Urbi et orbi

Knowledge brokering08 Dec 2009

This blog post is about the city and the world. Not only the city of Rome, the object of the annual Christmas – Urbi et Orbi – blessing by the catholic pope, but all big cities that become an actor of their own in our interconnected world.

The special report Cities of the world unite in our latest issue, written by Janne Nijman and Sofie Bouteligier, is about the increasing influence of cities and global city networks: in the global arena, as well as in day to day practice in the field of sustainable policies.

For me, this topic fits well into one of the main lines that we want to explore in The Broker: new actors, new trends and dynamics in global processes. It is not just states and their national political systems that determine the course of things; there are many other influences. These include actors such as multinational companies, social and cultural movements, diasporas, NGOs in all sorts and with different convictions, criminal gangs, or international celebrities; and less tangible factors such as networks, international discourses, or cultural and religious tendencies. And cities.

I am convinced that a lot of today’s societal and governance problems in western countries, like the Netherlands (think of the polarization towards people from other religions, but also the ever-decreasing status and legitimacy of party politics), as well as in developing countries, have to do with the creeping infiltration of global processes into the national realm.

Or, put another way: it is no longer national parliamentary politics, combined with inter-national – so also nationally based – relations, that solely determines if and how things progress. Of course, if you look at the nationalist tendencies in Europe, where it is difficult to establish central coordination and a common foreign policy (see our blog about European foreign policy and the analysis of Otto Holman in The Broker 17), you can believe the opposite. In my opinion, however, this is exactly the proof of what I just stated: while processes under the surface become ever more global, the reaction of politicians – and many of the people that elect them – is denial, back to the 20th or even 19th century, when it was thought possible to control economies, societies and culture within national borders. This drawback further undermines the legitimacy of this politics in the longer term.

The two articles in our special report describe the steadily growing importance of cities and city networks. One of the interesting aspects of it is the fact that there is also a lot of discussion going on in terms of the legal position of cities. The main subjects in international law are states, but there seem to be quite a lot of voices that state that cities should become a legal entity of their own in international law.

Another thing that came to my mind during the preparation of the special report was the strategic implications of this ‘rise of the global city’. If cities become a more powerful actor, it might – for NGOs and others – be useful to start lobbying at the city level, for example for more extensive climate policies. And suddenly, there is a big overlap – although entering from very different directions – with the Earth System Governance project that we are describing in the same issue of The Broker, and the corresponding big conference which we have been blogging from these past few days.

A final observation: this rise of the city could also provide a way out of one of the big dilemmas that we are always facing when talking about globalization: the enormous gap between the – very abstract and distant – global level, and the local reality in which everybody lives his or her life (see, for example, the video interview with Roberto Pereira Guimarães from the ESG conference).

The city could well be a kind of broker between the two, between the local and the global. If I look at myself, as a Dutch citizen, I can quite often feel frustrated when thinking about national politics. But if I also start to define myself more as a citizen of the global city of Amsterdam, with all of its international ramifications, will new prospects open up?