On 5 May 2016 people from across London have the chance to vote for the Mayor of London. The people you vote for in these elections are responsible for many aspects of your everyday life – from the underground, local bus services and policing, to green spaces, air quality and Trafalgar Square.
However, on average, only 39 per cent of London’s adult population has voted in the mayoral elections, and the turnout has never reached 50 per cent. With momentum growing for London and England’s largest cities to have greater financial freedoms and more control over public services and planning for the future, our urban populations – especially the youth – need to be educated as to how they’ll be impacted and the influence they can have on decision makers.
“Learning how politics works on a national level can be a daunting prospect but cities like London are perfect microcosms of larger political states.” says Areeq Chowdhury, Founder and Chief Executive at WebRoots Democracy, who recognises the socio-political potential of the city as a tool for social change. “All the issues that face a country such as policing, housing, economic development, and the environment, can be found within these smaller ecosystems. Understanding governance at this level is far more digestible.”
Chowdhury identifies the benefits of using the city as a political idea to improve political literacy, not least as many cities are centrifugal forces both economically and culturally that people are drawn to.
“Every one of our cities now exhibits its own unique brand and culture that attracts people far and wide. But imagine if we could better harness the relationship people have with their cities to heighten political engagement? ‘Urban citizenship’ therefore is certainly an interesting idea, and one that should warrant serious consideration.”
Urban citizenship is a political concept that proposes establishing a city’s own sovereignty by introducing a new type of multiple and flexible city citizenship. In France, for example, people who are not citizens, such as immigrants, and who can’t vote in national elections, can still vote in local elections. Other examples include New Haven in the United States, that issued formal identity cards to residents – regardless of national citizenship – entitling them to services and Takoma Park, also in the US, which allows all residents (age 16+) to vote in municipal elections even if they are not US citizens.
This has helped alleviate a lot of problems which existed in these cities as there were groups of people who were marginalised economically and politically. As Professor David Harvey, a proponent of the idea of the right to the city explains, urban citizenship gives people a sense of ‘belonging’ as they become active participants in the political process by voting on what is going on around them, rather than them feeling alienated from the space.
We know that cities are seats of power. Traditionally, the city houses the cathedral, the parliament building, the castle, the university – all the concrete locations of power over the larger polity. We also know that cities, especially global hubs like London, have an incredibly rich social makeup; a growing migrant population and an extremely high social density. It’s all the more important, then, to take steps that are sensitive to difference while promoting engagement.
Many will feel uncomfortable with the notion of granting sovereignty to a city as it goes against the idea of national citizenship but when you consider that over 50% of the global population live in cities, it may be time for a rethink.