time for an urbanist “tea party”? the citylab conversations

The "tea party" US House members who currently dominate the news are unlikely allies of urbanists.  But on one core idea, a band of urbanist thinkers are starting to echo a key idea of the radical right:   Big and active national government may not be the answer.

Images-5Last week, I was honored to be invited to Citylab, a two-day gathering in New York City sponsored by the Aspen Institutethe Atlantic magazine, and Bloomberg Philanthropies.  The event featured mayors and civic policy leaders from both North America and overseas as well as leading academics, journalists, and consultants.  

I expected the thrilling mix of new ideas, compelling stories, and quirky characters, but I got one thing I didn't expect:  A full-throated demand, from several surprising voices, for an urbanist revolt against the power of national governments.

Al Gore said it with his trademark fusion of bluntness and erudition: "The nation-state," he said, "is becoming disintermediated."  If you're not an academic at heart, that means: "National governments are becoming irrelevant to urban policy, and hence to the economy of an urban century."  

On cue, the New York Times published an op-ed on "The End of the Nation-State," about how cities are leaving nations behind.  Citylab also featured a terrific interview with political scientist Benjamin Barber, whose new book If Mayors Ruled the World argues for the irrelevance of nation-states in a world where cities are the real levers of economic power.  (According to Barber, the full title of his book should have been:  If Mayors Ruled the World: Why They Should and How They Already Do.)  When I spoke with Barber later, looking for nuance, he was full-throated in ridiculing the US Federal role in urbanism.   On this view, all the well-intentioned money that the Federal government doles out for urban goodies should be spent by cities as they see fit, or perhaps (gasp) never sent to Washington at all. 

Follow this logic and you might arrive at a radical urban Federalism, perhaps even one that could meet tea-party demands to "Abolish the IRS!"   Pay taxes to your city or state, and let them send a bit of it on to central government to do the few things that only a central government can do.  Push power downward to the scale where problems can be solved. 

You might even separate urban from rural governance in a way that enables both to thrive, each at its proper scale, replacing the eternal struggle between these necessary opposites that makes today's political discourse so inane.  The "size of government" debate is just a pointless and eternal struggle between urban and rural experience, both of which are right.  Living in cities means relying on government for many things that the rural resident provides for herself, so of course the attitude toward government is different.   But what's really logically different is the role of local government. Both urban and rural experience provide good reason to be suspicious of big-yet-distant national government, which can be as unresponsive to big-city mayors as it is to a Wyoming county official who just needs to get a bridge fixed.

At most of the urbanist and transportation conferences that I attend, though, any shrinking the national government role is met with horror.  And that's understandable.

In the US, the prevailing local response to declining federal spending is outrage and redoubled advocacy.  In Australia or Canada, two countries I work in extensively, working urbanists and infrastructure advocates seem to agree that of course there must be a bigger central government role in everything, with the US often cited as the model.  In the US itself, it's easy to see the current cuts in Federal spending as a disaster for urbanism and infrastructure.  It is, but it could also be something else: an invitation to governments that are closer to the people to have their own conversations that lead to local consensus about funding and solutions.

If mayors do end up ruling the world, it will be because the city, unlike the state or nation, is where citizenship is mostly deeply felt.   A nation's problems are abstract; if they show up in your life you're more likely to think of them as your community's or city's problems.  And that, in short, is why the city may be best positioned to actually build consensus around solving problems, including consensus about raising and spending money.  

And yet …

Before urbanists join the tea partiers in trying to shrink the national government, they have to grapple with the problem of inequality.  As sites of concentrated opportunity, cities are attracting the poor as well as the rich, and are thus becoming the place where inequality is most painfully evident.  But no mayor can be expected to solve a problem that exists on such a scale.

In small-c conservative terms, of course, the problem is not income inequality but rather the declining credibility of a "ladder of opportunity" that convinces everyone that reasonable effort will improve their circumstances.  One reason to care about transit, walking, and cycling — for many points on the income spectrum — is that transportation can form such a formidable barrier to opportunity.

All through Citylab, hands were wrung about inequality and the need to Do Something about it, against the backdrop of a New York City mayoral election that is mostly about this issue.  A rent control debate, featuring New York City Planning Director Amanda Burden and economist Paul Romer, found no middle ground on the question of whether city policy can usefully intervene to help low income people.  Income inequality appeared to be one issue where cities can do little by themselves.

When I asked sociologist Richard Florida about this in the North American context, he pointed me to an article proposing that the US create a Department of Cities.  He has good ideas about how to keep this from being just another bureaucracy, but if income inequality is the big issue that only national policy can address, it's not clear that it should be tagged as an urban issue at all.  Cities are not where the problems are.  Cities are just where people see their society's problems most intensely in daily life, because they get out of their cars.  

The great city in the wealthy parts of the world cannot just be an enclave of success.  It will deserve the self-government that the mayors seek only if it relentlessly inspires, supports, and gives back to its suburban and rural hinterland, creating its own "ladder of opportunity" for access to the riches of urban life.  Only a few people can afford Manhattan or San Francsico, so those cities' money and expertise must focus not just on themselves but on making life in more affordable places incrementally more humane.  Turning Newark into Manhattan would just make it unaffordable, so some of the urgency must lie in less photogenic intervention that works for each place's price-point.  It lies in providing safe places to walk and cycle, and  a safe way to cross the street at every bus stop, even in landscapes of drive-through everything that will be what many people can afford, and what some prefer.  

That's why I'm happy to be working not just in San Francisco but also in Houston, where affordability is a leading selling point.   It's why I'm suspicious of transit planning that defines an elite "choice rider" as the only important customer, including much of the transit-aestheticism that comes out of urbanist academia.  Where are the prestigious awards for the best affordable, scalable, but nonsexy intervention that made low-income inner-ring suburbia more safe and functional?  How do we build not just the shining city behind a moat (San Francisco, Manhattan, Singapore) but a chain of humane and functional places, at every price-point, that combine safety, civility and opportunity?

Where is the money in that?    If mayors ruled the world, I hope that would be obvious.  So let's hope they already do.

17 Responses to time for an urbanist “tea party”? the citylab conversations

  1. Rick Pasolino October 14, 2013 at 5:28 pm #

    While shifting power from the national level to the local (county, city or metro area) level would be deisrable, that’s not how it would work out in our current system. Reduction in the power of the federal government in the US results in a boost in power at the state level, not the local level. This is true both formally due to the 10th Amendment, and in reality.
    US States have the same problems as the national government, only worse. Most state legislatures are dominated by rural interests, and if there happens to be only one major city, the prevailing dynamic pits city interests against “everybody else” in a zero-sum game. Given that reality, it’s no wonder that urbanists aren’t enthusiastic about reducing federal power. (None of this is meant to apply to Canada or Australia, about which I know next to nothing.)
    Here in Seattle we can’t choose to raise city or county taxes unless authorized by the state. That’s why Metro will be underfunded next year although the votes exist in King County to raise the necessary funds – the state won’t let us vote to tax ourselves, because it’s controlled by anti-tax zealots from the middle of nowhere. While their position may be appropriate in their own districts, the reality is that it’s easier to get votes by running against the “liberal elites” in the city than by promoting a positive agenda.
    A real devolution of power to the local (really metro, as hundred-year-old city, county and state lines are horribly outdated) level will take decades of work.

  2. Tom Roche October 14, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    “at every price-point”: Just to be blindingly obvious, that should be “at every price-point, including all significant externalities.” Backyard incinerators were an “affordable, scalable, [though] nonsexy” means for Southern Californians to do trash disposal, which they would probably still be using, if the coastal range hadn’t prevented them from externalizing costs.
    I agree that the relation between polity size (x) and policy goodness (y) is probably an inverted-U, and definitely assert that the CONUS should be broken into at least 3 polities, if only to allow necessary revisions to our very broken Constitution and to quarantine the Tea Party. (Lincoln be damned! Secession now! err, just as soon as I get my ass outta the south 🙂 However I also suspect that the incentive for a polity to externalize costs is probably inverse in polity spatial size, and there is definitely a need for governance at externality-relevant scales (e.g., global, in the case of greenhouse-gas pollution).

  3. Mike October 14, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    The catch is, the current US political situation is thoroughly disconnected with the economic realities of a modern metropolis. This happens at both the federal and state level. Major cities have been damaged for decades by anti-urban policies, whether they are intentional or not.
    It would make a lot of sense to invert the tax structure, for each metropolis to control the bulk of taxes generated. But how do you ween the “taker” states off of their federal subsidies, and the “taker” counties of the state? They have the political power due to decades of gerrymandering a system designed 200+ years ago for city-states, not state-provinces. Worse, the rural “takers” have no clue that their lifestyles are so heavily subsidised, and rail against the excesses of “big city liberal elites”, when in reality most cities have far less per-capita state/federal funding than rural counties.

  4. Eric Goodman October 14, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

    Municipalities and regions are more dynamic in the ability to grow and restructure relations and to differentiate themselves from other jurisdictions. A wide array of special purpose governments and utilities have developed that are altered with varying degrees of ease but generally less trouble than changing state or national boundaries. These more flexible local arrangements, councils of governments, associations, etc. allow cooperation some advantage over competition. Where local governments fail, as Rick points out, a hostile or apathetic state government often bears blame. States compete too, but they can’t grow or rearrange themselves (ok, they could, but that’s a big leap…) so competition has an edge on cooperation. Governments at all levels can get caught in a race to the bottom trying to undercut others, or a race to the top that builds on strengths. Matching the level of government to the task makes it easier to come to a decision, but not more likely the decision is best to produce a desired outcome. Cooperative processes often craft more holistic, satisfying and enduring solutions. The virtue of a Republic is that it tempers the passion of decisiveness and makes it yield to reflection and different perspectives. That might also be a bit of a weakness if changing conditions require action and political fads among impassioned minorities can halt the adaptation of public policy. At every level policies need to be adopted based on the circumstance in which they will operate, and reasonable expectations of the outcomes that will be produced. Any government goes astray if the decision-makers are pursuing ideological utopias rather than responding to real threats and opportunities.
    From the perspective of US transit systems I wonder how a reduction in the Federal role would impact safety and research. The strings attached to Federal aid include a lot of collecting information, documenting processes, stating intentions, accounting and comparing expectations with results. Requirements include volumes of regulations developed as a result of endless hours of sifting, sorting, analyzing, discussing, consulting, reviewing and adopting. Some see all this as a big dead weight on getting anything accomplished. To a degree I might count myself in that camp, but I hesitate, because some is very useful and productive of widespread benefit. I wonder what would be lost if the federal aid stopped and those strings all became untethered. Would the feds still get cooperation on data collection? Would there be gaps in our knowledge because some places chose not to share information? Would we have the same level of safety, the same consideration for impacts? I don’t know, but I suspect some places would have less.
    So it seems the Tea Party wants to empower states more, but urbanists prefer direct grants of authority from the federal government to local and regional entities. Municipalities are all creatures of the state so a jealous stance is taken toward federal authority passing directly to them. It has been easier to send funding directly to local governments. Perhaps the dynamic is changing now with funding at the federal level having been insufficient for so long and the desire to devolve authority growing. If we are witnessing a shift from a liberal-conservative dynamic to a progressive-libertarian split in the polity then debate will lead to a new direction for compromises. Instead of shaving the sheep and dividing out the wool like they used to, today’s politicians will find agreement when they can make progress on pressing issues by empowering lower levels of government to take over tasks currently performed at higher levels.
    Would it be plausible to empower organizations like MPO’s which exist by Federal mandate? What if, instead of raising the gas tax in a uniform fashion across the country, the Feds granted each MPO the ability to set its’ own rate give or take ten cents? and to craft a regional tolling policy? and assess fees to capture value from properties served by high capacity transit? Perhaps there are issues of states rights there? However, if states are released from some federal obligations, and get more control of the money raised and spent for areas not covered by an MPO, maybe a compromise could happen? The feds pass down authority with diminished but still effective strings to keep the data flowing and safety improving, while funding is raised and spent locally.
    Well, speaking of utopias. I must already be asleep and dreaming.
    Great post Jarrett. I love the moats around SF and Manhattan. How long until crocs can thrive there? 2050?

  5. Matthew October 14, 2013 at 11:59 pm #

    Kind of reminded me of Christopher Alexander’s Pattern #1 – Independent Regions – Metropolitan regions will not come to balance until each one is small and autonomous enough to be an independent sphere of culture, and then his conclusion – “Wherever possible work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world with a population of 2 to 10 million; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each with a seat in a world government without the intervening power of larger states or countries.” That was written in 1977.
    As an outsider looking in, and having worked and travelled all over the US I’d say your federal government is too large (too unwieldy and prone to piss money up the wall, and seems to spend enormous amounts of time on small areas of policy that a smaller government would have worked out in an eighth of the time), and your school districts too small (and leads to bad inner city schools and increases suburbanisation). There is a nice midpoint maybe akin to Alexander’s 2 to 10 million.
    But then I think cities should have their own transport funding and transport policy autonomy. In NZ, Auckland knows what it wants to fund, and the national government says no (no to the rail projects, and no to raising funds), same with Wellington. And in Australia the federal government will fund roads, but has just committed again to not funding rail projects. (All the big cities in Australia have PT that needs more funding). Transport planning should be bottom up as they’re closer to the real needs of citizens. Top down is too much about building ego-boosting big projects and funneling public money to construction company mates. The prime minister is not going to give a damn about a needed footpath or a bus shelter. A mayor might.
    There is one problem I see though and that is cities seem to get half decent mayors, but with little cities and towns it’s a bit hit and miss with the quality of mayors, and when they are bad they are really bad.

  6. GDot October 15, 2013 at 12:43 am #

    Keep your eyes peeled for Richard Sennet’s next book, or try to see if he talks at some institution you have access to: he’s wondering about the very question of how to make cities affordable, and is going at it in an interesting way.

  7. Eric October 15, 2013 at 4:59 am #

    I think the assumption is that national governments (specifically the US gvt) *will* spend lots of money no matter what. And if you convince them not to spend it on transit and urbanism, they’ll spend it on the Interstate Highway System, rather than giving it back to local authorities and individuals.
    More broadly: crucial issues such as trade, currency, and raw materials will never be addressed at the local level.

  8. Morgan Wick October 15, 2013 at 7:38 am #

    It doesn’t help that US state borders are entirely arbitrary, especially the further west you go (except California and Texas); the best explanation for the borders of the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states is that Congress wanted to give each state in a “column” the same amount of north-south width. Our political system, developed in an age when people were Virginians first and Americans second, is now being applied to a vast swath of the country that was carved up like the Middle East after the First World War.

  9. Simon V October 15, 2013 at 8:34 am #

    I will dissent on this. For one thing, the issue with cities, especially in sprawling America, is that a lot of the metropolitan area is actually in other cities, suburban cities that gravitate over a large central city. These suburbs tend to be richer than the central city, as they use the central city’s infrastructure but pay little to nothing for it. You could force merge them, but the result would be pretty bad, as is seen in Toronto, the interests of the former suburban areas are completely different than the central city and they will often group together to stop downtown investments.
    So that’s one problem. Another is that quite often municipal politics is often very low-brow, based on vote buying by taking positions on very localized “projects” or repairs, and not on a larger ideological basis. Urbanism is often thrown to the curb.
    More importantly, in terms of transit, I am one who believes that transit needs a hierarchy like roads to really compete. Feeder buses are like local streets (high access, low speed), bus lines are like smaller arterials (high access but a bit faster), subways/tramways/BRT are like boulevards (lower access, importance given to speed and capacity)… but to have a really good transit system, you need to have the equivalent of an interstate highway for transit. In countries with high transit use, this exists: the regional train. Not just high-speed rail, but a regional train going at an average of 50-60 mph, tying together cities and making people free to go quickly from one city to another on transit. That’s the real trick to Japan’s or France’s high use of transit, not just local services to move around in a city, but a complete national transit network that gives access to the entire country and can be used also for commuting. No matter how good the local transit system, if there is no high-capacity and dependable train system for interurban or interstate travel, transit users will be prisoners in their own city, unable to go beyond its borders.
    Cities could hardly create these networks, but national governments can.
    Finally, I must admit I like Japan’s zoning system a lot more than the ad hoc zoning system in North America. From what I understand, cities don’t control the zoning system entirely, the national Japanese governments has defined the land use zoning regulations by establishing 13 different land use zones. Cities can only choose where to apply these zones, they can’t tailor make one zone per street to impose very strict setback and building size limits like they do in North America (I’ve seen a zoning code of a city of 100 000 people, it had over 1 000 different zones, each with its own characteristics!). Of course, you need to make these zones well if you are to apply them everywhere, but a national government is much better placed to do it than local governments who are right in the thick of it and subjected to countless NIMBY oppositions.

  10. ATB October 15, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    While I do think there needs to be a better shift to local power, we can’t ignore the role state and federal governments have played. Rural areas contribute to a lot of food and natural resources production but they ard harder to manage on a local level because of national and international supply chains. While we are no longer a nation where state and federal programs form a backbone for directing the agricultural/natural resources economny I dont think we should ignore the value. What I do like is the shift of funding programs like transportation on a Metropolitan level. However, we are a big country and there is clearly a need to provide a framework that unites different metro areas effectively. Since reorganization of states to better fit metro areas is politically infeasible, more funding should be collected and distributed on a metropolitan level. Ideally in the long term, taxation should completely shift from the state to the local/metropolitan level as well as federal.

  11. david vartanoff October 15, 2013 at 9:30 am #

    Well worth revisiting Joel Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America and Edge Cities to understand why cities are ripped off by the suburbs and how state boundaries don’t align with population aspirations We are hearing rumblings again of the desire for the state of Jefferson, and secession calls from Colorado’s outback. That said, having lived through the Civil Rights fights with the neo-Confederate “states rights” shibboleth, I trust the Fed Gov (even with a corrupt SCOTUS) more than many of the state governments. Title VI forces transit agencies to at least make a pretence of serving all of the potential riders in their service/funding districts.

  12. Andre Lot October 16, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    Some mistakes are often made and repeated among the urban planning/city issues online community, and this post, the content referred by it and some comments are no exception.
    First, I don’t understand why so many people call states with smaller populations as “rural”. If you take a breakdown of percentage of total population of states living in a metropolitan statistical area > pop. 500.000, you’d see that Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Oregon, Nevada etc. all have a larger (not smaller) concentration of population around medium and big areas. That Denver, Phoenix or Salt Lake City don’t cut it into some stereotype urban utopia doesn’t mean the population dynamics of those states are not heavily linked to bigger agglomerations.
    Moreover, if local cooperative management freed of strings pulled by the federal government were any solution, we’d not see the plethora of conflicts between different jurisdictions of any metro area, be them agencies delivering integrated services that refuse to cooperate altogether (rail system in New York metro and Chicago metro), race-to-the-bottom between different jurisdictions to get each other business with dysfunctional tax cuts (Kansas City, MO vs. Kansas City, KS), or the mess created in places like Detroit metro, the vicious regional politics of Bay Area on pretty much anything etc.
    I actually think federal government has an important role to play, if not in micromanaging things like construction of housing projects, at least enforcing some standards nationwide. ADA compliance would be very unlikely to be implemented on places like NYC or Chicago if it were left to regional governments under the “wheelchair people can’t use subways, giv’em para-transit instead)”.

  13. MaxUtil October 18, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    I would point to Los Angeles’ Measure R sales tax and the linked “America Fast Forward” plan as a good real world approach to this issue. The municipality votes to tax itself directly for transportation investment. But due to the size of the investment needed and long time line, the city can’t directly borrow against its funding stream at good rates. This means the investments will be done over a 20-30 year period.
    But by getting the Federal government to borrow on the city’s behalf, it can greatly accelerate the projects while giving the city the kind of borrowing power that only the feds can get. So local money, local control, but the funding power of the whole country. Should work well if it can be implemented…

  14. MaxUtil October 18, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    …and to follow on my earlier comment. I think one of the advantages of more centralized planning and spending is to smooth out investment. State and local funding streams are highly cyclical. This often means that the best time for investments is exactly when there is a mad rush to cut spending. States and cities have a much more difficult time borrowing in order to smooth their investment or undertake large scale projects. This is one thing that the federal govt can do much better because it has so many built in counter-cyclical spending programs and (normally) easy borrowing ability.
    I will vote strongly though for less constraints to be put on those federal dollars. Cities often know what is needed better and could invest better if they didn’t have to tailor their proposals so much to fit federal guidelines of “good investment”.

  15. Eric Goodman October 20, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

    Taking on some debt at low rates to provide anti-cyclical spending is a good match to economic and political purposes. However, it means local governments have to have plans ready to go, but not implement them when they are flush with cash in a boom and citizens are crying out for congestion relief, and then do make transit compete for limited funds to build during a decline when there are many other needs crying out for the help and attention of government. Not impossible, but not ideal.
    Federal funding might work if it was all formula grants or if they had enough budget to truly meet the need around the whole country. Competitive grants can improve projects, but they also skew them in particular ways. Cities (like my former hometown of Madison) waste precious transit dollars endlessly planning projects that are trying to compete but will never be good enough to get funded in federal competition. Instead they should be encouraged, empowered with dedicated resources. They could focus on implementing the best solutions that they can fund with a stable, steady revenue stream. Incremental improvements would suddenly appear everywhere and would grow rapidly through virtuous feedback.
    Competition should make projects better, but it doesn’t seem to, or if it does, there are still many decent projects not getting funded, and using up local capacity that could be better spent. We could explore a more cooperative model, with locals guiding projects and priorities and the feds giving formula assistance and ADA/Civil rights/safety oversight to everyone. Get the feds out of the cost-benefit business. Let local government’s decide what a good return is for their transportation investments. Feds are only providing 50% to transit projects now and they can drive the costs up by 50% with process and delay. So what is the opportunity cost of chasing those scarce dollars?

  16. Eric O October 21, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

    What a “humane” outcome means I hope is open to clarification.
    I suspect a process for evaluating the values and value-outcomes is involved here. “Humane” might mean pushing pause. Painfully, that requires habitually kneading the clusters of ideas, habits of assumption and the values easily purveyed among planners and designers. This means to pause especially with those values we endear ourselves to without bothering to examine what gets implemented with them. As a designer, I guard myself of this destructive monotony of assumption by periodically rereading one of the most reflective works on the topic ever produced, Good City Form by Kevin Lynch (1981), who reminded us that “values that lie unexamined are dangerous”.
    I wish every planner put their values through the strainer of that book. If you have no time, put it through the ringer of Appendix C (yes, imagine that, an appendix of planner value reflection!), in which he considers the common vantage points. In chapter 3, why, he barely outlines an array (we suspect not very exhaustive) of “strong values”, “wishful values”, “weak values”, “hidden values”, and “neglected values” to consider. Dismay is not the intent, but the facts that place limits on cognition may make our goals humane, he taunts.

  17. Adina May 6, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    This focuses on the tea party ideology of local control and ignores the cultural aspects of teapartyism. In the city where I live, there were tea partiers out in force condemning an initiative to potentially make pedestrian and bike improvements on an arterial that travels through downtowns, because it is a sign of an imposed regional mandate, and impinges on people’s constitutional freedoms to drive fast at all times and places, rather than reflecting the desire of locals to go shopping or go to the library safely.