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Trevor Hancock: Municipal governments matter most

As I noted last week, the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, two weeks ago ended with the UN’s member nations agreeing to the New Urban Agenda.

As I noted last week, the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, two weeks ago ended with the UN’s member nations agreeing to the New Urban Agenda. This document had been hammered out in negotiations over the previous year or so in a process that, bizarrely, largely excluded what is arguably the most important level of government: urban governments themselves.

We live in an age of nation-states (and supra-national corporations and organizations, such as the World Trade Organization), and have come to believe they are the most important levels of governance. But there is a strong case to be made that this is not so.

Certainly the mayors or their delegates from 500 cities around the world who gathered in Bogotá before the Habitat conference did not think so. As Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre put it bluntly in a quote in an online news site: “You don’t define the world through countries and continents anymore. You define the world through cities.”

In fact, city-states preceded nation-states around the world; examples include the Greek city-states, Rome and the city-states of Renaissance Italy. On the other hand, the nation-state is a comparatively recent development. In general, it is largely a 19th-century European phenomenon, in which the people that constitute a cultural and ethnic nation are linked to the geo-political entity of a state.

Moreover, in her interesting 1984 book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, urbanist Jane Jacobs pointed out that cities are the hubs of innovation and creativity and that it is cities, not nations, that create wealth. Yet at the UN, cities are considered little more than NGOs, even though they represent more than half the world’s people.

In the Bogotá Commitment, the United Cities and Local Governments network lays out proposals for ways local governments can play a better and more significant role in global decision-making, arguing that “local and regional governments will need to be at the centre of public-policy processes” and that “the answers generated within urban settlements and territories will pave the way for global solutions.”

The mayors also correctly pointed out that local governments are closest to the citizens and that “the democratic legitimacy of local governments is based on their direct relationship with the citizens.” These are challenging thoughts, especially for those national governments whose claim to democratic legitimacy might be debatable.

The problem of municipal government exclusion does not lie with the UN itself, but with its member states; they are the ones who collectively decided to effectively shut out the municipal governments. In part, this might be because they feel threatened by the power of large city governments, who also feel, quite rightly, that they know their issues and the required actions better than more remote national governments.

In Canada, we might add, city governments know better than provincial-level politicians and bureaucrats. But unfortunately, municipalities do not have an independent existence, constitutionally, in Canada. Rather, they are often described as “creatures of the province,” subject to provincial direction; as such, the federal government effectively has little or no role, other than handing out funding with strings attached. We do not have a national urban policy or a federal Ministry of Urban Affairs, even though four out of five Canadians live in urban areas.

Yet if you think about it, many of the policies and programs that most affect our well-being and quality of life come from local government: clean water, sewers and sanitation, roads and public transport, police and fire services, parks and recreation, urban planning, building inspection, education and libraries (school boards and library boards are other forms of local government) … the list goes on.

So if municipalities in Canada and around the world are to assume the vital role they need to play in improving well-being, reducing poverty, addressing climate change and other major issues, they need to be recognized as legitimate and important levels of government. They need a seat at the national and global tables and they need the powers and resources — including taxing powers such as sales or even income taxes — to play their part effectively. After all, municipal governments matter most.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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