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The Brexit Vote: A Cities’ Perspective

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on July 05, 2016

The result of the British referendum to withdraw from the European Union will likely give rise to a renewed global role for cities.
Britain's decision to withdraw from the European Union will likely give rise to a renewed global role for cities.

From the 14th to 17th Century, a collection of cities made up the Hanseatic League in what is now northern Europe. Stretching more than 2000 km from London in the west to Novgorod in the east, the League safeguarded commerce along the Baltic and North Sea for more than 300 years. From humble beginnings in the trade of woolen fabrics, the League’s influence grew as it zealously guarded monopolies in key cities. Member cities took responsibility for military protection and collectively encouraged trade among themselves.

The rigid control of the League, its closed guilds, and inability to share the growing wealth, eventually brought about its demise. In 1597, Queen Elizabeth I of England expelled the League from London. The League of cities was replaced with a system based on countries. England, the Netherlands, Sweden, Prussia and Germany provided security and safeguarded trade. The transition was slow but in 1648 the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War effectively replacing local control by cities and solidifying the modern system of states (countries).

The Brexit vote will not end the paramount role of countries. However, the vote to withdraw will likely give rise to a renewed global role for cities.

Today’s fabric of globalization is anchored by agencies like the United Nations that came into existence in 1945 with 45 member countries. As the world encouraged more open and rules-based trade, globalization flourished and associations like the European Union strengthened. However growing in lock-step with closer global cooperation was also the splintering aspects of nationalism. In just 60 years the UN ballooned to more than 195 member countries. One of the first fall-outs of the Brexit vote is talk about Scotland voting to go it alone as an independent country. And if London could vote for independence it also would likely leave England.

Since the Treaty of Westphalia cities are often seen as ‘junior levels’ of government. This subordinate role is reinforced as urban areas are further divided by service providers and local governments. ‘Toronto’, or more accurately the Golden Horseshoe, a typical large urban area is actually a collection of some 35 governments stretching from Oshawa to Waterloo and another twenty-or-so agencies like Metrolinx (transportation), OPG and Hydro One (government-owned utilities providing a portion of Ontario’s electricity generation and distribution), local utilities and provincially controlled services like the sale of alcohol, health and education.

Power usually needs to be protected and ‘senior’ governments do their best to keep cities junior. For example, no one speaks for the Toronto area (or the Golden Horseshoe). Mayor John Tory is certainly an important voice but represents less than half the area’s voters (and economy). Kathleen Wynne and Justin Trudeau of course know the importance of Toronto within Ontario and Canada, yet they often face more pressing challenges of managing regional priorities and factions (and amassing enough voter support).

The Rise of Cities

For the last 350 years, cities relinquished power to countries. The next 50 years will likely see a rise in the assertiveness of cities. Around the world cities are growing fast. Cities are already home to almost all of the world’s wealth generation: they will demand a stronger voice in safeguarding (and possibly sharing) this wealth. Cities have too much to lose as the impacts of climate change and global inequities grow, and as seen with London and Brexit, cities can no longer leave the task to senior levels of government. The angst that brought about the Leave victory is growing everywhere, especially in cities.

As stock markets contracted and real estate values dropped, more than $4 trillion was lost in response to the Brexit vote. The total cost of delivering the Sustainable Development Goals of education, health care and basic service provisions to all low-income countries (and largely stemming the tide of environmental refugees) is less than this amount (about $150 Billion per year for 20 years).

The City of London provides an important illustration of the emerging role of cities. In 2005 London, through then Mayor Ken Livingston, convened 18 large cities to discuss greater impetus for climate change. The cities believed more effort was needed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions (especially as cities will be charged with the lion’s share of GHG mitigation, and will also be the most impacted by a changing climate). The group grew into the C40 and is now one of the most important agencies in climate change efforts.

On June 23rd, the City of London voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. Within 24 hours of the Brexit vote to leave the EU, London’s current Mayor Sadiq Khan issued a statement confirming the City’s welcome to foreigners. Boris Johnson, London’s former mayor, and chief advocate for the Leave campaign, stayed silent, enmeshed in party politics. Circumstance will more-and-more call upon the more pragmatic and fact-based governance styles such as Mayor Khan.

Large cities like London, Toronto (Golden Horseshoe) and Jakarta, are as divisive and fractured as anywhere. They will however now need to lead in growing globalization from the grassroots up. Former Mayor LaGuardia suggested that there is no Democrat or Republican way to collect New York’s garbage. In addition to anchoring our economies and cultures, cities when well-managed give us pragmatism and hope.

The rise of cities will be seen through at least three growing trends:

1. Larger cities will encourage the emergence of ambassadors and statespeople to speak on their behalf. Urban areas (large cities) like Greater Toronto, regional Chicago, Greater London, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, ‘Mother’ Jakarta, and New York need their own voice. The voice needs to mix pragmatism and politics, and it needs to be heard. The voice also needs to articulate for, and show how someone living in outskirt suburbs such as Toronto’s Port Perry, is as much a participant and (hopefully) a benefactor of a greater Toronto as someone living in the downtown core.

Cities are the best antidote to the politics of divisiveness. The message of fear and withdrawal, argued by the likes of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Marie Le Pen and Rob Ford, is best countered by people representing the collectivism, pragmatism and potential of cities.

2. Larger cities, either directly or through new or revised associations, will spend less time lobbying provincial and national governments and more time engaged directly with various publics. Reputational management for cities will less-and-less be delegated.

Much of the Brexit vote to leave was based on dissatisfaction with globalization and a perception of elites caring little for people who do not see the benefits of globalization. Toronto (Golden Horseshoe) needs to work directly with Thunder Bay and rural Saskatchewan. Montreal needs to work with Quebec’s remaining separatists to ensure that everyone sees how a strong city is in everyone’s interest, and how best to get there. The genuine champions and benefactors of globalization need to be cities – and advocating greater global integration can no longer be left to national governments. This imperative will grow as the world faces even more turbulence and uncertainty with climate change and massive geopolitical shifts.

3. Cities should be the largest benefactors of fact-based governance. Akin to eating your vegetables, cities know it is in their best interest to collect and publish high quality city indicators. The facts cannot always speak for themselves but when their quality is assured the chances of their influence is much greater. Cities will increasingly collect and publish common financial metrics, and quality of life and service provision indicators (e.g. ISO 37120 global city sustainability indicators based in Toronto).

The Leave voters in the Brexit referendum may not have fully appreciated the ramifications of their vote. Governments the world-over might also be unaware of how much the vote will further strengthen the role of cities. However one of the biggest impacts of the vote will be the shift of power (back) to cities.

Filed under: Sustainability 101