Greater Shanghai has a population surpassing 20 million; Mexico City and Mumbai are home to approximately another 20 million each. These cities have become bigger than entire nations in the world and are continuing to grow at an astonishingly rapid rate. Functioning as the key economic centres of the world, and involved in serious national and international political debates, the rise of these cities is forcing a change, or the very least a question, in their relationship with the countries they are in.
Most great cities in the world today function separately from their nation-state in terms of economics; the main streams of international investment now occur between big cities rather than big nations: London to New York, New York to Tokyo, Tokyo to Singapore.
The root of this power is, of course, the expansion of infrastructure. Size matters in geography and great cities across the world have recognised this. They campaign for increasing shares of the national budget to build and develop a solid transport and housing structure to cater for a booming urban population.
In this, the city landscapes of today are reminiscent of the European tradition of city states like Rome, Athens, Sparta, and Babylon, which were centres of power, culture and trade.
Back then, the rise of cities forced the rise of agriculture and innovation. City centres became the root of prosperity and happy dwelling as more and more people were attracted towards them. In the 18th century, 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. In the 19th century this increased to 14%. By 2007 this figure rose to 50% and is estimated to become 80% by 2050. This rise of population naturally meant cities had to grow bigger and work better.
Transforming relationship between cities and their country
Today, the top 25 cities in the world account for more than half of the world’s wealth. The five largest cities in India and China now account for 50% of those countries’ wealth. Nagoya-Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe in Japan is expected to have a population of 60 million by 2015 and will be the effective powerhouse of Japan while a similar effect on an even larger scale is occurring in fast-growing urban areas such as that between Mumbai and Delhi.
In a Foreign Affairs article “The Next Big Thing: Neomedievalism,” Parag Khanna, Director of the Global Governance Initiative at the New America Foundation, argues that this sentiment needs to come back. “Today just 40 city-regions account for two-thirds of the world economy and 90 percent of its innovation,” he notes, adding that “The mighty Hanseatic constellation of well-armed North and Baltic Sea trading hubs in the late Middle Ages, will be reborn as cities such as Hamburg and Dubai form commercial alliances and operate “free zones” across Africa like the ones Dubai Ports World is building. Add in sovereign wealth funds and private military contractors, and you have the agile geopolitical units of a neomedieval world.”
In this respect, cities have remained the most pertinent governmental structure on earth and the most well-inhabited: Syria’s capital-city Damascus has been continuously occupied since 6300 BCE. Because of this consistency, growth, and the recent destabilisation and diminished effectiveness of federal governments after the global economic collapse, the focus on cities has increased even more. How to protect their burgeoning population and all the economics and politics that it requires, becomes a serious problem to resolve.
The argument stands that if national policies – a set of practices implemented for the betterment of the entire nation rather than a specific aspect of it – becomes a road-block for growing urban centres such as Toronto and Mumbai, then shouldn’t the same cities be allowed their independence?
Richard Stren, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science and School of Public Policy and Governance, explains that “cities [are] more prominent because in proportion to the country as a whole, cities are much more productive. They are producing a lot more per person than the per person productivity of the nation. So they can make an argument that they are the economic motors of the country.”
In a 1993 Foreign Affairs article entitled “The Rise of the Region State”, it was also suggested that “the nation state has become a dysfunctional unit for understanding and managing flows of economic activity that dominate today’s borderless world. Policymakers, politicians and corporate managers would benefit from looking at “region states” – the globe’s natural economic zones – whether they happen to fall within or across traditional political boundaries.”
Could it be argued then that there is just too much happening in London and Shanghai for one national government to handle with the full attentiveness they need? Independently, “city-states” would have the ability to focus on the common interests of their corner of the population rather than the wider regions within which they are situated.
The Foreign Affairs article concludes with the idea that “with their efficient scales of consumption, infrastructure and professional services, region states make ideal entryways into the global economy. If allowed to pursue their own economic interests without jealous governmental interference, the prosperity of these areas will eventually spill over.”
However, Professor Stren highlights that the concept of the city-state is “interesting to think about but not an immediate reality,” mainly because they remain constitutionally limited. He highlights how Section 92 (8) of the Canadian constitution says that cities are under the complete control of the province.
“There is an argument that says Toronto should become a province because it doesn’t get enough of the resources from the province, or even the federal government, that it needs in order to operate well. In fact, it gives back a lot more than it gets,” explains Professor Stren.
There is evidence that cities are able to do things that national governments will not or cannot do at the local level. The introduction of congestion zones in London and fat taxes in New York are two such examples. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group is a network of the world’s megacities taking action to reduce the effects of global warming. Even in the drive for climate change, cities are taking on a more central role than national governments.
Limitations of cities
Yet cities remain “constrained in the ways we have organised our constitutions and laws in most systems in the world,” says Professor Stren. He gives an example of the 2006 City of Toronto Act which served to give Toronto certain powers that it did not have, such as the ability to charge new taxes in order to seek revenue from new sources. However, it was rejected by the provincial authority.
“We would have to have a different system of government and a different balance of laws and responsibilities for [city-states to exist],” says Professor Stren. He adds that “it could happen. Cities are becoming larger and larger all the time,” but “the world will be different when that happens. Maybe cities will take over countries. Maybe it’s more logical.”
It is important to note that independent cities are part of the global system today. The Vatican and Monaco are sovereign cities. Hamburg and Berlin are cities that are also states. Singapore is perhaps the best example of a modern region-state because in forty-five years, the Singaporean government has managed to successfully urbanise a great city by taking an avid interest in the right policy frameworks to do so. Today it presents a city state model that has produced the highest standard of living in Asia for its diverse cultural populations. 65% of its total populace has access to internet and it has the 20th largest economy in the world with the 6th highest GDP per capita. It has accomplished great innovative successes in green initiatives such as eco parks and vertical urban farms, has regularly seen budget surpluses, and has the 4th highest average lifespan in the world.
Unrestricted by state and federal ties and able to respond to the immediate needs of its citizens, Singapore creates a possibility for cities like New York, Chicago, London, Barcelona or Toronto to move in the same direction. Could cities of the 21st century become independent? Or is Singapore a pleasant exception, drawn out of great ethnic tensions and rendered possible only by its island location?
“We are more and more recognising how important and significant they are in our cultural life and our social life and our economic life. We need to pay more attention to them, but I don’t think any higher level government level would let them,” says Professor Stren.
Perhaps this is because a metropolis like Toronto or Shanghai is the focal point for an economically dynamic national centre. Therefore, it serves as an extensively beneficial, functional and meaningful unit of the national sphere. Without this central metropolis, the rest of the province, and even the nation itself, may become a remnant.
Cities function to provide the human necessities of sustenance, security and shelter. Things like clean water, electricity, reliable transportation, economic stability, and environmental protection are essential features a ‘great’ city must have. Due to the size of a nation, federal governments may not have the ability to truly focus on these interests on a local scale.
Perhaps this is why Kenichi Ohmae claimed that nation-states have become “dinosaurs waiting to die.” Territory is becoming less and less important in a borderless world. Globalisation is forcing cities from Toronto to Shanghai to compete on a level in which nations were not on before.
According to UN-Habitat, “larger combinations of urban area will be one of the most significant developments in the way people live and economies grow in the next 50 years.” Nations are not going to disappear completely, but like the telegraph grew to become the internet, change and adaption is beginning in their relations with cities. Perhaps it’s time to seriously bring back an age of the Modern-day Spartas.