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The Debate

TED video: Since city mayors are actually getting bold things done, Benjamin Barber suggests they should have more control over global policy.

Should mayors rule the world? That’s the question behind an influential TED talk given recently by political theorist Benjamin Barber, which is the subject of this discussion among prominent urban thinkers and city leaders.

He argues, in this talk and in his new book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, that big-city mayors have become the most trusted — and in many ways most effective — political leaders in the world. This is in good part because cities are the places where most of the world’s significant opportunities and looming threats are played out. If this century’s most intractable problems are to be solved, the solutions will be found at the municipal level.

As a result, Mr. Barber argues that cities and international organizations should have a much larger place in a global "parliament of mayors," an international assembly of big-city mayors that will help establish world policy on crucial issues such as climate change, spread best practices in areas such as transportation, and influence national governments to serve the world’s urban majority better.

We’ve brought together one of Canada’s best-known mayors and two urban-affairs authors to discuss and debate Mr. Barber’s proposals with him in this Globe and Mail-TED Ideas Lab discussion.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
Benjamin Barber Author of If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. Political theorist, City University of New York
The crucial global decisions take place in cities, so we need a global "parliament of mayors" to address them. Watch his talk
Debate contributor
Charles Montgomery Author of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design; urbanist
Mayors are crucial, and need to turn their attention to street-level voices rather than higher levels of politics
Debate contributor
Gregor Robertson Mayor of Vancouver
National, provincial and state governments need big cities more than ever to achieve their goals
Debate contributor
Doug Saunders Author, Arrival City; Globe and Mail International-Affairs columnist
National and city governments have radically different political and leadership styles that are often incompatible

The Discussion

Debate contributor

Benjamin Barber: Our political world is increasingly defined by dysfunctional states in which 18th-century independent nations hemmed in by sovereignty and borders are ever less able to address 21st-century cross-border challenges. In this ever-more-interdependent and globalized world, new political responses are required. It is time to change the subject: from states to cities, from prime ministers and presidents to mayors.

For while we live in a world of climate change without borders, immigration without borders, terrorism without borders, banks without borders, technology without borders, disease without borders and crime without borders, we have neither citizens without borders, nor nations without borders, nor democracy without borders.

Yet where nations have failed to arrest climate change or deal with immigration, cities are succeeding in multiple intercity organizations from the C-40 climate cities focused on carbon emissions, to the UCLG (the United Cities and Local Governments network) — the world’s most important organization nobody has ever heard of!

Cities are not just another “level of government administration” where problems get solved; they are where civilization and democracy originated; they are the natural communities that define social life among human beings. Cities represent the warp and woof of everyday life — they are forgers of identity, where citizens are born, educated, grow up, get married, play, pray, work and eventually die. They are the human habitat that make us an "urban species,” as Edward Glaeser described us.

The word ‘citizen’ is rooted in the term ‘city,’ while the defining features of urbanity — density, pluralism, creativity, diversity, innovation, entrepreneurship, mobility, tolerance and endless interactivity — are the source of both the culture and wealth of cities. No wonder cities are inclined to cooperation and exchange! They are built on water (90 per cent of the world's cities grew up on rivers, lakes, seas and oceans) and today house over half the world's population (nearly 80 per cent of the developed world’s people). They generate nearly 80 per cent of global GDP, and represent the majority in every democratic nation in the world, even though they remain "subsidiary" to nation-states and often in thrall to rural and countryside regions.

Cities work and flourish in our new interdependent world because mayors are pragmatic not ideological, consensual rather than tyrannical, wedded to civic engagement not disdainful of citizens. Mayors are problem-solvers first of all. Twice in the last several years, the government of the United States "closed" — and nobody much noticed. But imagine closing Toronto or Chicago or Mexico City or Vancouver! No police, no hospitals, no buses, no schools? No firemen or teachers or sanitation workers? No way! You can't close cities. Even in the Middle Ages under conditions of siege and plague, cities functioned.

If, then, we are to survive in a global world of brute interdependent problems, if we are to find sustainable ways to grow and just ways to share wealth, we will have to do it together — glocally (both globally and locally) — with the help of mayors and the cities and citizens they represent. We will need not only intercity associations and cross-border cooperation, but a global parliament of mayors in which urban public goods become the model for global public goods. In cities, we will find a road forward, and a new basis for hope in the future of democracy.

Debate contributor

Charles Montgomery: Should mayors have a larger role in national and international affairs? In short: Yes. My argument comes down to the psychology of decision-making. Behavioral economists have been providing strong evidence to suggest that we humans often fail to maximize utility — or choose what’s best for us — in the long run. We’re not always well-equipped to make choices on issues that involve complex systems, like cities. At the same time, the farther we are, geographically or emotionally, from any particular problem, the less weight we tend to give it.

This is especially true of politicians. In an era when cities are increasingly faced with the consequences of global forces such as climate change, migration and inequity, local mayors tend to feel a greater sense of urgency around issues that barely register for national and even provincial decision-makers. Yet too often, mayors depend on higher-level politicians for permission even to make basic local decisions. Just look at Metro Vancouver, where nearly all the local stakeholders agree on the urgent need for new investment in public transit. It hasn’t happened, because the power to make decisions over transit funding belongs to the province. So the region is stuck in traffic, and contributing to high carbon emissions that will, one day, contribute to flooding in Metro Vancouver and cities around the world. (Luckily, local mayors are currently working on a plan to take that power back.)

It’s time for the people who live and feel interwoven in local-global issues to play a greater role in responding to them.

Debate contributor

Gregor Robertson: When you look at the challenges that cities face today, there's no question mayors deserve a larger role in national and international affairs. Climate change, immigration, economic stagnation — these used to be viewed as the responsibility of the federal government. That's no longer the case. These issues are playing out in the streets and neighbourhoods of cities, and at the same time we're seeing a retrenchment of the federal government. The era of City Hall's role beginning and ending with garbage collection is woefully out of date, because cities are being forced into action. And increasingly, there is an expectation from citizens that City Hall can and should step up to address these issues.

The strongest reason for cities and Mayors to have a more prominent role is that cities are better positioned than they’ve ever been to help national and provincial or state governments achieve their goals. In Canada, economic activity is being driven from cities. So any government that is serious about growing a strong, resilient economy will invest in cities, through infrastructure for transit or social programs. Cities are also proving to be more entrepreneurial on policy innovation. In Vancouver, we have the ability to set our own building code, and drive the pace of energy efficiency. That makes a big difference when over half of our greenhouse gases come from buildings. So all levels of government that want to act on climate change and affordable housing should empower cities to meet their targets.

Debate contributor

Doug Saunders: I agree with Benjamin Barber’s ‘global parliament of mayors’ proposal in principle — because, as he notes, cities, and especially big cities, are where the most important opportunities, challenges and solutions to global problems will be played out during this century, and their mayors are indeed a crucial source of on-the-ground policy knowledge.

In practice, though, I wonder if this would have much impact nationally or internationally, beyond its obvious value as a forum for mayors to share policy knowledge and best practices (which is valuable enough on its own).

For one thing, municipal leadership rarely translates to the national or international level: It is a form of political organization, and a set of skills, radically different from those needed in parliamentary, party-based politics. The issues involved are indeed at the core of every nation’s current concern, but the sort of compromises and tradeoffs that guide national politics are alien to the world of sharp and total policy decisions that govern cities.

Municipal politics tends to be less democratic, in the technical sense, than provincial or national politics: There are fewer people voting, fewer citizens aware who their representatives are, fewer media outlets watching the politicians and their deliberations, fewer high-profile watchdog bodies. This means that the success or failure of city governance tends to depend, far more than at other levels, upon the character and leadership abilities of the mayors at the helm. This means that mayors are more likely to be bold geniuses or dismal failures, with little in between. It’s a type of leadership, and power, that bears little resemblance to parliamentary government (or even to many forms of republican government). This may be why not a single big-city mayor has become president of the United States, and only one has ever become prime minister of Canada.

For another thing, the definition of “mayor” varies dramatically from place to place. In the English-speaking countries of the Western world, municipal governments collect property tax and determine their own policies; in U.S. and British “strong mayor” cities, the mayor often has extraordinary executive power to do this. In Europe, municipalities are often branches of the national government, completely funded by transfers and grants, and big-city mayors are cabinet members — Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will not have to quit his other job as mayor of Florence. In the Indian subcontinent, mayors as we know them are virtually nonexistent; cities are governed by various bodies whose functions compete and overlap.

It would be difficult to build consensus among such a disparate group of local politicians with such different governing experiences. It would still be worth doing – but I fear that mayors, despite being the most trusted and effective politicians in the world today, will continue to have a difficult time climbing into higher politics.