City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

City states and global federalism

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Bruno Giussani reported something very interesting recently. According to a report in Corriere della Sera, Letizia Moratti, the mayor of Milan, speaking at the Science and Technology in Society conference in Kyoto, Japan, has essentially called for a return to organisation via city states rather than national governments.

Suggesting that problems were just beyond national governmental organisation at this point, due to the complexity of governance by nation states at the global scale – and for evidence, look around you – she said:

"The big cities have today a strategic role in the global context … They should start assuming some foreign policy rights and responsibilities … Let’s call it "global federalism … Many countries have not signed the Kyoto protocol because at a national level it’s often too difficult to commit to such engaging policies. But we could start experimenting with smaller-scale global agreements – among cities or regions"

I’m reading between the lines somewhat, and that may be as her words are coloured by a certain historical context.


But equally, there’s something in the idea. A fair amount of mid-90s European urban policy was subtly informed by similar thoughts, though rarely explicitly voiced – perhaps for fear that nationally-organised EU funding lines might suddenly dry up. But the sense that, say, Manchester has more in common with Milan, Tilburg, Helsinki than it does with London or the rest of the UK, has a certain credence, and is a useful transformative image to work with.

Giussani picks up the idea and runs with it a bit, also pointing to other powerful regional bodies such as California etc.:

"Moratti has maybe found the term that may make it stick – global federalism – and that can give a sort of theoretical underpinning to the idea that, if cities start acting as global actors towards sustainability, new mobility solutions and traffic strategies, clean energy, water resources management, etc, when you add it all up there could be significant progress even without national policies and international treaties."

Despite Moratti’s relatively right-wing stance,
it strikes me that there’s nothing politically determinist about this level
of organisation. It’s actually an attractive idea as there’s a genuine sense of meaningful, local, civic value involved at the scale of the city – and thereby rejecting individualist or libertarian politics. It certainly tends to find fertile soil within mainland Europe, with a history of city state organisation, and a robust, respected, metropolitan urban culture. The more powerful idea is the sense of shared urban experience from Amsterdam to Sao Paulo, Sydney to Helsinki, Manchester to Milan, Seattle to Shanghai, and so on. The notion of a network of cities extending their history of trading partnerships more progressively into areas of cultural and political collaboration is too delicious to ignore. So it’s just a little bit thrilling to hear the mayor of Milan beginning to make the case.

It’s also worth noting that many others have envisioned future city state organisation:


Lunch over IP: Global Federalism: what if the big cities start acting on global problems?


3 responses to “City states and global federalism”

  1. Joao Avatar

    despite being a very attractive idea..i can’t seem to avoid thinking that it is also a trojan horse..a means to loose most buttons on the “social-model” straitjacket..namely fiscal redistribution! Why should any city on this global federation be a net contributor to the regional, national, or EU budgets when they so “desperately” need the resources for their own “sustainability, new mobility solutions and traffic strategies, clean energy, water resources management, etc”??


  2. fra Avatar

    really the people listen Letizia Moratti? she is the Major of Milan, yes… but she has destroy the italian school and now she can do the same with a beatiful and economical city as Milan…


  3. 0ut0f0rder Avatar

    It’s easier to work towards your own interests than working together as a group to solve a problem. It’s even harder to unite other countries with different global agendas towards a common goal.
    There’s a lot of thought provoking video clips regarding complexity and how global problems become almost impossible to solve on a Facebook community page
    Why do we have a tendency to fight one another when we know sharing results in the most optimum outcome for everyone? Why does our biology cause us to hurt the ones we love, hoard resources and compete with one another?
    Heres the link to the video


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