Hirschl Symposium: What Next When Constitutionalization Does Not Empower Cities?

The 21st Century is hailed as the “Century of the City” as more than half of the world population is now living in urban areas, which is set to increase to three-fourths by 2050. With urban population almost doubling in the last quarter of the century, we have been witnessing and undergoing a fundamental transformation in the way our society and economy are organized. However, our constitutional visions, institutions, and doctrines have largely failed to acknowledge or respond to this inexorable reality. While political scientists, sociologists, and urban theorists have examined the rise of megacities and its implications, legal and constitutional scholars have mostly ignored the city as a key unit of political authority. Ran Hirschl’s latest book City, State: Constitutionalism and the Megacity seeks to address this fundamental void in constitutional law and scholarship through a rich and detailed comparative constitutional analysis.


City, State is the first major book-length inquiry in comparative constitutional studies that explores the role of cities in constitutional systems. Hirschl examines the “bewildering silence” on cities and urbanization in constitutional law, thought, and practice and argues that outmoded concepts of spatial governance steeped in the Westphalian constitutional order needs to make way for new systems that reflect 21st century realities. The book interrogates how national constitutions treats cities and local governments in both “old world” (global north) and “new world” (mostly global south) constitutional orders. It examines why constitutional empowerment of cities does occur in some cases, explores the scope of city self-empowerment through international inter-city networks furthering human rights, environmental sustainability and “the right to the city”, and advances arguments for assigning greater constitutional status to megacities.


Hirschl’s new book is a pathbreaking contribution to constitutional scholarship for three important reasons. Firstly, it breaks the “constitutional blind spot” on cities and local governments in legal scholarship and places the city in the center of constitutional thought. On the one hand, social science scholarship on urbanization has largely ignored the legal power of cities, and on the other, legal scholars have mostly failed to consider city governments in the discussions on federalism and constitutionalism. Within legal scholarship, the limited literature on cities has often been framed within niche domains like local government law and law and geography. Hirschl’s book is significant since it elevates the legal discourse on cities to a core element in constitutional law. Further, it pays significant attention to non-legal scholarship and brings the discussion on cities and constitutionalism in conversation with the existing social science literature on urbanization.


Secondly, it is a serious attempt at comparative constitutional analysis since it undertakes a meticulous examination of the status of cities in constitutional systems across both the global north and the global south. It rescues the city from North American-centric legal scholarship and puts it in a truly global comparative perspective. Scholarship in the