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The power of cities.

The power of cities.

Markus Appenzeller

Covid-19 makes it evidently clear: What happens in Wuhan affects what happens in New York, and what happens in Milan has an impact on what happens in Shanghai. This is not new, but the dimension and the speed with which the effects take place has vastly accelerated in recent decades. Alone, the world has been weak in accommodating these changes and to create supranational organizations that can deal with a connected world. In the recent corona crisis, none of these bodies proved to be efficient and instead became scapegoats of national interests rather than international problem solvers. Bigger interests seemed at stake than the solution of the biggest global health crisis in recent history. Add to that the current wave of nationalism and partisan politics, then one quickly realizes that neither nation states, nor supranational organizations are the ones to solve the problems mankind is facing. Politics paralyze.

What could be a way out of this?

I believe one must turn to the bodies that are less politicized: Cities or villages. Any measure in a city serves a very real and targeted purpose. An aid program brings help to an individual. A construction project changes the spatial configuration, and a health crisis put faces to the abstract numbers. Here, policy and politics matter less than helping each other and keeping things up and running. With an unbroken trend of people moving to cities, the questions should arise if cities should not become the global network of steering the future of mankind and not nation states. Many cities already collaborate and form part of economic networks. Links between individuals in different cities play a much more important role than they do in national politics. And in their reliance on the surrounding areas to feed them and provide them with energy, water and other resources, they could also become the care takers of these surroundings.


Reducing the might of nation states for the benefit of cities would deliver a more diverse world with less big conflicts. While there are cities that in terms of their population could qualify as countries, existing city states are evidence that there would be a more vital interest to solve conflicts peacefully. Losing a conflict potentially has a much bigger impact on a (small) city than on a (large country).

From a planning perspective, cities as the driving entity would mean a much more hands-on approach. Rather than discussing high level policy, of which often little ends up on the ground, cities and their leaders tend to be pragmatic in solving problems. They also have a much bigger potential to learn from each other, with less ideology in between them. In recent years, we can see powerful and successful campaigns coming from cities and not national governments when it comes to tackling climate change head on. The mayor of Paris has announced the ’15 minute city’ and set big steps to change the way Parisians move in a more sustainable way. Amsterdam has adopted the doughnut model for its economic development in the future – a model that is less focused on GDP growth and more on well-being and what is good for the city as a whole. Shenzhen is working on turning the whole city into a sponge city to deal with increased precipitation due to climate change, and Singapore has established green city rules that make green roofs mandatory. The list could be extended at will…

How to get started?

There are already collaboration initiatives between cities. C40, the initiative that brings cities together that take bold steps to deal with climate change and the newly founded global parliament of mayors are starting points, but it will need more support. For these collaborations to become more powerful, ultimately eventually replacing nation states, it needs the support of citizens. The populations of cities should make a case. They are holding the keys to a different world order -bottom up. The only thing to do now is to make them aware of that.

by Markus Appenzeller

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