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Debating the Role of Cities at the Global Parliament of Mayors

Inside the inaugural session of a new forum for city-to-city collaboration.

by Letty Reimerink, Citiscope / September 21, 2016
Mayors sign the Global Parliament of Mayors' call to action. Twitter/GPM Project

Barber called for city leaders around the world to meet regularly in a “Global Parliament of Mayors.” It was a provocative if vague call to formalize growing webs of connections among mayors, who Barber sees as the planet’s problem solvers — closer to the people than presidents and prime ministers, more pragmatic, and more willing to collaborate across borders.

Last weekend, Barber got his wish. More than 60 mayors from five continents gathered here in the “international city of peace and justice” to inaugurate the first Global Parliament of Mayors. Many academics also attended, as well as representatives from NGOs, think tanks and city networks such as Eurocities and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

Hosted by The Hague’s mayor, Jozias van Aartsen, the talks focused on large global issues such as climate change and refugees. But a lot of the discussion was also about what, exactly, a “Parliament” of local leaders from across the world should — or even could — do.

A vibe of excitement carried through the whole event, from an opening reception Friday night to working sessions Saturday and Sunday at the main auditorium of the World Forum conference center. In plenary sessions, mayors sat in the front row in alphabetical order by city — Rabat next to Rotterdam. They seemed eager to learn from each other and exchange ideas.

“I am stealing ideas from whichever city has solutions that could solve the problems in my city,” Mayor Patricia de Lille of Cape Town, South Africa announced. Mayor Sanjeev Nayyar, representing the northern section of the Indian megacity Delhi, said he was on the lookout for innovative ideas to solve problems with sanitation, public health and the environment.

At this Parliament, there were few trappings of parliaments: no gaveling of sessions, voting on motions or policy decisions taken. Still, many mayors who came spoke of ambitions that exceeded the usual conference business of networking and swapping ideas. They searched for ways to assert the collective voice of mayors despite the absence of legal frameworks for enforcing collective action.

Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando addressed the Global Parliament of Mayors, along with the mayors of Oklahoma City, Amman and Cape Town. (City of The Hague photo)

“We don’t need another network,” said Mayor Giorgos Kaminis of Athens, Greece. Marvin Rees, the youthful new mayor of the UK city of Bristol, went further. “It has to be more than just sharing best practices,” Rees said. “I would suggest that there has to be a small number of priorities we all work on at the same time … whether it is making our voice heard at the national governments or multilateral institutions. We have to get things done.”

Yet Mayor Eckart Würzner of the German city of Heidelberg was a bit more cautious. During one debate, Würzner said it was unlikely collective action by cities would be taken seriously. “We are not even at the table on the national and European Union level,” he said. “So how can we achieve results on an international level?”

Mayor De Lille countered this concern with a call for boosting the visibility of mayors in the international arena. “There is a lack of activism at the global level and mayors can bring that,” she said. “Let’s just start by organizing parallel mayoral meetings at every international conference, and as activists, show what we have to offer.”

There was some debate about how assertive city leaders should be on the global stage. Mayor Peter Kurz of Mannheim, Germany presented eight characteristics of the Global Parliament of Mayors that his working group came up with. One of them was to lobby on the international level for cities’ rights — a wider and perhaps more formalized acknowledgement of the role cities play locally in solving global problems.

Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb said that stance puts cities in a weak position, asking global institutions like the United Nations to listen to them. “We should not lobby, but claim our rights,” Aboutaleb said. “We are the ones who have citizens behind us. We should intervene instead of talking and bring something new to the table.”

Governance Gaps

If there was one thing everyone agreed on, it’s that national governments are failing when it comes to addressing global issues. In his opening speech, Barber said city leaders have no choice but to face challenges like climate change or an influx of refugees head on. “Cities,” he said, “are always open.”

Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City and the president of the United States Conference of Mayors spoke of “a void that needs to be filled.”

“There is an underlying theme here about the government that is taking place locally and the government that is taking place nationally,” Cornett said. “That synergy of trying to serve a populace and seeing higher levels of government fail time and time again.”

Cape Town’s De Lille noted her own experience at different levels of government. “I was a Member of Parliament for many years before I became mayor,” she said. “In Parliament, you have to think: ‘What am I going to say today.’ As mayor, you say: ‘What am I going to do today.’ When something goes wrong on a national level it might take a year for people to notice. But when something goes wrong in the city, it’s noticed immediately and you have to respond immediately.”

“National governments are detached from reality,” agreed Vincent De Paul Kayanja, mayor of the Ugandan city of Entebbe. “They are detached from the urban setup, and they are at quite a distance from the ordinary person.”

Bristol’s Mayor Rees offered a view shaped by the UK’s recent vote to leave the European Union. “Since the ‘Brexit’ vote, we think about how we forge our own future internationally,” Rees said. “Not dependent on the national government, because that can actually get in the way.”

Most mayors agreed that a global framework for channeling local action — this Parliament of Mayors — was needed. Yet many seemed reluctant to chart a confrontational path.

For example, Diego Valenzuela, the newly elected mayor of Tres de Febrero, a city of 400,000 in the Argentine province of Buenos Aires, said he needs to work together with the provincial and national levels of government. But he’d like to find a bigger role for mayors both in his country and internationally. “We don’t just take care of street cleaning and street lighting anymore,” Valenzuela said. “Today, mayors are involved in issues of employment, security, healthcare, economic investments and the environment.”

Nuanced Discussion

One of the most interesting discussions at the Global Parliament of Mayors centered around migration. Barber’s line that “cities build bridges, not walls” was repeated often. And the wide variety of voices in the room allowed for a nuanced global conversation on an issue that is often framed in polarizing ways.

Athens Mayor Kaminis, whose city has taken in many migrants even as it deals with an economic crisis, says EU cities have been helping each other out even as their national governments squabble. Juli Fernàndez, mayor of the Spanish city of Sabadell, spontaneously made an offer to the audience to take in more refugees, and then took to Twitter to appeal to the Spanish government to accelerate efforts to do the same.

More than 60 mayors from five continents gathered for the inaugural Global Parliament of Mayors (City of The Hague photo)

At the same time, Anna Szarycz, deputy mayor of the Polish city of WrocÅ‚aw, told me in an interview that her city is really struggling with being as welcoming as many would like it to be: “We used to be a very open city, but now people are feeling scared,” Szarycz said. “They do feel solidarity with what is happening in the world, but at the same time we have to learn from other cities how to counteract the sphere of polarization.”

Several mayors made clear the global dimensions of the migration issue well beyond Europe. Entebbe’s mayor noted that violent situations in countries surrounding Uganda have triggered numerous refugee crises in recent years — crises that increasingly play out in cities, not refugee camps. North Delhi’s Nayyar said in his city of 20 million, internal migration within India from rural to urban areas is the main issue.

And Akel Biltaji, mayor of Amman, Jordan, put Europe’s refugee debate in context. Amman’s population of 4.4 million people, Biltaji said, includes 1.4 million Syrian refugees. “The way we deal with it is with compassion,” he said in an interview. “These people are our brothers, they come from violence and experience stress. Here they share our schools, our water and medical services. The difference with Europe is that they are our neighbors.”

Working Out the Details

The mayors offered one another many ideas for how to integrate refugees and migrants, and pledged close cooperation between cities of departure and cities of arrival. It wasn’t clear, however, whether the Global Parliament of Mayors would produce any more action than any of the other recent global summits and meetings on the subject. No bargains were struck, no concrete agreements were made nor decisions taken.

That was partially by design. For the first Parliament of Mayors, Barber and other organizers did not want to get mired in questions about legal authority and other logistics of international decision-making. They mostly kept it conversational. They wanted to keep the momentum going.

The real work of establishing all those rules of the road will come later. Mayor Van Aartsen has offered to host a preliminary secretariat of the Global Parliament of Mayors in The Hague. “We want to be seen as the organization of mayors and voice of the cities,” Van Aartsen said. He pointed to next month’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador — where national leaders will discuss urban policy — as a place where mayors will “have to prepare our story and get it out.”

Van Aartsen was appointed by the other mayors to chair a committee of mayors from five continents who will work out the details. And there are a lot of details to work out. For example: Who should be represented at future Parliaments of Mayors? How should voting happen? Should big-city voices matter more than smaller cities? And who will pay for all of this, especially the travel of mayors from cities in the Global South? No timetable was set up for answering these questions.

These are concerns that Barber is now passing to Van Aartsen and the other mayors. “It’s like a dream come true,” Barber told Citiscope in an interview. “But right now, I am so tired. It’s like climbing the Himalaya. Once you’re on top you might have a minute of euphoria, but don’t really comprehend what you’ve achieved yet. It takes a few weeks to sink in.”

This article originally appeared at Citiscope is a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at

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