual resources. London alone accounts for 22% of the United Kingdom’s Gross Domestic Product. 50% of the South Korean population lives in the Seoul metropolitan area. Back in 1950, there were only 290.000 people living in Lagos. They are 20 millions today, and 40 millions projected by 2050.
Goliath-cities are ignorant of their own strength. There is only one thing missing from an otherwise comprehensive picture: political power. For how long?
There is a widening gap between people living in big cities and the rest of the population. It is no secret that people who call themselves “progressives” mainly live in big cities. In fact, if you are reading this, you are likely to be one of them. In cities such as San Francisco or Seattle, less than 10% of voters backed Trump. NYC’s Mayor Bill de Blasio already stated that he will do everything in his power to shield New Yorkers from the new President’s policies should they contradict the city’s fundamental values. In France, the National Front scored a meagre 10% during the last regional election in the Paris region (vs. 30% nationwide). The majority of Londoners voted to “remain” – 75.3%.
This is nothing but a schism.
Overpopulated suburbs and medium-sized cities have been left behind to decay. Countrysides have been drained of resources, and then, abandoned. Nothing good will come of the wave of anger that is ahead of us, but it wasn’t born out of thin air.
Fighting for progress is easy when you are on the right side of the fence. Frankly, we have nothing to be proud of. People who were cast away from big city centers have every right to be exasperated.
Let’s not be fooled: big cities as they exist today account for most of the global issues we are confronted with.
They are powerful tools of spatial discrimination. The boom of real estate in global cities in the course of the last three decades fueled structural inequality. Cities still consume a tremendous amount of resources and energy, and generate a gigantic amount of waste. They are at the core of a looming environmental disaster.
All the more reason to focus our collective efforts on the city scale. If you are the cause of a problem, you are in the best position to implement a solution. The global scale can feel overwhelming, so what if our biggest challenges could be dealt with one by one at a smaller scale? A scale at which complexity can be managed. A scale at which we can make a difference. A scale at which democracy makes sense and at which resilient services can be rapidly created, tested, and easily replicated elsewhere.
It is time for world cities to take responsibility, assume actual leadership and instigate transformations which will benefit not only themselves, but suburban areas and countryside as well.
Information technology combined with an emerging global culture in urban centres makes it possible for cities to imagine new kinds of international networked organisations and lay the foundations of a new world order.
We are not telling you to stop voting at national elections. But we all know we are merely buying time; eventually, the levee will break.
It is time to focus our energy where it matters.
Rebels, radicals, revolutionaries of all cities, it is time you seize power.
Featured image: Vassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII