Are Cities the New States?

article | October 23, 2014

You’re a health official trying to contain a new case of Ebola in a major world city. Who’s your first call – the country’s top health official? Or the city’s mayor?

Easy. It would be the mayor. He, or she, knows the local actors and the social dynamics of the city much better than a federal official.  In most cases, you’ll spend money smarter, hitting your targets with more precision and avoiding wasteful, one-size-fits-all solutions

Surprised? Get used to it. In the future, cities could become more autonomous and less reliant on national governments. In other words, cities are the new states.  And that could mean smoother and more effective governance for urban and rural residents alike around the world.

That’s partly because citizens of London and New York tend to have more in common with each other than residents of rural England and New York State. So it may make more sense for city officials to coordinate with each other on policy, rather than leaders of countries or states that represent a more diverse set of interests.

Related: This is what public housing looks like in Singapore. 

“If you look 50 years out, and it’s true that 80 percent of humankind will live in urban areas, why wouldn't you have the heads of the urban areas represent those people, rather than those urban areas plus the other 20 percent?” asked New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter at a recent event.

This could be crucial, because cities seem to be diverging more and more from their rural counterparts. It is predicted, for example, that three out of five people will live in cites by 2030, and they’ll also produce a greater share of economic output.

And where cities used to rely on rural areas for things like food, they may soon no longer need them: Many cities are experimenting with vertical farming, which reduces imports from rural areas and further severs rural-urban ties.  What’s more – cities tend to be more liberal, while rural areas tend to be more conservative.

The UN for cities would look more consensual than the UN for countries.

But even if a city could become completely self-sufficient, the nostalgia of rural areas will continue to have an impact on the identity of its residents.

“I am trying to imagine an America that tells the story of itself without a heartland, and I can’t imagine what that would look like,” said Monica Potts, a fellow at New America.

And taking as an example one of the world's most advanced cities – Singapore – it is clear that the future of most cities will not be determined solely by their technological tools, but also by their cultural and historical roots.

“We have a unique history,”  said Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States. “The British came [and formed the colony of Singapore] because they wanted a trading post, and that became very critical – we remain a trading hub.”

So if there were to be some form of global governance structure where cities were represented, would cities identify more with their rural roots, or with cities similar to themselves- creating some sort of global city voting block?

The answer could be a bit of both.

More: Singapore have become the masters at globalization. 

“Were each major city mayor worldwide to be put in some sort of UN for cities – Chicago gets one vote, Dallas gets one vote, Shanghai gets one vote and so on – and they were asked to vote on climate policies, the answers of the U.S. cities would cluster with each other and Chinese cities would cluster with each other --you'd still spot 'national' differences,” said Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and former New America Fellow. “But I'd also bet that the range of views across all cities would be less diverse than the range of views across all countries. The UN for cities would look more consensual than the UN for countries.”