A Magna Carta for Local Governments

How do cities assert their rights and defend local democracy from rising authoritarianism? How do they master their own destinies in the face of digital transformation and overwhelming power? And how might they solve planetary problems that threaten their lives and homes? 

Over the past two generations, such big questions have fallen increasingly to small, local governments. Why? Because our national governments have collectively failed to build the planetary institutions necessary to solve Earth’s biggest problems, from climate change to pandemics, corruption to poverty. They have also failed to protect democracy within their own borders, producing a pronounced democratic decline.

These twin failures have produced a massive void in governance that lower-level bodies have been compelled to fill. Some ambitious sub-national governments, like QuėbecCalifornia or Guangdong, have stepped in and developed global policies on climate. But the most aggressive void fillers have been the world’s municipal governments — especially major cities.

Cities are stepping up to bigger challenges because of growing pressure from their inhabitants, who have grown more educated and wealthier. Residents increasingly expect their municipal governments to protect them from both national authoritarianism and the local consequences of planetary problems.

As a result, many local governments find themselves under pressure to be the primary unit of democracy and to develop the capacity and power to solve any problem, at any level. But city governments still lack the power, resources and legal authority that nation-states have for such broad governance.

In the early 21st century, cities have responded to planetary challenges by networking among themselves to produce “translocal” policies. For example, Jakarta and Rotterdam, two cities with considerable land below sea level, are working together on climate and sea-level policy, as Jonathan Blake and Nils Gilman detail in their new book, “Children of a Modest Star: Planetary Thinking for an Age of Crisis.”

But many global cities are eager to move beyond the ad hoc to establish more permanent collaborations and new structures of governance that are both local and planetary. This requires new rules and new understandings of governance — and like in 1215, a new charter.

From Noema