Ben Barber died Monday. Many of you know him from his book If Mayors Ruled The World. He wrote 17 books, his latest, Cool Cities, was published a few days before his death. Noted academics heralded him as one of the world’s greatest political theorists. Universities and academics and national governments awarded him the highest honors for his writing, his thoughts, and his words.
I knew him as a dreamer; a dreamer with a passion, a dreamer with courage, a dreamer with tough words, a dreamer who knew what he wanted to do, a dreamer who would never stop pushing, cajoling, and never ever, ever gave up until his dream came through.
When I met him, he had already written his book; he was already on the international circuit to call attention to the nations on earth that cities and mayors are the future of our planet.
During my decades of working with mayors, I, too, had a dream that one day, we would have an organization where mayors, and mayors only, could sit, discuss, share, and vote on common beliefs and even more, vote on present and future actions.
When we met in 2015, our dreams collided and connected and coupled on his new-born dream of establishing a Global Parliament of Mayors. He had already presided over preliminary meetings in Rotterdam. Our minds clicked and we came together, united, to work together, to establish the Global Parliament of Mayors.
From the time I met him, along with his associate Eileen Haring Woods, I followed his dream. And Paul Leroux and I followed him literally and physically all over the world.
There were phone calls, emails, trips, and meetings over lunch, dinner, and yes, drinks. When I was with Ben, I seldom relaxed because we were working on our future project. We would make one step forward and then we would stumble and have to rethink our next move. So much of our working together had to do with people who we thought we had with us and then they would not be with us. Ben was obsessed with recruiting mayors and sometimes non-mayors to be a part of “his” Global Parliament of Mayors.
And there were times when Eileen and his staff and I with my staff could not keep up with who he had met or what he had promised.
But that didn’t matter. Ben was Ben. He had a dream and he never stopped using his incredible energy to make the Global Parliament of Mayors a reality. We adjusted to any decision he made with anyone he met anywhere in the world. That’s the way it was. And that’s why it was so special. Ben was Ben and we pondered but accepted it, because we believed in him.
My life has been mayors. And I never knew anyone who believes in mayors as much as Ben Barber did. That’s why I followed him and I was fortunate to have met a person who believes as he did and wondered once or twice why we hadn’t met earlier in our careers.
In The Hague on September 9, 2016, the Global Parliament of Mayors was born. As with the creation of any international organization, it wasn’t an easy birth and the organization is still new and in its infancy. The dream of Ben Barber though was accomplished and it could not have happened without his idea and his tenaciousness to make it happen.
While Brexit, Trumpism, and national populism are indeed pushing to change the international political landscape of the world, we must not forget what Ben Barber taught us.
His theory and assessment was, and still is, that the “humankind began its march to politics and civilization in the polis – the township. It was democracy’s original incubator. But for millennia, we relied on monarchy and empire and then on newly invented nation-states to bear the civilization burden of the democratic load. Today, after a long history of regional successes, the nation-state is failing us on a global scale. It is unsuited to interdependence. The city, always the human habitat of first resort, has in today’s globalizing world once again become democracy’s best hope.”
In Ben’s speeches, words, TED talks, and lectures, he breathed life into his words by stating the facts about what is already happening as we observe and are involved increasingly in networks of “culture, commerce, and communication.”
About his noted book, If Mayors Ruled the World -“What I want to do in this book is to get something done. To change the subject: from states [nations] to cities, from independence to interdependence, from ideology to problem-solving. The city is the right subject today because hope has always been an urban currency and mayors have always in the first instance been optimists in getting something done.”
I started off this piece saying that Ben was a dreamer. But, the bottom line is that he was a pragmatist. He knew if the challenges of the humans on earth are to be met, mayors must be involved. “Mayors count nowadays, even more in the age of globalization than in the past… mayors define cities as much as cities define them, and in ways that national leaders cannot and do not define the nation they lead. An occasional Mandela or de Gaul, or Nehru or Churchill, or Mao, or Roosevelt come to incarnate a nation… but ordinary prime ministers are ordinary politicians, whereas mayors in ordinary times are often extraordinary, bigger than the city’s character and amplify its influence.”
The news came, it seems, weeks ago; Ben was ill. The cancer took him before I could make myself face his death with him. I regret that. But in many ways, maybe I couldn’t face his death. And maybe I still can’t.
The Ben I knew, the dream he left, is still inside me. And we must go forward to keep the Global Parliament of Mayors alive and well. To that, we are committed – to keep on working to bring the mayors of the cities of the world together to simply make our cities a better place, where our people, as Ben would say, “learn and love, work and sleep, pray and play, grow and eat, and finally, die.”