Nation & World News

At Urban Summit, A Feeling Of ‘The Feds Can’t, But We Can’

By Franklyn Cater on October 12th, 2013

The partial government shutdown was part of the buzz this week at an international gathering of mayors, city planners and urban experts in New York City.

Passing mentions of the U.S. government during several seminars at the CityLab conference sent knowing chuckles rolling through the audience. As in: “Those guys? They’re closed for business! At least we’re still on the job.”

The sentiment — that municipal leaders take the responsibility of governing more seriously than their federal counterparts – was perhaps best encapsulated in a session featuring political theorist Benjamin R. Barber, author of the book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. He contends city governments are about getting things done in very tangible ways and that, regardless of party affiliation, mayors tend to be pragmatic leaders. (Barber cites this quote from former New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia: “There is no Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer.”)

Barber invited mayors to an informal, post-conference meeting to discuss his proposal to form a voluntary “World Parliament of Mayors,” which he says would give city leaders more opportunity for international collaboration and a stronger presence on the world stage.

Considering the number of cities worldwide, this sounds like a rather unwieldy undertaking. But darned if he didn’t get a dozen or so mayors hailing from several continents to join him before they rushed off to catch their planes. Bogota, Columbia; Perth, Australia; Vancouver, Canada; and Santa Monica, Calif., were among the cities represented around the conference table.

In practical mayoral fashion, each leader stopped short of endorsing Barber’s concept but expressed interest in exploring its potential. They wondered how such a World Parliament would be useful to their citizens, they noted the existence of similar groups — World Conference of Mayors, the C40 Cities Group, etc. — and they spoke of how time-consuming their jobs already are.

“How would this be different,” they asked. But they were clearly not dismissing the idea.

As Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson told NPR, “I think that there may be some merit in doing this, but it’s tricky to get the right kind of structure and make it compelling enough for mayors to come from all over the world and put aside the day to day work, which is relentless, and actually focus on working as a big team.”

He added: “Cities in Canada have equal challenges with our federal government and the provincial governments, as well. I think that’s a theme you see right across the world. … It’s a tough thing in many countries where there’s paralysis or inaction at a federal level, and there’s a lot of action on the ground in cities because every single day we have to deliver solutions and serve the people and make our cities livable.”

It brings to mind the spirit that inspired city slogans such as “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” and “Chicago: The City That Works.” For all the ills city governments have been unable to remedy, urban places are responsible for a huge percentage of GDP and city officials like to see themselves as industrious, too.

That attitude transcends international borders. And these leaders could not have asked for a better opportunity to promote it than they had this week, against the contrast of gridlock in Washington.

Franklyn Cater is a senior producer at All Things Considered and editor of the NPR Cities Project.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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