Thursday, December 12th, 2013
The Marion County Jail in Downtown Indianapolis. Source: indy.gov
The Indianapolis Business Journal reported that Mayor Greg Ballard is championing a plan to relocate the jail out of downtown. This is an idea I’ve been touting to anyone who’ll listen since at least 2009, so obviously I’m a big fan of the concept. Though let me hasten to add I’m not endorsing any particular plan as I haven’t seen one.
I’ve always encouraged people to think about public transit investments first as about transportation. But also to ask what it is that implementing an expanded transit system like IndyConnect would let you do that you couldn’t do before. This is one of those things.
More about that in a moment. But first, this is only one part of what I see as a long term reconfiguration of city government space in downtown Indianapolis. I call it my “master plan to win the war” because I see it as game changing for the east and southeast parts of downtown. The components are:
- Relocate the jail and criminal courts to a new complex on an old industrial site on the near West Side in proximity to the proposed Washington St. transit corridor. (I was thinking the former GM site originally).
- Relocate the civil courts into a new downtown state judicial complex. (The state supreme court already wants one of these, so include the appeals court and local courts as well).
- Renovate the old City Hall as, well, the new City Hall housing the Mayor, Council, and executive functions.
- Move the rest of the office users into leased space. (I was thinking originally about using this to anchor the MSA site redevelopment and add an office component to the mix of use because the site was so close to the old City Hall).
- Implode the City-County Building, demolish the jail, and redevelop Marion County Jail II and Liberty Hall. (I kid you not, one of the jail locations is called Liberty Hall. I think it is used for work-release today, so may be viable as that if managed properly and there’s a particular benefit to locating it downtown for access to employment).
- Put all the land used by these facilities back onto the tax rolls by selling for development.
The benefit of this is eliminating multiple significant barriers to development, ones that keep the various districts undergoing redevelopment from feeding off each other. And while it wouldn’t fully pay for the projects, it would put large amounts of prime downtown land back to taxable use.
I’m not suggesting that the city should go do all this right away. Nobody has this kind of money laying around. Rather it’s vision to be implemented as the components reach end of lifecycle and need replacement or hugely expensive upgrades. Though to some extent they are all already there.
First the jail. The sheriff claims a new modern jail could be run with his existing staff. This would save money by allowing the city to dump the private contractor that runs Marion County Jail II. (News reports have criticized the sheriff’s spending. So if even the guy who is accused of spending too much money says it can be done for less, take him up on the offer).
And why put a jail on your city’s most valuable real estate? That doesn’t seem to make much sense today. New York and Chicago don’t have their jails downtown. (In fairness I should note the federal government has remand facilities in both CBDs however). A message board commenter noted that even in Indiana, Evansville’s Vanderburgh County Jail is away from downtown.
I actually got this idea when I was living in Chicago and was summoned to jury duty. The Cook County Jail and a criminal court building are located at 26th and California near Little Village. I had some time to kill while waiting around during a recess so I found myself walking down 26th St. spending money. I’m like, if I’m spending money, maybe other people are spending money too.
Downtown, jails inhibit development. But at an old industrial site near a transit served commercial street, a jail could actually inject life into a struggling neighborhood while still being reasonably centrally located. That’s a win-win.
It’s understandable why the jail would be downtown now for historical reasons. And downtown is the one area that’s reasonable to get to with transit today. That’s important when 10% of households don’t own a car. Those families should not be burdened with an inaccessible jail and courts, particularly when the poor are alas too often involved with the justice system. That’s why enhanced transit service on Washington is so important. It’s the link that enables people to get to the new jail. In this case, transit actually facilitates de-centralization, not centralization.
Some will no doubt say this is a waste of money and the jail doesn’t need to be replaced yet. It would not appear that there’s a burning platform to do this immediately. And it’s easy to point at Wayne County, Michigan as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong. But let’s be realistic. Anybody who’s been around Indy a while knows that there’s always at least one nine figure public construction project going at all times. With the new Eskenazi Hospital just wrapping up, it’s time for the next installment, and this looks like it’s the one. If a nine figure project is going to happen regardless, it might as well be something that’s actually great.
The merits of spending can of course be debated. But I’d like to suggest one benefit of these projects that’s often overlooked. I’m totally speculating with this, I’ll admit. But I see the implicit commitment to keep these construction projects going as a way to bind organized labor into the governing consensus. Indy has had remarkably few organized labor problems and I suspect this is one reason why. Labor is being taken care of. It also means labor is invested in keeping the city healthy, because a broke city means no more projects which means no more jobs for union construction workers.
Apart from purely debates about dollars, I suspect the most controversial part of my master plan is imploding the City-County Building. It’s a classic modernist era structure on an entire city block much of which is devoted to a plaza (with I think underground parking). Notably, the gorgeous historic Marion County Court House was demolished when the CCB was built. Here’s a picture:
There’s not exactly a plethora of this type of modernism in Indy and demolishing it would be a loss. However, in my view it’s not a great building. It’s a massive development barrier/dead zone where it stands. And it needs huge money spent in renovations and is probably costly to operate. In the summer, even the 25th floor (where the mayor’s office is located), has insufficient air conditioning, for example. I say implode it and redevelop the block in the private sector.
Here are pictures of some other buildings I mentioned:
Old City Hall, empty and with the windows closed up. Source: ibj.com
Marion County Jail II (Source: indy.gov)
Wednesday, December 11th, 2013
A group of 56 photographers took shots of 49 cities to produce this time lapse of China. It’s definitely best in full screen high definition. The middle section is more landscapy, but still very good. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
As you already know, I like to publish some sort of audio-visual piece on Wednesday. Since these are usually short pieces, I thought I’d try an experiment and start incorporating a little bit of curated content from outside the world of urbanism proper. Let me know what you think.
This week a song called “Shining Star” from Nneka, a German-Nigerian singer who performs R&B and other genres. It’s from her 2012 album Soul Is Heavy. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
If you like her, you can listen to more on this You Tube page.
Tuesday, December 10th, 2013
[ Believe it or not, metro LA has fewer jobs today than it did in 1990, making it the only metro in America's top ten that can make that "boast." Today Joel Kotkin shares some of his thoughts on rebuilding - Aaron. ]
If the prospects for the United States remain relatively bright – despite two failed administrations – how about Southern California? Once a region that epitomized our country’s promise, the area still maintains enormous competitive advantages, if it ever gathers the wits to take advantage of them.
We are going to have to play catch-up. I have been doing regional rankings on such things as jobs, opportunities and family-friendliness for publications such as Forbes and the Daily Beast. In most of the surveys, Los Angeles-Orange County does very poorly, often even worse than much-maligned Riverside and San Bernardino. For example, in a list looking at “aspirational cities” – that is places to move to for better opportunities – L.A.-Orange County ranked dead last, scoring well below average in everything from unemployment to job creation, congestion and housing costs relative to incomes.
Yet, Southern California possesses unique advantages that include, but don’t end at, our still-formidable climatic and scenic advantages. The region is home to the country’s strongest ethnic economy, a still-potent industrial-technological complex and the largest culture industry in North America, if not the world.
In identifying these assets, we have to understand what we are not: Silicon Valley-San Francisco, or New York, where a relative cadre of the ultrarich, fueled by tech IPOs or Wall Street can sustain the local economy. Unlike the Bay Area, in particular, our economy must accommodate a much larger proportion of poorly educated people – almost a quarter of our adult population lacks a high school degree. This means our economy has to provide opportunities for a broader range of skills.
Nor are we a corporate center such as New York, Houston, Dallas or Chicago. We remain fundamentally a hub for small and ethnic businesses, home to a vast cadre of independent craftspeople and skilled workers, many of whom work for themselves. In fact, our region – L.A.-Orange and Riverside-San Bernardino – boasts the highest percentage of self-employed people of any major metropolitan area in the country, well ahead of the Bay Area, New York and Chicago.
Policy from Washington has not been favorable to this grass-roots economy. The “free money for the rich” policy of the Bernanke Federal Reserve has proven a huge boom to stock-jobbers and venture firms but has not done much to increase capital for small-scale firms. Yet it is to these small firms – dispersed, highly diverse and stubbornly individualistic – that remain our key long-term asset, and they need to become the primary focus on regional policy-makers.
Immigration has slowed in recent years but the decades-long surge of migration, largely from Asia and Mexico, has transformed the area into one of the most diverse in the world. More to the point, Southern California has what one can call diversity in depth, that is, huge concentrations of key immigrant populations – Korean, Chinese, Mexican, Salvadoran, Filipino, Israeli, Russian – that are as large or larger than anywhere outside the respective homelands. Foreigners also account for many of our richest people, with five of 11 of L.A.’s wealthiest being born abroad.
These networks are critical in a place lacking a strong corporate presence. Our international connections come largely as the result of both the ethnic communities as well as our status as the largest port center in North America, which creates a market for everything from assembly of foreign-made parts to trade finance and real estate investment. Southern California may be a bit of a desert when it comes to big money-center banks, but it’s home to scores of ethnic banks, mainly Korean and Chinese, but also those serving Israeli, Armenian and other groups.
For the immigrants, what appeals about Southern California is that we offer a diverse, and dispersed, array of single-family neighborhoods. Both national and local data finds immigrants increasingly flocking to suburbs. Places like the San Gabriel Valley’s 626 area, Cerritos, Westminster, Garden Grove, Fullerton and, more recently, Irvine, have expanded the region’s geography of ethnic enclaves.
These enclaves drive whole economies, such as Mexicans in the wholesale produce industry or the development of electronics assembly and other trade-related industry by migrants largely from Taiwan. Global ties are critical here. Korean-Americans started largely in ethnic middleman businesses, but have been moving upscale, as their children acquire education. They, in turn, have helped attract investment from South Korea’s rising global corporations, including a new $200 million headquarters for Hyundai in Fountain Valley, as well as a $1 billion, 73-story new tower being built by Korean Air in downtown Los Angeles.
Tech Industrial Base
During the Cold War, Southern California sported one of the largest concentrations of scientists and engineers in the world. The end of the Cold War, at the beginning of the 1990s, severely reduced the region’s technical workforce, a process further accelerated by the movement out of the region of such large aerospace firms as Lockheed and Northrop. The region has roughly 300,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than it had a decade ago, largely due to losses in aerospace as well as in the garment industry.
Yet, despite the decades-long erosion, Southern California still enjoys the largest engineering workforce – some 70,000 people – in the country. It also graduates the most new engineers, although the vast majority of them appear to leave for greener pastures. One looming problem: a paucity of venture capital, where the region lags behind not just the Bay Area, but also San Diego and New York. This can be seen in the relative dearth of high-profile start-ups, particularly in fields like social media, now dominated by the Bay Area.
But the process of recovery in Southern California does not require imitating Silicon Valley. Instead we need to leverage our existing talent base – and recent graduates – and focus on the region’s traditional strength in the application of technology. A recent analysis of manufacturing by the economic modeling firm EMSI found strong growth in some very promising sectors, including the manufacturing of surgical and medical equipment, space vehicles and a wide array of food processing, an industry tied closely to the immigrant networks.
For most Americans, and even more so among foreigners, the image of Southern California is shaped by its cultural exports, not only in film and television but in fashion and design. This third sector epitomizes the uniqueness of the region, and provides an economic allure that can withstand both the generally poor business climate and the incentives offered by other regions.
After a period of some stagnation, Hollywood again is increasing employment. Roughly 130,000 people work in film-related industries in Los Angeles, which is now headed back to levels last seen a decade earlier but still well below the 146,000 jobs that existed in 1999.
At the same time, the sportswear and jeans business in Los Angeles, and the surfwear industry in Orange County, remain national leaders. Overall, the area’s fashion industry has retained a skilled production base – over twice that of rival New York’s – and has been aided, in part, by access to Hollywood, lower rents and labor costs than in New York.
Taken together, these sectors – ethnic business, sophisticated manufacturing and culture – could provide the basis for a renaissance in the local economy. The smaller firms in these fields, in particular, need a friendlier business climate, a more evolved skills-training program from local schools and a better-maintained infrastructure. More than anything, though, they require an understanding on the part of both government and business that their success remains the best means to reverse decades of relative decline.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
This piece originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
Sunday, December 8th, 2013
I was a guest on the show “Where We Live” on WNPR radio in Connecticut this week. The theme was “Suburban Corporate Wasteland” – the increasing numbers of white elephant office campuses in suburbs. Apparently Connecticut has several of these and some buildings are actually being demolished because there’s no demand for them.
The entire program is worth a listen, particularly if you are someone trying to figure out how to redevelop one of these things. Several local officials join to talk about efforts to do that in their towns. If you want to just hear Yours Truly, I’m on for about 10 minutes starting at 38:30. Here’s the audio embed. If it doesn’t display for you, click here to listen.
There are a number of challenges converging to put pressure on suburban office campuses in some places:
1. Decentralization has run its course. There was a massive wave of suburbanization in the post-War era that has finished. That’s not to say things are going to be re-centralizing. Rather, the massive move from the core to the periphery is largely complete. The development pattern of the United States will continue to be decentralized, but it will largely be driven by organic growth rather than relocations. I think something similar happened with driving. The factors driving VMT growth above the rate of inflation – more cars per household, women entering the workforce, and such – are pretty much played out in terms of driving huge additional travel miles.
2. Corporate M&A and industry restructurings have dampened demand in some areas. In Connecticut specifically, a number of the complexes in question were from pharmaceutical and insurance companies. There has been a lot of consolidation in the pharma industry, for example. And with a challenging environment for new drug development, pharma companies are now really focusing on cost cutting and reducing overhead, not building massive new office parks.
3. The nature of work is changing. There was a popular trend for a while towards massive suburban office HQ campuses. For example, Sears moved from its namesake tower in downtown Chicago to a big campus in Hoffman Estates. These campuses had tons of free parking and lots of onsite amenities like gyms, dry cleaners, cafeterias, day care, etc. They also offered an idyllic, almost pastoral setting in some respects. Workers could spend their days cocooned inside the campus. Today’s firms are less vertical integrated and more networked. They are heavily globalized and collaborative. They’ve also figured out that people who don’t get out and engage with the world around them end up cut off from information flows, leaving them a step behind. Workers are also demanding more flexible working conditions. And of course there’s cost cutting pressures. This leads to things like hoteling, co-working, and telecommuting – no massive suburban office park needed.
4. In select industries and cities, there has been a resurgence in the fortunes of downtown offices. This has particularly been the case in high tech. Google’s second largest office is in Manhattan. Salesforce.com’s Exact Target unit employs a thousand people in downtown Indianapolis. Amazon is building a large urban campus is Seattle. Many companies in Chicago have relocated downtown from the suburbs. I’ve probably seen more announcement of these types of moves in Chicago than anywhere else. I’d caution that in most downtowns the trends in private sector employment have remained negative. But in select locales and industries, things have been looking up. In industries where there’s a need for proximity to high end business services or where there are unique clustering or labor force issues, downtowns will retain an appeal.
Put it all together and it’s clear office space demand is weaker than it used to be. Joel Kotkin recently surveyed the same trends and suggests that the US may have hit “peak office”. The idea is not that office space will actually decline, rather that it won’t be growing at the same rates as in the past. This will affect both urban and suburban markets.
It’s easy to see how these trends combined to pound a place like Connecticut. It’s next to NYC, the premier central business district zone in America. But it is also far enough to make commuting to most of it a pain (even the express train to Stamford takes about an hour). And it’s an expensive and business hostile environment to boot. Large scale employers who want a suburban footprint can find many better places.
We are in fact seeing this happen in finance. Goldman Sachs is booming in Manhattan, but has what I believe is their second largest US office in Salt Lake City, presumably housing back office functions. Deutsche Bank is building a big facility in Jacksonville. JP Morgan Chase has a huge presence in Columbus, Ohio, where its former Bank One unit was based. A place like Connecticut is the odd man out. Suburban Chicago is probably set to be another loser. But in smaller cities the suburbs will do much better.
Also, don’t be too quick to write the eulogy for the suburban office campus, even in the tech industry. A recent article in Der Spiegel featured Silicon Valley’s new “monuments to digital domination” – including Apple’s $5 billion Norman Foster designed campus, Frank Gehry’s campus for Facebook, and others for Google, NVidia, and Samsung. In Houston, Exxon Mobil is putting the finishing touches on a three million square foot campus that will employ 10,000 people. But unlike Google moving 2,500 people to downtown Chicago, projects like that don’t make national headlines.
I don’t think there will be a massive back to downtown wave, and the suburban office park is not dead. But there are headwinds facing suburban office space, particularly in expensive, mature markets.
Friday, December 6th, 2013
There’s been so much ink spilled over Detroit’s bankruptcy that I haven’t felt the need to add much to it. But this week the judge overseeing the case ruled that the city of Detroit is eligible for bankruptcy. He also went ahead and ruled that pensions can be cut for the city’s retirees. Meanwhile, the city has received an appraisal of less than $2 billion for the most famous paintings in the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
A couple of thoughts on this:
First, every city in America should be doing a strategic review of its assets, and moving everything it doesn’t want turned into de facto debt collateral into entities that can’t be touched by the courts. In the case of the DIA, the city owns the museum and the collection. Hence the question of whether or not art should be sold to satisfy debts. If it were typical separately chartered non-profit institution, this wouldn’t even be a question.
At this point, I’d suggest cities ought to be taking a hard look at whether they own assets like museums, zoos, etc. that should be spun off into a separate non-profit entity. Keep in mind, the tax dollars that support the institutions can continue flowing to it. But this does protect the assets in the event of a bankruptcy.
In the case of Detroit, it seems inevitable that at least some art work will be sold. Given that worker pensions are going to be cut, it would be pretty tough to say no to selling art. Assuming this is the case, post-sale the museum should be spun off as a separate entity to hopefully reboot its standing the museum world. As the trustees of the group that operates it have been adamantly opposed to any sale, one would hope other museums would not hold any violations of industry standards against them for, particularly if they acquire ownership of the building and artwork away from the city afterward. The city of Detroit doesn’t need to be in the museum business anyway. It has bigger fish to fry.
Secondly, public sector employees will have to start rethinking their approach to retirement benefits. The current mindset has been to grab as much as you can anytime you can because the taxpayer will always be forced to cover the promises no matter what. As the actual results in Central Falls, RI and now this show, that’s no longer a good assumption.
Detroit’s workers don’t have lavish pensions as these things go. But they weren’t shy about abusing the system either. They in effect looted their own pensions by taking out extra, unearned “13th checks”. They also used pensions funds to give a guaranteed 7.9% annual rate of return on supplemental savings accounts workers were allowed to establish. All told these “extra” payments drained about $2 billion out of the pension system.
This was not something the city did through an arm’s length transaction. As the Detroit Free Press reported, Mayor Dennis Archer was alarmed by the practice and wanted to stop it. But “the city doesn’t control its pension funds, which have been largely administered by union officials serving on two independent pension boards.” So he tried to amend the city’s charter to stop the practice. According the Free Press, “Archer backed an effort to block the payments through a proposed new city charter, which actually passed in August 1996. Enraged, several city unions and a retiree group sued and won. Archer tried again to block payments through a ballot initiative, called Proposal T, but it failed.”
The unions could brazenly loot their own pension plan because they felt rock-solid assurance that the taxpayers would ultimately be required to make them whole. This bankruptcy is showing that may not be the case after all. It should serve as a warning to unions everywhere not to get too aggressive with their shenanigans.
They’ll of course appeal the judge’s ruling and may win. But the Michigan constitution says pensions are a contract right. The very definition of bankruptcy is that you can’t pay what you’re contractually obligated to. Bankruptcy is all about breaking contracts. The bondholders have contracts that are not supposed to be impaired too, after all. I’m a fan of local government autonomy as you know, but as Steve Eide rightly points out, any freedom worth its name is freedom to fail. If cities and their various constituencies don’t suffer the consequences of their mistakes, they should be heavily micromanaged from on high.
When individuals fail, we have a safety net (unemployment insurance, for example). Plus we have personal bankruptcy to give people a fresh start. We don’t even worry about whether the person is at fault for their own position or not. We provide that backstop regardless. But that backstop doesn’t allow people to go on living like they did before as if nothing happened. Similarly, cities in trouble shouldn’t be abandoned, but they need to realize that there are genuine consequences for failure. A realization that failure has consequences for pension holders as well as the taxpayer should hopefully promote healthier decisions about how retirement benefits should be offered, funded, and administered.
Thursday, December 5th, 2013
Small scale special service districts in their various forms – such as conservancies, business improvement districts, and management agencies – are increasingly common in our urban landscape. This is part of a trend towards public-private partnerships, or perhaps more accurately in this case, privatized/outsourced government.
Are these a good thing or a bad thing? In my latest post at New Geography I take a look. It’s called “Are Special Service Districts a Bane or a Boon?.” Here’s an excerpt:
In fact, the move towards privatized services in wealthier areas could be a good thing for the rest of the city if it is used to free up funds for use where there isn’t as much private capital available. In this case a city could look to move parks, street cleaning, and other items “off the books” via special service districts in areas that can afford to fund such services largely by themselves. The city would then concentrate public funds in poorer or middle class areas. The tradeoff would be that the wealthier areas might be allowed to purchase higher quality services for themselves, but that would be structured in a way that let service quality be raised for others.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to see how this could evolve as a mechanism for “strategic abandonment” as well. In this case the city would cut general service levels then allowing wealthier areas to buy them back. Critics have charged that special service districts are exactly the legal mechanism that will be used to implement planned shrinkage in Detroit.
In the case of Detroit, the city has no good options and may well be forced by reality to make tough choices like this. But not everyplace has that excuse.
Thursday, December 5th, 2013
From the High Line in New York to London’s Silicon Roundabout to the Dharavi slums in Mumbai to bicycling in Copenhagen, British writer and urban historian Leo Hollis offers a broad and sumptuous survey of contemporary urban life in his new book, Cities Are Good For You. Unfortunately, his claim doesn’t quite stick, as Hollis never fully explains what the vignettes and case studies he has assembled add up to—while his scrupulous reporting uncovers plenty of unflattering urban details. The reader comes away with only a vaguely positive impression of cities’ potential to increase prosperity and improve lives.
Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
Note: I’m keeping this ebook post pinned to the top during the holiday shopping season. Scroll down for new content.
Here’s a reminder that my first Urbanophile Kindle e-book is out, conveniently in time for the holidays. It’s called “The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City” and you can get it at that link from Amazon. The e-book contains 28 of the best, most challenging, most make you think posts from nearly 1,200 articles during the first seven years of the Urbanophile. It’s a great introduction to my work. But what’s more, even for those of you who’ve already read everything, I’m including two new original essays as well as seven brief meditations on the city.
In The Urban State of Mind I write about innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. The essays are designed to provide a different angle on the issue from the conventional wisdom and prompt you to really start thinking about and wrestling with these complex and challenging issues.
Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
This week’s video feature is a time lapse of Barcelona, an amazing city, by Alexandr Kravtsov. As always with these, I suggest full screen, high definition. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013
[ You've heard me tout the writings of transit consultant Jarrett Walker before and his web site Human Transit. Well he's well-versed in many things besides transit. His background in theater and the humanities I think informs a keen analytical eye he brings to the city generally and many other subjects. He attended the recent City Lab conference, and had the following thoughts in the wake of the discussion there. Think of it as additional commentary on local autonomy, in line with my debate a couple weeks ago - Aaron. ]
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.
Last week, I was honored to be invited to Citylab, a two-day gathering in New York City sponsored by the Aspen Institute, the 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.
This post originally appeared in Human Transit on October 14, 2013.