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“World cities need their nation states, and nation states need their world cities”

A review of World Cities and Nation States by Greg Clark and Tim Moonen (Wiley, 2016). This book addresses the changing relationships between major cities and their nations and argues against the current orthodoxy that we are entering a new era of city states, proposing instead that cities must negotiate with national governments much better to achieve the promise of global urbanisation.

It has become a frequent news story these days that many cities around the world, tired and frustrated with their national governments, resultantly feel they no longer need them. Many publications in recent years advocate a new order where the unshackled big cities solve their problems and then those of the world.

In their new book World Cities and Nation States, Greg Clark and Tim Moonen present a timely challenge to this idea. Their assessment is simple: Now more than ever, world cities need their nation states, and nation states need their world cities.

Unlike some of the recent literature which is parochial in its perspective, Clark and Moonen take a deliberately global and pluralist approach. The book is built around the experience of 12 major cities and their nation states, with a strong focus on emerging nations and a mix of political systems. This mixture of angles furnishes a richly nuanced perspective that ultimately endorses the value of tactical collaboration across multiple tiers of government.

Centralised states and independent cities

With a keen historical eye throughout, Clark and Moonen observe that whilst we live in a century of cities whose economies are semi-detached from national trends, the legacy of the 20th century of the nation state looms very large indeed.

Whether for reasons of war, authoritarianism or partisanship, 20th century national governments substantially centralised the system of powers and finance. Economic and spatial policy became formulated at higher tier, as opposed to local levels. In the post-1945 era, the majority of large cities were then blamed for social, economic or environmental failures, and rarely identified as engines of opportunity. Even in federal countries, the legacies of centralised systems and one-size-fits-all thinking run much deeper than most are willing to recognise, as the authors argue. They shape the ‘art of the possible’ for global cities today.

12 entertaining case studies highlight common tensions

The 12 case studies reviewed in this book highlight common tensions in the relationship as national governments are torn between supporting their star cities and containing the side-effects of their success. The range of studies demonstrates how the option of ‘going it alone’ or staying subordinate is a false choice. If anything, the choice is between a dysfunctional status quo that permits and incentivises unmanaged growth and zero sum politics, and a culture of sustained partnership and leadership that fosters a more managed long-term model of growth for both the world cities and the rest of the nation.

Centralised systems have more success stories to tell

From the entertaining case studies, it is apparent that much of the recent progress has taken place in world cities within the centralised unitary systems.

In London, the turnaround from the 1990s power vacuum to the increasingly well-managed and strategic metropolis is stark. The efforts to manage the national side-effects of London’s growth are relatively advanced and are set to intensify after ‘Brexit’. Meanwhile in Paris, a statist model has given way to a more negotiated system, albeit one beset by institutional overcrowding. In Seoul and Tokyo, we learn how the national government has innovated to support their global roles and investment requirements. In all of these cities, the advocacy and agenda-setting of charismatic mayors has had a striking effect.

In federal nations, by contrast, the picture which emerges is rather less promising. Mumbai is a victim of serious and serial leadership and co-ordination failure. New York has more independence but only seems to receive help in times of crisis. The pace and scale of concessions given to São Paulo to relieve its debt and fiscal challenges is far too limited to cope with the scale of urban change. In Toronto the story is more mixed, yet infrastructure deficits continue to grow.

National government is always a critical partner

In each case, the intermediate state government is the critical partner, however urban-rural divides present clear political obstacles to a joint approach. Clark and Moonen do not imply that all these flaws reflect an inherent weakness of the federal system. Nevertheless, they do point to the necessity for a form of ‘new deal’ between world cities and federal governments, based on clearer national strategies, smarter investments and meaningful recognition of metropolitan issues.

Some of the most absorbing stories in World Cities and Nation States are found in the cities with ‘special’ status. The effectiveness of Chinese policy in Hong Kong and Shanghai is emphasised, although questions are rightly raised about whether the model can or will be fine-tuned to the next cycle of growth. The mixed blessing of Russian centralisation for Moscow offers a novel perspective on the city. Finally, the authors analyse Singapore, the city-state exemplar whose success implicitly spurs the undercurrent of enthusiasm, among some world city proponents, for the big cities to secede and gain state-like powers.

The future of world cities depends on national relationship-building

Clark and Moonen maintain that this desire is as unhelpful as it is illusory. For all its deficiencies and its modern challenges, the nation state is very far from dead. As such, to encourage cities to achieve their goals by themselves is to invite medium-term failure and a loss of confidence and resolve.

Instead, the future of world cities will in large be about careful compromise and lucid partnership, with private and civic sectors playing an important brokerage role. Only through national relationship-building and bridge-building can any productive consensus be reached around immigration, housing, planning systems, governance structures, labour markets, and capital investment. Rather than yield to either post-Trump/Brexit despair or the triumphalism of a new age of cities, World Cities and Nation States makes the case for the painstaking, hard-fought and tactical work of organisation, negotiation and leadership. The citizens and decision-makers who take up this challenge, move beyond zero sum thinking and work towards mutually beneficial co-existence, have everything to gain.

World Cities and Nation States by Greg Clark and Tim Moonen

304 pages

Release date: December 2016

Wiley, 2016

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