Benjamin Barber: Does The Road To Changing The World Go Through City Hall? Political theorist Benjamin Barber argues that cities and city mayors are the key to bypassing political gridlock and solving many of our global challenges.

Does The Road To Changing The World Go Through City Hall?

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BENJAMIN BARBER: The idea of a city goes to the heart, I think, of what it means to be a human being.


This is Benjamin Barber. He is a senior research scholar at the City University of New York. And Benjamin has spent a lot of his professional life studying what makes cities special and why we're attracted to them.

BARBER: Human beings are sociable. They like being with other human beings. They're creative, which we tend to do together. They're imaginative, which is, again, a community thing.

RAZ: Yeah.

BARBER: The city, the township is a natural expression, a natural manifestation, of that social instinct that we have. And cities define us. It's where we're born, get educated, grow up, get married, where we pray and play, where we get old and where we die.

RAZ: Benjamin Barber believes the most challenging problems we face around the world - disease, poverty, terrorism - they're solvable. But they're also really big. So they require a whole new approach. Here's Benjamin on the TED stage.


BARBER: Democracy is in trouble. No question about that. It's increasingly irrelevant to the kinds of decisions we face that have to do with global pandemics - a cross-border problem - with markets and immigration - something that goes beyond national borders - with terrorism, with war, all now cross-border problems. In fact, we live in a 21st century world of interdependence. And when we look for solutions in politics and in democracy, we are faced with political institutions designed 400 years ago. Twenty-first century, transnational world of problems and challenges. Seventeenth century, world of political institutions. In that dilemma, lies the central problem of democracy. And my suggestion is that we change the subject, that we stop talking about nations, about bordered states, and we start talking about cities.


RAZ: So why cities? Well, a few years ago, Benjamin was trying to figure out how governments could tackle huge problems around the world.

BARBER: So I began to look around and say, well, where in the modern world can we find political institutions where democracy still kind of works? And it was there that I came to this old, old notion of the human community because we see in local government a palpable, touchable form of government. You know, local government is democratic government. That's what government's supposed to be about. So it was the sense that cities still function with some resemblance to democracy in a way that no other political institutions do. I love the example of, you know, people say - when you ask young people today, you know, about democracy, they're cynical. They don't believe in it. They don't trust democracy. But when you come to the town, to the city, to the neighborhood, then these people say, yeah, I get that. Yeah, that I still kind of believe in. That still kind of works.

RAZ: Now, of course, that's not true everywhere. Not every city, town or neighborhood works great for the people who live there. But some of them do. A lot of them do. And when we come back, where those places are and what lessons they might hold for the rest of us, wherever we live.

BARBER: Some of the worst scourges we face, those problems can be solved by responsible municipal governments, cities and mayors working together.

RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. Our show today, ideas about building better cities. Stay with us. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about building better cities. So we were just hearing from Benjamin Barber. And he believes that cities hold lessons for solving some of the world's biggest problems. And he also thinks that the mayors who run those cities, they could actually lead the way for the rest of us. That's because mayors have an advantage that presidents and prime ministers don't.


BARBER: My premise is that a mayor and a prime minister are at the opposite ends of a political spectrum. To be a prime minister or president, you have to have an etiology. But mayors are pragmatists. They're problem solvers. Real city mayors have to get things done. They have to put etiology and religion and ethnicity aside and draw their cities together. We saw this a couple of decades ago when Teddy Kollek, the great mayor of Jerusalem in the '80s and '90s was besieged one day in his office by religious leaders. They were arguing with one another about access to the holy sites. And the squabble went on and on, and Kollek listened and listened. And he finally said, gentleman, spare me your sermons and I will fix your sewers. That's what mayors do. They fix sewers. They get the trains running. There isn't a left or right way of doing - Boris Johnson in London calls himself an anarcho-Tory. He's an anarchist, he rides to work on a bike, but at the same time, he's, in some ways, a conservative. Bloomberg in New York was a Democrat, then he was a Republican and then finally he was an independent and said the party label just gets in the way. Luzhkov, 20 years mayor in Moscow, though he helped found a party - United Party with Putin - in fact, refused to be defined by the party. So mayors are pragmatists and problem solvers.

RAZ: When you think about, you know, all the challenges in the world like things like climate change, right, what is it that cities or, you know, specifically mayors can do that countries can't?

BARBER: Well, just let me do a tiny piece of political theory. NationStates made a promise through the social contract to their citizens, which was rooted in their sovereignty. They said, if you obey us - you can elect us and so on, but you have to obey the laws of the sovereign nation - we will guarantee your life, your liberty, your estate and property, what today we would call your sustainability. But in the last 50 or 60 years, states can no longer fulfill the sovereign promise that we will take care of you. We will sustain our citizens. And that's where cities have increasingly said, if you can't and won't, then we have to. And that's why in - particularly in this urgent area of climate change - cities - more than 80 or 90 percent of which are on water - cities have the responsibility to say someone's got to deal with climate change because our citizens and our cities are going to be the first to go underwater and there are all kind ways in which cities working one by one but better when they collaborate can address climate change.


BARBER: Eighty percent of carbon emissions come from cities, which means cities are in a position to solve the carbon problem or most of it, whether or not the states of which they are a part make agreements with one another. And they are doing it. Los Angeles cleaned up its port, which was 40 percent of carbon emissions. New York has a program to upgrade its old buildings, make them better-insulated in the winter, to not leak energy in the summer. That's having an impact. Bogota introduced a transportation system that saved energy, that allowed surface buses to run in effect like subways - express buses with corridors. There's Singapore. As it developed its high-rise and its remarkable public housing, also developed an island of parks. And if you go there, you'll see how much of it is green land and park land. Cities are sharing what they do. And they are making a difference by shared best practices. Bike shares - many of you have heard of it - started 20, 30 years ago in Latin America. Now it's in hundreds of cities around the world. Pedestrian zones, congestion fees, emission limits in cities like California cities have. There's lots and lots that cities can do even when opaque, stubborn nations refuse to act.

RAZ: Benjamin Barber wrote a book laying out an idea of how cities around the world could band together to solve really big problems. It's called "If Mayors Ruled The World." And in that book, he lays out this proposal, an actual organization, a global parliament, a gathering of mayors from all over the world.

BARBER: When mayors visit one another, you have, in effect, a small working group solving problems, not a ritualistic meeting of different etiologies, which leads to the idea of a Global Parliament of Mayors with cities beginning to say we will do what sovereign nations can't.

RAZ: But how would a Parliament of Mayors work?

BARBER: Well, I have a template. I have a plan that suggests how that might happen. But obviously, that will be something that mayors themselves will have to deal with. And next year, when the inaugural Parliament of Mayors actually takes place, one of the first questions will be the governor's question. What is absolutely indispensable to start with though, is the political will of cities and their citizens to say it is our time now. It is our time to ask these questions and provide answers. And we can only do that when we work together.


BARBER: The road to global democracy doesn't run through states. It runs through cities. We can create a Global Parliament of Mayors. It's in my conception of the coming world, but it's also on the table in city halls, in Seoul, Korea, in Amsterdam, in Hamburg and in New York. Mayors are considering that idea of how you can actually constitute a global Parliament of Mayors. And I love that idea because a Parliament of Mayors is a parliament of citizens. And a parliament of citizens is a parliament of us. Thank you so much, my fellow citizens.

RAZ: That's Benjamin Barber. By the way, the first meeting of the Global Parliament of Mayors is scheduled for 2016. You can see Benjamin's entire talk at

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