Let mayors rule the world?

With many democracies polarized in their national politics, the recent elections of reformist and nontraditional mayors reflect a trend toward cities as the best model of governance. The key: Local communities can better build trust. 

AP Photo
Rome's new mayor, Virginia Raggi of the 5-Star Movement, speaks to reporters June 20, soon after being elected. An anti-establishment newcomer, capitalizing on anger over political corruption and deteriorating city services, Raggi trounced Premier Matteo Renzi's candidate in Rome's mayoral runoff to become the first woman to head City Hall in the Italian capital.

Rome, which is Europe’s fourth largest city, just got its first female mayor. Yet this historic moment for women may be the least of it. Virginia Raggi’s victory reflects a bigger trend among many world-class cities that have elected political outsiders bent on restoring clean government and rejuvenating trust in the urban community.

From New Delhi to Jakarta and now Rome, reformist mayors have lately bucked established national parties in a triumph of “new localism” and efficient democracy. In Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev, for example, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, Vitali Klitschko, has been struggling for two years to bring European-style reforms despite resistance from the country’s powerful oligarchs. The new mayor of Medellín in Colombia, Federico Gutiérrez, pledges to “recover” parts of the city controlled by criminal gangs.

In Rome, Ms. Raggi plans to clean up a corrupt city hall long beholden to traditional parties. “I will work to bring legality and transparency,” she says. Her young party, the Five Star Movement, reflects the attitudes of many mayors who are neither left nor right but pragmatic doers. Five Star’s supporters come from across the political spectrum and desire simply to enjoy open, egalitarian, and service-oriented governance.

With so many democracies polarized in their national politics, cities are now the best examples of good government. That was the focus of a 2013 book, “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities,” by urban theorist Benjamin Barber. He and many others are convinced that reformist mayors with deep democratic roots have more in common with each other than with their national leaders. In September, dozens of mayors will meet in the first “Global Parliament of Mayors” to share their best practices.

Since 2008, more people have lived in cities than in rural areas. And by 2050 nearly two-thirds of the world’s people will be urban. In a 2015 report titled “The Metropolitan Century,” the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development looked at why cities work best for citizens of a democracy: “Among all levels of government, local governments can have the strongest effects on trust because they interact most closely with residents.”

Cities are also crucibles for innovation. “People care about their cities and often are motivated to protect and improve their urban homes,” writes Gary Gardner, author of “Can a City Be Sustainable?” from the Worldwatch Institute. “Cities can harness that passion to help advance a sustainability agenda, perhaps more easily than national governments or corporations can.”

A strengthening of local communities, writes Yuval Levin, author of “The Fractured Republic,” is not meant to pull people down from national, centralized institutions. Rather, he finds that only “vibrant near-at-hand” communities can help reduce the isolating individualism in modern societies.

Problems that need a collective solution are best done in the most trusting, and thus local, institutions. As Jane Jacobs, the late guru on urban life, once said, “The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.”

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