Hirschl Symposium: Introduction, Contextualizing City Power Through a Global Lens

When Founding Editor Sheila Foster proposed a book symposium on Ran Hirschl’s new work City-State: Constitutionalism and the Megacity, we at SLoG thought it was a lofty project for us state and local types, who don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about transnational constitutionalism. Right here in the US we are dealing with disempowered cities that are home to 85.9% of the nation’s population and in 2018 produced 91.1% of its GDP. The New York metropolitan area, our largest megacity, continues to be the world’s single largest economy. It would seem self-evident that such economically powerful, densely populated metropolitan engines would have concomitant political power. Yet as our readers well know, the US Constitution does not even mention cities, cities are “creatures of the state” and the US federal structure has not evolved to reflect “city power.”


So when we read Hirschl’s lede: that more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and that by 2050, more than three quarters will, at least one of us (me) thought, “we got our own problems”.


But as she invariably is, Foster was right in her enthusiasm, and it is through her vision and her outreach to the author of the book and the globe-spanning contributors to this symposium, that we are able to bring you something really unique this week.


Hirschl’s groundbreaking book holds surprises for those of us who thought the war on cities was a US thing; and he traces a through line from the anti-city federalism of the old world to the city-based constitutionalism of the global south and Asia, where cities had a seat at the table in framing governance from the jump.


He provides case studies from Canada, Kenya and South Africa, the megacities of South Asia, and the population-dense “blue banana” stretching from London to Italy in Europe. By looking at the problem globally and comparatively, he helps contextualize what is happening in the US and even suggests some lines of attack for increasing city power.

The symposium also could not be more timely. This week, we are watching COP26 in Glasgow, and with it, the important work being done by mayors to accelerate progress on climate remediation, accomplishments that marked contrast to the plodding approach of the leading nations and emitters, as Professor Foster and her co-author Chiara Pappalardo have elucidated in these pages in several posts.


We have six essays in the symposium, and hope that Professor Hirschl will share some thoughts with us at the close. Today, we lead with thoughts from Asia: Mathew Idiculla of India’s Azim Premji University, Bangalore and Maartje De Visser, Yong Pung How School of Law, Singapore Management University, whose essays are a general analysis of the book’s arguments. On Thursday, Kristin Good of Dalhousie University will focus on Hirschl’s analysis of city power and its challenges under the Canadian Constitution and provincial government structures. Gabriella Saputelli of the Institute for the Study of Regionalism, Federalism and Self Government, ISSiRFA, of the National Research Council (CNR) Rome, Italy will discuss human rights in the EU context and its interplay with urban autonomy.

Next week, we will have some final thoughts from Professors Hirschl and Foster.


As Professor Foster has explained, problems of cities are glocal, simultaneously both global and local. We hope that by looking through the other end of the telescope, this symposium can add additional texture to the analysis of their issues by this blog’s readers.