Why do cities get so little respect from state and national governments?
Photo: Henrique GodoyLast week, I attended the C40 summit in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The C40 is a network of cities across the globe that are working to address climate change. It recently absorbed the (Bill) Clinton Climate Initiative, a story you can read about in The New York Times, and now represents enormous amounts of know-how, money, and, um, ego.
There was a lot to take in at the summit — lots of new reports released, lots of speeches, lots and lots of PowerPoint presentations (God help us all) — but one theme that kept coming up in private conversations deserves some attention.
As I talked with folks from cities around the world, again and again I heard frustration over the relationship between metropolitan areas and state or national governments. Just about everyone I talked to felt that their city did not receive the support it deserved based on the contributions it made. In most every country, cities contain most of the people and produce most of the economic activity, but state and national resources tend, for political reasons, to be spread evenly rather than concentrated on metros. Rural areas have disproportionate influence over state and national officials, so they end up getting more than they give, effectively siphoning resources out of metro areas.
This came up, unbidden, as I chatted with a couple of gentlemen from Karachi, Pakistan, during a visit to the soccer museum. It came up as I talked with a woman from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on the bus to the symphony. It came up with a guy from Houston, Texas, outside a cocktail party. And I heard it from more than one Sao Paulo native.
Now, I’m fairly familiar with why this happens in the U.S. I’ve written many times about how and why rural areas are overrepresented in the Senate and the federal government generally. And — though I’ve written about this less — I’m also pretty familiar with the story of how U.S. state governments come to be captured by suburban and rural interests, how they spread resources evenly across the state for self-interested electoral reasons and in response to campaign contributions.
But I wasn’t aware of how universal the phenomenon is. Why does this same dynamic seem to replicate all across the world? That’s probably something for sociologists and historians to answer, not Some Blogger, but I’m sure it has to do with the wildly accelerated urbanization of the last half-century:
I suppose it’s just that humanity’s governance mechanisms have not kept pace with their changing circumstances. I suspect there’s a rich story here to tell — if you know of good links or resources, leave them in comments.
Also, I have a question to all you readers who are involved in urban issues: What kind of policy changes would you like to see to better empower metro areas? How can the current imbalance between metro and state/national governments be remedied? I’d love to hear some concrete ideas. You can either leave them in comments or drop me an email.