Saturday, April 24, 2010

A cities-vs.-states smackdown

Blogging from "The Reinvented City," in Cambridge, Mass., a conference sponsored by the Nieman Foundation, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Ex-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Ex-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, (both recent president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors) and both spending the semester at Harvard's Institute of Politics, had finished their talks about how each had made changes and improvements to their respective cities. (Note, I've corrected an earlier version of this which didn't show Nickels also headed the mayors' group. Mary, 3:30 p.m. 4-25-10)

For instance, Miami 21 is a new form-based code for the city of Miami that throws out the old Euclidean zoning traditions (planners will know what that's about) in favor of an approach focused not on separating all uses but on the relationship between streets and buildings, pedestrians and streets, all the buildings in a neighborhood, etc.

And Nickels – who spearheaded the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement campaign – talked about his efforts to push U.S.. cities to tackle climate change, since the federal government stalled on Kyoto, etc. As he talked about his lengthy, and probably successful effort to get rid of a highway along the Seattle waterfront and replace it with a tunnel. As he recounted a lengthy process fraught with legislative and gubernatorial political maneuvering, he said, "If you want to get us [him and Diaz] going, get us to talk about our relationship with states."

So I did.

What, I asked, might be some mechanisms that could improve those relationships?

"Abolish the states!" Nickels barked.

He and Diaz pretty much went off on a tear about their anger and frustration with state legislatures. Legislators, Diaz said, don't know or care about cities. "If he's a state elected official he should stay the hell away from what's going to affect mayors," he said. The federal government hardly gives cities any money - they funnel it to states. And states don't give it equitably to cities. "We get peanuts," Diaz said.

States should realize the importance of investing in their cities, Nickels said, since cities are where the vast majority of any state's jobs are. (Bev Perdue, are you listening?)

I buttonholed them after their talk, and they were even more outspoken. Rural legislators get elected by basically dumping on metro areas, Nickels said. He told of one well-respected legislator in Washington who was defeated when his opponent linked him to the Seattle skyline.
I asked if they knew of any state-city relationships that were working. They couldn't list one.

"You create the new American economy in cities," Diaz said. He and Nickels – and, I imagine, multiple other mayors – are enormously frustrated that state elected officials don't recognize that the nation's economy, and by extension the states' economies, are created in the nation's cities. The Miami economy, Diaz noted, is the 11th largest economy in the nation and bigger than most state economies.

They both believe changes are needed at the federal level, so more federal money – for transportation, economic development, energy block grants, etc. – goes directly to cities and urban areas and doesn't need to be divvied up by state governments.


greg said...

Good post. Just FYI, Manny Diaz became President of the US Conference of Mayors in 2008 and Greg Nickels followed him in 2009.

Lana said...

Greg Nickels was such a good mayor that he finished third in the 2009 Democrat primary. Mary continues to use models of incompetence as her inspiration.

consultant said...

In Atlanta, the battle over transportation options has always been a struggle between the city (now including the metro area) and the state.

This just changed this past week when the legislature passed and the Governor signed into law a bill that allow local areas to create transportation plans and let local citizens vote on them. The plans are paid for with an increase in the sales tax.

What was once mostly Atlanta's fight with the state became the entire "metro" Atlanta region, because of the growth in the adjoining counties.

Now the beltline light rail and other transporation options have a fighting chance of going from plans to reality.

Still, none of this will start for about 4 years.

Peal oil is here folks, oil shortages will get here before we put a shovel in the ground on any of these proposed projects.

And what about the cities that haven't even created plans?

Theo Tiefwald said...

Nickels:"You create the new American economy in cities," Diaz said."

Do you trust this Greg "Abolish the states!" Nickels character, or Thomas Jefferson who once wrote: "I view great cities as pestilential to the health, the morals and the liberty of mankind."

Or what about FDR who said in 1937: "It is because I am thinking of the nation and the region fifty years from now that I venture the further prophecy that as the time passes we will do everything to encourage the building up of smaller communities of the United States. Today many people are beginning to realize that there is an inherent weakness in cities which become too large, and inherent strength in a wider geographical distribution of the population."


This Nickels freak, who says stuff like "Abolish the states!" is deeply un-American and quite frankly unhinged. To "Abolish the states!" would be to usher in an age of hyper-centralized Soviet-like tyranny -- the Founders understood the problems inherent in too much centralized power, and thus they delegated many powers to the states instead of the federal government (10th Amendment).

Diaz:"You create the new American economy in cities,"

Utter bollocks, especially coming from a former mayor of the semi-3rd world socioeconomic basketcase formerly known as Miami. Unless you consider full-time cubicle-dwelling as the "new American economy," not all jobs are in cities. Out in THE REAL WORLD people do REAL THINGS. There is no reason to concentrate America's population and jobs in cities when we have this huge, bountiful, and glorious country which still sits 75% empty.

cwk said...

Mr. Tiefwald,

Thomas Jefferson was an agrarian who lived in a agricultural age. The US economy today would be unrecognizable to him. Somehow I don't think we should take his aesthetic preference of how to live as authoritative. There's nothing in FDR's stated opinion that cities can be too large that contradicts giving cities more autonomy. And of course both of these are quotes, not arguments why Nickles is wrong.

Next you play the card that is the last refuge of one who knows they have a weak argument, the "anti-American" card. You have no actual points to make about why this is a bad idea, so you try and tar it as an alien Other.

You finally do present an argument, but it winds up being a ridiculous one. How can devolving power down from a central state government to local government entities like cities lead to *more* centralization? Nickles clearly isn't arguing for state power to be distributed upward, but for it to be distributed downward. If you're worried about centralization of power, you should be supporting giving local government entities more autonomy.

Finally, it's actually true that we don't have to concentrate jobs and population in cities. We don't have to *do* this because it happens on its own. Jobs and population concentrates in cities because it is economically efficient for it to do so. Apparently it's you who wants to centrally micromanage the population by telling us where we "should" be living. For my part, I'll say you're free to live where you want, but I'm going to live where there are jobs in my field, and that's not in the countryside. As for your blather about what is "real", I don't understand it. I am not aware of a fake world with fake jobs to contrast the "real" world to.

Brendan said...

@ Theo

As someone who thinks very highly of Thomas Jefferson, I have to take exception to your use of that quote out of its historical context. Thomas Jefferson's experience with cities comes from Paris around the time of the French Revolution. Cities were horrible places to live back then. Police forces were in their infancy and keepers of the peace were largely regular infantry or militias. Buildings were made of timber, full of candle light, and no fire departments were in existence yet. There was no indoor plumbing or wastewater management, leaving the streets largely filled with the excrement of humans and animals. Medical care was non-existent so disease was rampant. As a farmer from the pristine lands of western Virginia, such conditions were understandably objectionable, but in no way relative to the modern condition.

FDR was promoting smart growth concepts that are only now beginning to be implemented. The idea of small livable communities is the ideal antithesis of what suburban America has actually become. A place where you can own a plot of land with a house and walk to the town center to work and live and buy things. All in one communities are becoming a reality but are still a long way from becoming a reality of what FDR was hoping for, especially as long as urban sprawl is allowed to continue.

I think you are missing the point of the "Abolish the States" rhetoric. All politics is local. Local communities are best suited to determine what their needs are. Nickels is railing against the socialism of the state architecture, that tries to make sure state funds are divided equally among the land area instead of among the population of the state. States don't care about their people like communities do, because inevitably all politics is local, and every state legislator is trying to get a piece of the pie for their locality.

Lastly, the notion that the modern American suburbia is a practice in independence and land ownership is absurd. In reality it is a practice in the worst form of socialism that can exist. Suburbs are made possible at the expense of the property owners that pre-existed them. If you decided to buy a quiet homestead 20 years ago, chances are you've lost your front yard so they could widen the road in front of your house from 2 lanes to 5 lanes for the social benefit of the rich people down the street. Or take all of your land to but a freeway through it. For whatever reason, when the socialistic objective is to take from the farmers and poor land owners to give to the rich McMansions, it is called progress, but when you take from the McMansions and give to the poor farmers and land owners, it is called socialism. When you take from the few for the betterment of the community, somebody loses, but nobody cares unless the ones losing are the rich ones.

Yes, the vast majority of our country is "undeveloped" but much of the land is unusable as arable land. The problem with urban development is that it generally uses up "arable land" not "undeveloped land". Farms can only exist in so many places but they usually can only exist in places that people also want to live in. Just like Thomas Jefferson. Though the population of Virginia (which included West Virginia back then) in the 1790 census was 747,550. The 2009 estimate total for both states is 9,702,367.

Jeff said...

I was in rural Ohio and Kentucky and saw tens of hundreds of miles of roads getting paved that were not bad to begin with.

I live in Baltimore, MD and the roads are terrible. Roads barely get paved, mostly potholes get plugged. There are thousands who live in Baltimore City. It made me mad that these rural roads get priority. As for an economic engine, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore City may provide more jobs than three counties combined in the Kentucky area I was in. I am not against rural, but the money should go to where people live and work first. It just does not seem right that Dukes of Hazard have better roads.

consultant said...

Part of the problem Jeff is that our cities are often left fending for themselves.

Since the end of WW II, most of the growing suburbs around cities have allied themselves with rural interests rather than the cities which are right next door.

Much of this is about race. Many whites historically have not wanted to support areas with black populations. Although in recent decades the rhetoric has been masked to hide the underlying racist intent.

Strip away all the jaw boning and it just comes down to race. Period.

Again, that's why we can't get support for decent mass transit in our cities.

If a law were passed that limited blacks to 1 car per line, you'd be able to pass mass transit legislation next week. Even in the South.

The truth hurts.

And don't blame Mary. She didn't right this. I did. But anyone who disputes this knows in their heart it's true.

Anonymous said...

I will take a little comfort in knowing that NC is not the only state totally controlled by a small collection of selfish, holier-than-thou, moronic farmers who think any community with a population larger than 100 is a spawn of Satan.

But I wonder, are other states similar to NC in that when the urban areas elect their state legislative representatives, those same representatives start selling out to the selfish, holier-than-thou, moronic farmers before their vehicle even reaches the state capital?

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