Sometimes, change happens with a bang, like on 9/11. More often, it’s the result of quieter incremental actions that happen over the course of a lifetime.
For Benjamin R. Barber, change was inevitable, but not fast enough. The former university professor, theorist, author, playwright and interlocutor passed away on Monday, much too soon to see his Global Parliament of Mayors drive the change needed to make cities equitable, inclusive, resilient and sustainable.
Ben understood the value of time. He lost patience with the needless delays that we often use as an excuse for fearing failure. Life is a series of acts, and Ben directed his own and those that he touched with a finesse that stirred passions and more importantly, action.
I first met Ben as a freshman at Rutgers College. I like to say that Ben was my first professor, and at an 8 a.m. class, he exhibited a flamboyant animation that few could resist. It was always full, and his lectures on Hobbes, Locke and Machiavelli confounded and challenged many a student. He taught us to think beyond daily life and find inspiration in places we never had thought to look. Ben’s style was to summon our inner beings to dare greatness.
A few years later, Ben invited me and several other young planners to explore the creation of a new Agora. How could urban planning create civic spaces that would inspire better governance? In New Jersey, of all places! As if at the foot of a master, we designed policies and practices that could transform public places, rekindling the communal spirit of ancient Greeks and Romans, and addressing the challenges of equity and inclusion. The lessons I learned through that exercise stayed with me through numerous other planning projects. I carried forward the message that public life matters, and planners must create the civic infrastructure to enable it.
Ben upped his game when he convinced President Bill Clinton to create AmeriCorps. It was announced at the Rutgers Athletic Center, a fitting homage to its author’s home. I was there to witness Ben’s delight at the announcement. Once you’ve seen Ben’s smile, a mix of Cheshire cat and saintly goodness, you recognize what true pride is.
Shortly thereafter, Ben published perhaps his most popular book, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” which predicted the continued worldwide struggle between corporate-controlled globalization and extreme nationalism and theocracy. Although Ben expressed regret in the second edition for using the term “jihad,” he clearly understood how globalized culture could threaten parochial forces, and held a negative prognosis barring active intervention to create civic engagement through small local democratic institutions. In the wake of 9/11, he formed the Interdependence Movement and created Interdependence Day, an annual gathering held each year on September 12 to seek alternatives to terrorism and the war on terrorism and solutions rooted in cooperation and pooled sovereignty.
Recognizing the inherent power of cities, Ben sought ways to empower mayors to fill the increasing void in urban policy left by Congress and the president. In an era when saying no was considered an achievement, Ben sought ways to say yes, postulating that with or without federal aid, mayors have to produce. His book, “If Mayors Ruled the World” became the touchstone for a new way of thinking regarding urban governance. He proclaimed cities “the primary incubator of the cultural, social, and political innovations which shape our planet … unburdened with the issues of borders and sovereignty which hobble the capacity of nation-states to work with one another.” Working with mayors from around the world, Ben created an ethos that became a doctrine and eventually a compact and network of mayors that found strength in each other and their cause.
Reacting to Ben’s passing, Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris and chair of C40 Cities, gave this testimonial: “I will miss his advice and guidance, as will so many other mayors from around the world, for whom he was an inspiration and a source of wisdom. Yet, his ideas will live on and continue to guide the work of C40 Cities.” She credited his role in helping to bring mayors together to inspire global action on climate change. “The leadership of mayors in delivering the Paris Agreement, limiting global temperature rise and creating sustainable cities ready for the future, will be a fitting legacy for Benjamin Barber.”
What amazed me most was Ben’s energy and passion, traits of all great leaders. Weeks before his death, Ben shared his wisdom at the Women4Climate Conference in New York City, empowering the next generation of young women to lead the fight against climate change in cities. He also finalized his last book, “Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming.” I received an advance copy just days before his death. A year ago, Ben shared a draft with me, and asked for my impressions. I humbly offered modest comments, knowing they would be embraced in true gratitude.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, the Global Parliament of Mayors declared Ben “a man of action as much as theory.” Recognizing Ben as a true Renaissance man, GPM concluded, “He set out to change the world and succeeded.” Amen.
Tom is president, CEO and publisher of Next City. Before joining the organization in 2015, he directed the Center for Resilient Design at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Prior to that, he ran the Regional Plan Association’s New Jersey office, and served as a senior adviser on land use for two New Jersey governors. Tom is a licensed professional planner, and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, as well as an adjunct professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he teaches land use planning and infrastructure planning.