Vol. 33 No. 06 (August 2023) pp. 75-78

CITY, STATE: CONSTITUTIONALISM AND THE MEGACITY, by Ran Hirschl. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. pp. 272. Cloth $39.95. ISBN: 978-0-190-92277-1.

Reviewed by Mark Rush, Department of Politics, Washington and Lee University. Email:

Ran Hirschl has written an important and provocative book that touches upon a core question of constitutional law: what happens when constitutional provisions become so antiquated and ossified that they must be changed but there is no mechanism in place to make such changes? He argues that constitutions across the world must be modernized to address the increasingly central role of cities and megacities in global politics. As the world’s population continues to grow, and as more of that population lives in or moves to increasingly dense urban areas, cities and megacities are becoming more central to the conduct of the world’s politics. Yet, they are not empowered to address the challenges posed by such urbanization and the global challenges that disproportionately affect their populations.

Contemporary constitutional institutions and imagination are captive of “constitutional structures, doctrines, perceptions, and expectations that were conceived with the modern nation-state and germinated through the age of revolution, a historical process that saw the subjugation of the sovereign city” (p. 9). Hirschl argues that states have, historically, been driven by an “existential fear of large cities” (p. 35). As he notes, “megacities are densely populated and are home to critical masses of people” (p. 35); they facilitate close human interaction, and the rapid spread of ideas. This creates “a potentially explosive combination of people, ideas, and spatial conditions that, from a statist point of view, is better kept in check” (pp. 35-36). Accordingly, cities across the globe tend to be insufficiently empowered to exercise the autonomous authority that would be appropriate to the roles cities now play in setting and/or managing much of the world’s political agenda.

Drawing from examples across the globe, Hirschl demonstrates the almost universal pattern in which cities have virtually no independent constitutional authority and that they are politically underrepresented within their nations. He sometimes casts this in terms of a global urban-rural rift, such as “localist resentments” (p. 49), or “anti-globalist sentiments” (pp. 42-49). As well, he suggests that this tension is exacerbated because cities tend to be characterized by progressive, destabilizing ideas and energy that threaten the more populist, rural parts of their nations. As a result, nations and states maintain a catalog of mechanisms ranging from malapportionment, at the expense of urban areas, to a refusal that will modernize constitutional architecture to prevent cities from marshaling the fiscal and legal resources appropriate and necessary to address the needs of their populations.

Exceptional cases, such as Seoul, Gwangju, or Hong Kong, demonstrate how well cities can address challenges posed by housing shortages, immigration, etc. if they are granted the resources to do so. In contrast, many cities across the global north are unable to address such problems without fleeing to the arms of private or corporate financiers that end up controlling tremendous portions of urban real estate in return for loans. Absent the constitutional power to tax and control capital, cities find themselves, on the one hand, to be the source of privilege and power for the well-to-do while, on the other, others are unable to tend to the needs of their less-well-off residents.

In sum, Hirschl offers six key points on which he grounds his conclusion that cities, or megacities, require more independent power. First, national legislatures tend to be more malapportioned at the expense of cities. Second and related, this underrepresentation renders cities unable to extract from the state the resources necessary to address their unique challenges. Third, the global pattern of increased urbanization demonstrates not only the practical need for cities to have more independent power, but also the crisis that looms if cities do not acquire the power necessary to address their needs. Fourth, insofar as this global pattern of urbanization is rendering the world more densely populated, it is necessary for nations to revisit and modernize antiquated notions of constitutionalism to enable states ,and megacities, the ability to address the needs of their populations. Fifth, and in particular, this would enable cities to address the challenges posed by the increasing inequalities among their more densely packed residents. Finally, states and scholars must reconsider the nature of federalism to treat different constituent units (cities, states, provinces, etc.) differently and enable them to address their political needs (p. 173).

Hirschl does a tremendous job of diagnosing and describing the plight of cities across the globe. His argument and analysis are unassailable: the antiquated visions of state power on which contemporary constitutional structures are based are irrelevant,if not contradictory and damaging,to contemporary global realities. He is driven in part by a clear concern for matters of social justice and equality. Were cities granted more power or, at least, power proportionate to their role, impact, population, importance, responsibility, these cities could serve their residents more effectively and help to address problems that affect them disproportionately. The positive potential posed by city empowerment is manifest in international city agreements and statements such as the C40 Climate Leadership Group, the World Mayors Council on Climate Change, the World Charter on the Right to the City, the Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, and so forth (see generally chapter 4, “Attempts at Self-Empowerment”).

In some ways, Hirschl’s focus on cities actually understates the importance and gravity of his underlying analysis. As the world population continues to grow and people gravitate towards cities, it is logical to assume that the scope and definition of rights, liberties, and governmental power will merit reconsideration. The impact of the exercise of my speech and property rights on my neighbors is radically different if we live miles apart, instead of living on top of one another. The state must play a much more active role of refereeing clashes among rights-bearing individuals in densely populated areas. The same can be said for managing services and addressing the impact of economic inequalities. This is the start of a reconsideration of western liberalism—not simply the role of cities.

Hirschl suggests that the natural diversity of cities and megacities will render them more likely to govern in a progressive, inclusive manner. While one might hope this is the case, the potential for dystopia looms as shown in accounts of life in company towns. As well, to the extent that they are corporate entities, life under the government of independent megacities could be as illiberal as that in any other brave new world or, perhaps, something akin to that depicted in The Circle. Also, insofar as many cities are afflicted by tremendous inequalities of wealth and power, one wonders how and whether the powerful residents would choose to surrender their power in the name of more equity and social justice. In this respect, it might, paradoxically, be necessary for states and nations to impose new rules on cities that would ensure that they function more equitably as part of any agreement to cede more power to them.

One wonders why Hirschl does not call for enabling cities simply to secede from their nations or provinces and become, literally, independent city-states. This would certainly resolve the federalism problems he notes. On the other hand, as noted in Timothy Walter’s Boxing Pandora, promoting secession can lead to the atomization of new states. Were New York City to become more independent, would the other four boroughs not want to gain more independence from Manhattan? Were Montreal to become more independent, would it not break up into anglo- and francophone entities?

I offer these queries not as gratuitous criticisms but as genuine responses to Hirschl’s provocative and important analysis. City, State raises important issues and poses equally important questions about contemporary constitutional architecture and the foundations on which it is based. It is a powerful, enjoyable work that will force readers to consider the impact of exogenous factors such as population growth (as well as things like advancements in science, technology, and so forth) on constitutionalism and the extent to which such factors require constitutional revision. The question remains: how to bring it about?


Walters, Timothy. 2020. Boxing Pandora: Rethinking Borders, States, And Secession In A Democratic World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Eggers, Dave. 2013. The Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopff.

© Copyright 2023 by author, Mark Rush.