Future Local Part 7: Global participation

In the final part of our Future Local series, Jane Sankarayya looks to a global future for smaller towns and cities - acting in concert with other cities around the world and apart from their home nations.

It is oxymoronic surely to think of a local globalisation. Globalisation as it stands has been driven for many years by big business and supported by national governments. It has left many localities and communities floundering in its wake, exacerbating problems such as inequality, environmental damage, and shortages of decent housing. The rise of the cities is one of the reasons contributing to the constant mass movement of people and the challenges that throws up both for the urban areas they move to and the rural areas they leave behind.

Recently, however, there has been discussion about whether cities are now emerging to take the globalisation mantle away from national governments. This coincides with the rise of the so called megacity over the last two decades and the emergence of what could almost be deemed new city states, with enough devolved powers to pack a real punch on the world stage.

"The city is recruited from the country"
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Mumbai by sarangib via Pixabay

The term megacity has been around for more than a hundred years; nowadays it is usually taken to mean a metropolitan area (either a single metropolitan area or a conurbation) with a population of more than 10 million. The power of these cities, and of some of their leaders, grows exponentially. Interesting though this phenomenon is, if we want to talk about a local globalisation – globalisation that benefits local populations – then the rise of the megacity is not it.

It is the smaller cities and urban areas that offer the opportunity, if played right, of a connected global way of working, driven by places and populations rather than big business and financial institutions. Populations continue to migrate towards cities and more than half the world's people now live in cities. Just over 30% are living in cities and urban areas with populations of one million or less[1].

If the next phase of globalisation is driven solely by the megacities then many, many communities in the UK and all over the world will feel no benefit. London is the only city in the UK at, or approaching, megacity status and the inequality existing within the city itself and between London and much of the rest of the country is palpable. Smaller cities and more diverse regions making their presence felt on the world stage is the only way that globalisation can be harnessed for the benefit of local populations.

New horizons?

Photo by MemoryCatcher via Pixabay

Much has been written, in this series of essays and elsewhere, about the discontent with Westminster politics that the referendum vote signifies. The argument is persuasively made that a mere ousting of Brussels in favour of national Parliamentary sovereignty will not quieten that discontent and that true devolution of political power to local government is the only way forward.

"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when they are created by everybody." Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

If leaving the EU offers a chance to push the devolution agenda further along then perhaps it also offers another opportunity to local leaders – an opportunity to forge stronger global ties. The negotiations with the EU have not even started and perceived wisdom is that they will take quite a while, as will subsequent trade negotiations with Europe and the rest of the world. What to do while the Westminster 'big beasts' are all tied up unpicking the Brexit knots? Well do what small fish do – nip in and help yourself. Is it time for smaller cities to start operating on an international basis in a much more concerted way? It could be the beginning of a truly local global agenda.

Cities not countries - but one size never fits all

A Manchester bus ride (MrDriveTube on YouTube)
"What is the city but the people?" 
William Shakespeare, Coriolanus
City Park, Bradford by Phil Champion via www.geograph.org.uk 

Economically, socially, technologically, culturally the world is connected as never before. Cities, towns, small communities, individuals don't need the permission or assistance of national governments to see what is out there – the opportunities for business, the chance for a better life, the environmental toll on our planet.

We can move money around the world at the touch of a button, talk face to face to someone in a city a 1,000 miles away, source manufacturing parts from anywhere and none of this needs an ambassador or a national trade delegation anymore.

The opportunities and the problems are immense and globally interconnected. Increasingly national governments seem unable to act on either the opportunities or the problems. This apparent paralysis of nations in their response to the effects of globalisation makes the development of more local solutions an imperative.

So step forward, you might think, the megacities: over the past couple of decades or so large cities have been increasingly pushing themselves forward on the global stage, almost independently of their national governments. Often we will see international economic diplomacy fronted by cities rather than countries – Mumbai rather than India; Shanghai not China; Sydney instead of Australia.

In other areas too cities have acted apart from their countries. In 2005, the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, brought 18 of the world’s megacities together to work on reducing greenhouse emissions; the resulting agreement later became known as the C40 Climate Leadership Group. In many ways the environmental standards set by this group of cities exceed the standards agreed through national government negotiations.[2]

And in the face of the growing threat of international terrorism, big cities have sought to strengthen their own security and intelligence services outside of what was done by the national government, for example the response of Mumbai to the 2008 terrorist attack.

But it cannot stop at megacities: if the megacities are allowed to dominate the conversation then for most people the burgeoning fortunes of 'city states’ will be without meaning. Megacities are throwing up huge problems of inequality and environmentally they can be catastrophic.

But smaller cities and more diverse regional entities beginning to work together in their own club, supporting each other’s economic growth with trade agreements, with niche innovation can carve out their own version of globalisation; one that grows economies but is also inclusive of communities and people – responding to their needs for jobs, housing, services and a decent environment.

UK cities in the world

So if globalisation is now the work of cities rather than nations [3] how will UK cities carve out their place in the world?

Post Brexit, Sadiq Khan was quick to reassure immigrants living and working in London that they were still wanted and still welcome. He emphasized the global nature of London's economy; the implicit fear being that by taking itself out of Europe Britain would be seen to be turning in on itself. London, he was saying is still carrying on with its role as a globally connected megacity.

And other large UK cities – Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh for example – also see a place for themselves as connected cities and are already well placed on the global stage. Earlier this year (prior to the referendum) Liverpool City Council and the University of Liverpool convened a conference promoting the importance of Europe to Liverpool and looking to the future. Writing on the LGiU blog one of the organisers, Professor Michael Parkinson said: "Liverpool city region is increasingly a global player but like the UK itself, it is still intimately involved economically in European markets and networks – and will and should remain so."[4]

But, and this is crucial, local globalisation will only work for the vast majority of this country if there is global connectivity between cities and towns and regions of all sizes. Roughly half the world’s population live in cities but the flip side of this is that half don’t.

It is widely perceived that among Brexit voters a feeling of being marginalised and left out of the prosperity of London and the South East was part of the reason for the vote to leave. There has to be a place for the smaller cities and towns in this local version of globalisation; indeed a case can quite easily be made for the undesirability of the megacities and certainly the need for caution in their unchecked growth.

In the August edition of LGiU’s C’llr magazine, Dr Andy Johnston writes about the emergence of i-cities (intermediate cities) and the need for national leaders to recognise the importance of these smaller urban settlements (usually with populations of under one million). As well as their size, i-cities are often defined by “their role in the mediation of flows of goods, information, innovations, and administration between the rural and the urban territories within their areas of influence and in relation to other cities and regions.”

Are mayors essential?

New City Hall, Toronto (inaugurated 1965). Photo by Scott Webb via Pixabay 

It is reported that Theresa May is abandoning George Osborne's plans for imposing regional mayors[5]. But are mayors essential for a town or city finding its global feet? Well no – it could be argued that mayors make it easier for cities to connect with each other by providing a highly visible contact, the strong leader who makes the decisions. But strong leadership (for it doesn’t have to be a single person) comes in many shapes and sizes – let’s not get waylaid by titles and semantics.

However, while mayors are not crucial, devolution certainly is. Smaller cities and regional areas need the power and resources to develop the environment that will give them a fighting chance. Good transport infrastructure, a speedy technological infrastructure, education and skills training and development are all key and are all best when designed, delivered and controlled locally.

"A great city is not to be confused with a populous one." Aristotle

Local leaders well know the importance of foreign investment to their area and already work hard secure it, for example Toyota in Derbyshire, Unilever in the Wirral. The potential is there for more – for cities and regions around the world to talk to each other and to support each other in trade deals. As smaller entities they should have the ability to be fleeter of foot, more responsive and to get business done much more swiftly than big government or even the megacities. And the local will be at the forefront of these deals – local leaders know what will work and what will hurt their areas – rather than being sacrificed without a passing thought by national negotiators.

These intermediate cities need to form connections with each other in the determined way that megacities have already been doing for the previous few decades. They need to support each other in driving a globalisation that is more equal and more responsive to local circumstances whether that be in Cardiff or Cuenca.