Traditional, formal democracy — long associated with the nation-state — is waning, becoming mired in ideological wars and increasingly disconnected from the daily concerns of people’s lives. Direct democracy, however, is poised to flourish at the municipal level, where citizens have greater opportunity to engage directly with their communities and to have a say in decision-making. Cities are the places where new forms of energy, participation, and initiative are taking place. Decisions here are less likely to be influenced by the interests of multinational corporations, as they are at the national level. A bottom-up approach allows citizens to take charge of their environmental conditions, fostering a strong sense of ownership and identity.

Over 55% of the global population now resides in urban areas, with 33 cities boasting populations exceeding 10 million and 801 cities accommodating over 500,000 inhabitants. As life within large cities has become more complicated, they have also become more adept at directly addressing fundamental human needs such as education, housing, and healthcare. Cities like New York, for example,  have enacted legislation ensuring the right to shelter guaranteeing temporary housing for those in need.

Because of their smaller size, cities have often been at the forefront of addressing discrimination and protecting the rights of minorities. LGBTQ rights in the US, for instance,  were championed first in cities (and, in some cases, neighborhoods), long before being adopted nationally. The first Gay Pride Liberation March took place in NYC’s Greenwich Village in 1970 to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In 1977, openly-gay Harvey Milk was elected a city supervisor after San Francisco reorganized its election procedures to choose representatives from neighborhoods rather than through city-wide ballots (Milk was known as “the mayor of the Castro.” a neighborhood with a growing queer population). The road to same-sex marriage was paved by the “domestic partnerships” that were recognized first by many cities, decades before the US government authorized same-sex unions nationwide in 2015.

Cities are now engaged with improving the quality of life for their inhabitants. For decades, once families had the resources to leave the urban centers they did – now, more and more, city residents are deciding to stay and instead fight for a higher quality of living, with more green space, better schools, bike-friendly infrastructure, efficient transportation, and access to data. Elected officials at the local level have been pressured to respond to these aspirations, with community organizations working to close streets to traffic, develop plazas and pedestrian ways, improve schools, establish community centers, and provide Pre-K and afterschool programs.

Cities have also led in giving residents a say in how tax money is spent. An experiment started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 called Participatory Budgeting (PB) in which citizens decide how to spend part of a public budget. It gives people real power over real money and has served as an anti-poverty measure, helping to reduce child mortality in Porto Alegre by nearly 20%. This model was later launched in many other cities, and PB was brought to NYC in 2011. By November 2018, close to one million New Yorkers voted in a citywide referendum proposing to implement a yearly citywide participatory budgeting program utilizing Mayoral expense funding, branded as “The People’s Money.” In 2022, the first cycle of The People’s Money in collaboration with 82 community partners was launched. Thousands of residents submitted ideas, developed ballots, and ultimately voted on projects. 46 projects were funded, totaling $5 million, with an overwhelming focus on youth and mental health services.

Democracy at the local level is complex and extends beyond representative elections. Being part of a Parent Association contributes to the democratic fabric of your city. Calling 311, the non-emergency city information hotline, informs your local administration about myriad issues including sanitation, water quality, air pollution, health issues, and human rights abuses.

In another direction, cities are increasingly taking on global issues, demonstrating their potential to lead and collaborate on a larger scale. More than 800  municipalities, for instance, have joined in support of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons through the ICAN Cities Appeal (the list of cities can be found here: link to the list. The upcoming 2024 Forum of Mayors, a formal entity within the United Nations, serves as a testament to this collaborative spirit and the momentum behind local leadership. This global network of mayors, interconnected and committed to sharing best practices, epitomizes the burgeoning influence of municipal governance.

With a majority of the global population now residing in urban areas, cities have the unique opportunity to address the daily concerns and aspirations of their inhabitants. From ensuring basic human rights to fostering participatory decision-making processes, cities are at the forefront of creating a more inclusive and responsive democratic fabric. As we look to the future, it is clear that the path to a more vibrant and effective democracy lies in empowering and strengthening citizen participation within our cities. The rise of municipal governance and the growing influence of initiatives like the Forum of Mayors serve as a beacon of hope, signaling a new era of bottom-up, people-centered democracy that has the power to transform our world from the ground up.