Should mayors rule the world?

Cities and their leaders can often achieve things that central governments cannot. Politicians will be asking this weekend whether Dublin would benefit from a directly elected mayor

Bull pen: Michael Bloomberg, centre, next to his cubicle surrounded by those of his staff and advisers at City Hall in New York. Photograph: Hiroko Masuike/New York Times

What if mayors ruled the world? That's the bold question being asked by politicians and academics at Interdependence Day, a conference in Dublin this weekend.

It’s a timely notion, as this week the people of the city were asked to tell their local authorities whether the capital should have a directly elected mayor and what powers the role should have.

Among the speakers will be Dr Benjamin Barber, a US political theorist who is the author of If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. He believes cities and their leaders can achieve things central governments cannot.

"More than half the world already lives in cities. In the US and in Europe it's 75 to 78 per cent. People living in cities are calling the shots," he says. Having a mayor gives these citizens greater access to power, because they have greater proximity to power. Mayors are generally from the locality; it makes them feel more answerable to the people."


They are also problem solvers, he says – they have to be or they'll be out of a job. "Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, said: 'I'll fix your sewers if you spare me your sermons.' He was speaking to Jews and Muslims and Christians; he was saying it was his job to fix problems, to operate beyond ideologies."

Whereas national leaders organise themselves around parties, and are politically ideological, mayors tend to be, or become, independents. Michael Bloomberg, the outgoing mayor of New York, “was a Democrat who became a Republican and then an independent”. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, “calls himself a libertarian anarchic conservative. The point is you can’t be partisan towards one group, the unions or to businesses: you need everyone to make a town work.”

Dubliners are also being asked if they want a representational mayor – essentially an ambassador for the city – or an executive mayor with decision-making powers. Barber says the city needs both.

“If every time he needs to make a decision he has to go back to a council or other body he won’t get anything done. But it is also very important that as a mayor he is representing his constituents, because his power emanates from them.”

Barber was a founder of the Interdependence movement after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. Its central tenet is that we are living in a world where terrorism, crime, migration, technology, climate change and disease operate without borders, yet we still seek solutions in nation states. He also puts forward the notion of a “parliament of mayors”, in which mayors from global cities could exchange ideas.

Dublin’s Lord Mayor, Oisín Quinn, a firm believer in the power of cities, is speaking at the conference. He agrees there is a role for a mayor that a government or prime minister cannot fulfil.

“People who run cities working together can be the most effective form of government. Cities can work together to learn how best to handle growth, because cities will be the ones in the front line, facing the challenges of population growth and dealing with practical problems of sanitation, transport and housing.”

Quinn wants to change perceptions of the city council and businesses that work with it. “Co-operation between the city and the private sector is vital.” Public-private partnerships “have a bad reputation, but Dublinbikes was a partnership between the city and a private company, and that’s a huge success.”

The Lord Mayor of Belfast, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, is also convinced of the power of mayors to turn around the fortunes of the city, but he doesn't necessarily see executive powers or powers for dealing with the nuts and bolts of running a city as essential to the success of a mayor. "I don't control policing or education, I can't fix potholes, but I do have the power to be relentlessly positive for Belfast and galvanise the energy of the city."

Interdependence Day is at Dublin Castle until tomorrow.