This is the last in a Series on how American Politics always involves vertical interactions between several “levels” of governance – supranational, national, and subnational. Modern life revolves around cities, but American cities have only limited legal authority to govern themselves. This has long been a problem and will become more so as localities must build the capacity to cope on their own with new challenges such as disaster impacts from climate change.
Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley 2013. The metropolitan revolution: How cities and metros are fixing our broken politics and fragile economy. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 258 pages.
Gerald E. Frug and David J. Barron 2008. City bound: How states stifle urban innovation. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 260 pages. (Also Frug 1999 City making, Princeton, 256 pages.)
Recently, because of intensifying partisan deadlock, the USA’s national government has become increasingly unable to adopt active policies. State governments have become increasingly Republican, preferring as little government as possible. So some of the people who want to use government to solve urgent problems have turned to the USA’s big cities instead, looking for examples of policy accomplishment as models of how to get things done.
A significant example is the 2013 book The metropolitan revolution, co-authored by one of the USA’s best political scientists of subnational government (Bruce Katz), who runs a program on metropolitan governance at the USA’s best policy think tank (Brookings). The book begins by eloquently identifying what is hopeful about metropolitan governance, compared to national and state government (1-17, summarized below).
The first half of the book then reports four hopeful examples of recent local accomplishments. New York City has promoted technological innovation to maintain its global role. Denver has expanded its transit system in order to become a world-class city. Northeast Ohio is recycling its old industrial skills for new post-industrial purposes. Houston has created institutions for integrating new immigrants into city life. (Please see the book itself for details.)
Based on these experiences, the second half of the book identifies some promising future directions: innovation districts within cities, global networks between cities, and strengthening cities’ sovereignty in relation to state and national government. (These topics illustrate the vertical relations between levels that is the Theme of this Series of Posts.) The book concludes with recommendations for how a city can start, spread, and scale its own metropolitan revolution.
Among these topics, this Post focuses on cities’ sovereignty (171-191). As Katz and Bradley are well aware, the startling thing about American cities is that they have so little legal authority to govern themselves. No American metro regions have formal governments covering the whole region. The many formal municipal governments within the region are created and controlled by state governments and also are highly constrained by national government policies and agencies.
The weakness of the governance of USA metro regions is something that it is easy to miss but important to understand. Everyone has strong impressions of USA world cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston (the four biggest). Who would guess that these famous cities have little authority to govern themselves? This is quite unlike the PRC, which creates large municipalities (shi) that manage whole metro regions.
Americans are accustomed to their lack of formal governments that manage a wide range of functions across whole metro regions. Many middle class Americans have “escaped” from central cities to partially self-governing suburbs, so they would oppose placing both city and suburbs under one big metro government. Instead, Americans accept only special purpose “authorities” managing one or a few functions across all or part of a metro region.
Some American academics have long regarded these arrangements as providing adequate GOVERNANCE, even without formal GOVERNMENT. The special authorities manage some matters. On other matters, municipalities can negotiate cooperation between themselves. “The market” coordinates activities and allocates resources. Citizens can move between municipalities to ones that suit their incomes and preferences.
In contrast, recently other academics have emphasized how problematic these arrangements are. The best example – highly recommended by Katz and Bradley – is Gerald Frug and David Barron 2008 City Bound, cited above and reported below in the last third of this Post. (See also Frug 1999 Making cities, which explains how during the 1800s state law gradually disempowered cities and now creates many of the distinctions and conflicts within them.)
All of this may sound academic and alarmist. After all, historically, American cities helped coordinate industrialization and helped integrate immigrants. Why worry? Because American cities were forbidden to REGULATE industrialization. They now lack the authority to RESOLVE the problems they already face. Yet, absent national and state help, they must become RESILIENT enough to cope with future climate crises.
In the USA, the top 100 metropolitan areas contain two-thirds of population and generate three-quarters of national GDP. Cities have always been centers of economic and social change. According to Katz and Bradley, cities are increasingly pioneering public-private initiatives and public policy innovation. Local networks of community leaders are tackling big problems, more successfully than state and national government. Local innovations diffuse horizontally to other localities through networks of cities and diffuse upward to state and national governments.
Thus Katz and Bradley posit an ongoing “metropolitan revolution.” From the 1930s through the 1960s, under the New Deal, the national government was a main sponsor, funder, and rescuer of cities. However, from the 1970s through the 1990s, the national government increasingly left cities to their own devices. In the early 2000s, events such as the Great Recession in 2008-2010 and major hurricanes in 2005 and 2012 confirmed that cities are now largely on their own.
Katz and Bradley draw a series of CONTRASTS between what they regard as the weaknesses of national and state government (here “upper levels”) and the strengths of metropolitan and municipal governments (here “lower levels”). They disparage upper levels and praise lower levels – considered judgments of someone (Katz) with long experience at close observation of state and local politics in California. Among the claimed contrasts (7-9):
<> Upper levels are present-oriented, responding to short-run electoral cycles by using legalistic rules to distribute resources widely. Lower levels are action oriented, responding to emerging economic and social dynamics by encouraging innovation and rewarding accomplishment.
<> Upper levels are compartmentalized into specialized agencies focusing on isolated problems, responding only through their existing resources and powers. Lower levels recognize the inter-relations of problems and mobilize new ideas and resources to address them.
<> Upper levels view problems from the top down, preferring uniform solutions to diverse problems. Lower levels view problems and solutions from the bottom up, recognizing their differences and building on their own distinctiveness.
<> Upper levels “disown” problems and permit only passive citizen participation: voting in periodic elections. Lower levels “own” their challenges and invite active citizen participation in on-going civic projects and economic initiatives.
<> Upper levels define good policy in terms of what is good politics for legislators seeking to advance their political careers. Lower levels define good politics as good policy: whatever works to achieve local goals by encouraging leaders’ collaboration and building community trust.
As Katz and Bradley note, their “metropolitan revolution” is facilitated by American history and American federalism. The Framers of the 1787 Constitution left the vertical relationship between 1evels somewhat vague. Who has the power to do what has been disputed ever since. Katz and Bradley believe that the USA now faces some fundamental decisions: not just about the SIZE of government but also about the PURPOSE of government (11).
In their 2008 book City bound, law professors Gerald Frug and David Barron agree about the need for fundamental reforms. However, they stress the narrow legal limits on city powers and the need to revise laws to empower the purposes on which Americans decide. The “bound” in the title refers to two ideas. First, many Americans remain “bound for” (moving to) large cities, so major cities continue to become ever more important. Second, the government of every city in the USA has been created and defined by its state government, which continues to “bind” (control) what the city does. The main theme of the book is that the resulting legal structure for making decisions is extremely important: the design of that structure has a strong (bad) influence not only on the future of American development but also on the future of American democracy. Those laws can be redesigned to perform better.
Americans expect and demand that their city governments should do this or that, without realizing that actually their city governments have little legal authority to do much on their own. Cities need the approval of state government and, often, the support of national government as well. This impotence is not good for American development because it prevents cities from addressing their own urgent problems, about which they care more than do the state and national levels. This impotence is not good for American democracy because it discourages public participation in local governance, since most important matters lie beyond the scope of that process.
City bound has three parts.
Part One explains the legal concept of “city structure,” meaning what the state authorizes the city to do. (One might think of it as the “constitution” of the city, albeit written by the state legislature and not by city citizens. Technically, city governments are state-chartered “municipal corporations” or “munis.”) The fact that states actually give cities very little authority has been noted by some legal scholars but has been largely ignored in theorizing about cities within other social sciences. Part of the reason is that many states claim to grant cities “home rule,” but that grant is more limited than it looks. Frug and Barron explain that they do NOT favor extensive city “autonomy,” which they consider unrealistic. City governments are inevitably enmeshed in complex relations with their citizen residents, superior governments, and the private economy. What Frug and Barron want to do is to restructure those relationships to produce better results.
Part Two examines four aspects of city authority: home rule, revenue & expenditures, land use & development, and education. The book originated in research about Boston, where has particularly little independent authority – ironic, since Massachusetts originated the much admired American tradition of “town meetings.” On each aspect, Frug and Barron report the situation in Boston and then compare that to six other American cities. Overall, Atlanta and Seattle resemble Boston in having relatively few powers (though more independence from their state legislatures than Boston). Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco have rather more powers, generously interpreted by courts. New York falls in between. But the real point is that each of these cities differs from the others. There is no “natural” or “optimal” package of powers that states do or should give cities.
Part Three discusses four possible futures for American cities: the GLOBAL city, the TOURIST city, the MIDDLE CLASS city, and the REGIONAL city. These city futures are not exclusive: some cities can attempt more than one. These city futures are also not exhaustive: Frug and Barron mention “the immigrant city” as another possibility. The main point is that the existing legal structure of cities – particularly, severe limits on cities’ authority to raise money – steers cities toward trying to become global and tourist cities and steers them away from trying to become middle class or regional cities. Global and tourist cities recruit the resources of outsiders. Middle class cities require resources (to service insiders) that cities don’t have. Regional cooperation requires powers that none of the cities in metropolitan regions have.
Improving this situation requires giving cities more powers, which only state legislatures can do. So ways must be found to give cities a larger role in state legislature in (re)designing cities’ legal structures. Local governance is now fragmented into many municipalities and into many special purpose districts. Local governance should be redesigned to give cities more powers and resources, but ONLY in ways that force cities toward metropolitan-wide cooperation. Frug and Barron believe that such cooperation between existing local governments is the best way to provide American metropolitan regions with the overall governance they need, NOT the creation of new general-purpose metropolis-wide governments.