Rearranging the Park Benches

Our cities are in trouble. Most have huge unfunded pension and health-care obligations. Their infrastructure is old and so poorly maintained that it can’t power a football stadium for the full length of a game. Their schools have significantly lower high-school graduation rates than the suburbs, even after accounting for differences in incomes. Housing in many cities is unaffordable, roads are congested, and jobs are fleeing, even in supposedly urban industries such as high tech and finance.

Urban planner Richard Florida has a solution: President Obama should create a new federal Department of Cities. That’s right up there with rearranging the benches at Battery Park before Superstorm Sandy hits.

Like many planners, Florida believes problems can be solved from the top down. He is famous for urging cities to adopt policies that make housing unaffordable, forcing poor and moderate-income people out, thus increasing average incomes and making it look like the cities have attracted high-income “creative” people.

Now, relying on outdated data, Florida argues that “cities and metros are the engines of our economy,” and thus deserve their own cabinet-level department. By the same logic, maybe we should create a Department of Texas and North Dakota, as those two states seem to have been the engines of our economy since 2008. I am sure a federal DoT&ND could do much to muck up the growth of those states that is partly taking place because the state legislatures have so far kept their hands off.

“A new cabinet-level department would see to it that public policy is aligned to cities’ best interests, not stacked against them,” argues Florida. And we know that’s true because Obama’s programs in the energy sector, such as batteries and cellulosic ethanol production, have worked so well.

Florida admits we already “have the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” but says it is out of date because it was “created to mitigate poverty”–and look how well it did that! Thanks to the department’s hard work, the nation’s poverty rate declined increased from 14.7 percent in 1966 to 15.1 percent in 2011 (see table A-1, pp. 41-42). Just think what a Department of Cities could do!

Seriously, instead of thinking like central planners, people who care about cities need to understand that change comes from the bottom, not the top. Still, there are some federal policies that could nudge the changes in the right direction.

First, Congress should stop giving cities incentives to build new infrastructure when they can’t afford to maintain the infrastructure they have. The Antiplanner is thinking of rail transit, of course, but I am sure other kinds of infrastructure suffer from the same problem: “free” federal money for capital improvements with no stipulations that grant recipients can afford to maintain and operate whatever the grants build. In the long run, the federal government should phase out funding of local infrastructure; during a transition period, federal funding should come in the form of formula grants rather than competitive (read: political) grants.

Second, Congress should encourage cities to get their fiscal houses in order. To prevent cities of the future from demanding federal bailouts, federal funding to cities today should be conditional on cities negotiating new public-employee contracts that are sustainable based on reasonable expectations of future local revenues and investment income. Pension and health-care funds that are either unfunded or depend on unrealistically high rates of investment returns should be renegotiated.

Third, Congress should make federal educational funding conditional upon performance standards. In the long run, the feds should get out of the business of funding local education, but in the meantime, school districts that can’t achieve 80 percent high-school graduation rates should be required to create voucher systems that would allow families of all incomes to select alternative schools for their children, whether those alternatives are public schools in other districts (or other parts of the same district) or urban private schools.

Finally, Congress or the Supreme Court should remind state and regional governments that private property rights trump the rights of government planners to control aesthetic values such as historic architecture or scenic views. This would allow the opening of land outside cities in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Washington, and other unaffordable states to development so that median housing prices can return to their natural values (see p. 6) of about twice median family incomes, and the costs of commercial, retail, industrial, and other kinds of development will similarly drop.

Florida’s idea that cities are so important that they deserve their own department is, on one hand, wishful thinking (note that his data about the importance of cities include “cities and metros,” meaning suburbs). On the other hand, if cities truly have a comparative advantage over suburbs and rural areas, as so many urbanophiles claim, why should the federal government unfairly increase (or, more likely, decrease) that advantage by slanting its services to the cities?

Government should provide a level playing ground and let cities, suburbs, and exurbs be what they want to be. This will allow the economy to grow without being undermined by futile and self-defeating attempts to pick winners and losers.

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10 thoughts on “Rearranging the Park Benches

  1. LazyReader

    Bringing stadium power failure into the talk………..CBS, reports that over $330 million has been spent upgrading the SuperDome since Hurricane Katrina. In a city with some of the worst schools, some of the worst crime, it’s nice to know where the priorities lie. All this shows is that in general “the city” or at least the city one typically thinks of is an outdated and obsolete concept. The large metropolitan city was crucial to the development of human society for millennia all up until the 20th century when it exploded into a Coruscant like mechanism thanks to the skyscraper and electricity. The representative case is Le Corbusier, the leading architectural master Early High Modernism, whose 1925 Plan Voisin for Paris proposed to knock down the entire Marais district on the Right Bank and and replace it with rows of identical towers set between freeways. The city officials laughed at him every time he came back with the scheme over the next forty years however the “plan” was eagerly adpoted by the post WWII American planners, and resulted in such urban monstrosities as the infamous Cabrini Green housing projects of Chicago and scores like it around the country designed to address the issue of urban blight already present by the 60′s. Other visions of the city of the future involved Everest-size skyscrapers with Zeppelin moorings on top, linked to zooming air trams, while various types of personal helicopters swooped between things and super highways underground. Virtually all these schemes had one thing in common: the city of the future they depicted was vibrant. But the 70′s gave way to the city of reality especially the economically devestated towns of the American Midwest and Great Lakes areas better know today as the Rust Belt leaving whole population centers with little public services and communities financially pillaged. The schemes of growth architects invision today is nothing short of insane (instead of designing one building at a time as was their profession, they’re evolving into organizers of human masses by creating their whole urban ecosystems) limited only by what’s physically possible in the realm of engineering ( The WTC had to be redesigned several times not only to address safety concerns but that it was physically impossible to build) and financially possible. The demands on city infrastructure is equally daunting. Ask why nearly any new condo tower has underground parking or the first several stories dedicated to parking (to park their bikes?, doubtful) where liveability and transit are touted as superior.

    http://www.condo.com/PropertyUploads/2006854/1559035e-61c5-4967-9876-84f2d06a35ce_dt.jpg

    These buildings are horendously expensive, fabricated of the most advanced materials but probably will encounter financial difficulties unable to accumulate the capital needed for even quarter century refit; even Titanium and stainless stell and carbon fiber shows it’s age over time. When brick ages we see it as historic, when steel rusts it’s disgusting. Meanwhile the architects of the New Urbanists and small scale development are also disdained not for audacity but their modesty. They are not interested in the biggest or tallest of this or that. Their plans are typically scaled to the quarter-mile walk and rarely include super-sized buildings. They want the streets and sidewalks reclaimed for human use, squares and parks, and building facades to provide attraction and beauty where the modernists seek to confuse us and distract us. If the interior reminds us of the bridge of the starship Enterprise, we’re blown away by the technological brilliance and how many touchscreen buttons we can press….until it gets old, quickly, like any gadget. This has always been the Achilles heel of investing huge sums of technology in buildings. The building may last for a century or more, but the tech is/must be replaced casually. The skyscraper or at least the supertall is gonna be rendered obsolete. It’s not scaled to the development ups and downs associated with typical homebuyers (there aren’t enough millionaires to live in them all) and we have cities inundated with them and the costs associated with keeping them in shape is gonna be a challenge. So these high tech supertowers represent an example of tragic misinvestment and it’s difficult to envision how after default it could be reused or retrofitted and many may end up as the vertical salvage yards of the future; it’s not to say that the suburban projects haven’t had it’s share of failures of overdevelopment or over exorbitance. Cities like Phoenix, Tuscon, and Las Vegas will just dry up and shrivel. Cities built on the philosophy of pissing away money and defiance of natures limits (namely water) will have exhausted it’s capital and it’s megascale developements already suffered a crash of it’s own and will be hit with severe water shortages which will severly curtail homebuyers who want trees and lawn to except the reality of cacti and gravel. Places like Manhattan alone has inherited the financial crisis of tens of billions of dollars needed to repair decades worth of out dated infrastructure. How the hell are they gonna provide housing, power, water and workspace for a million+ additional people circa 2030.

  2. English Major

    We need centralized planning, nanny-state rules and tax subsidies to attract CREATIVE people?

    Shoot- you want creatives, legalize pot.

    I know a bunch of movie folks and some advertising people and they drive cars and like in single family homes, duh. Same with the software “creatives.”

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Our cities are in trouble. Most have huge unfunded pension and health-care obligations. Their infrastructure is old and so poorly maintained that it can’t power a football stadium for the full length of a game.

    Though apparently electric power in New Orleans, like most other U.S. cities (with the notable (large) exception of Los Angeles) is delivered by an investor-owned utility.

    Urban planner Richard Florida has a solution: President Obama should create a new federal Department of Cities.

    While I am not in favor of a federal Department of Cities, we do have a U.S. Department of Agriculture, which doubles as a Department of Rural Areas.

    First, Congress should stop giving cities incentives to build new infrastructure when they can’t afford to maintain the infrastructure they have. The Antiplanner is thinking of rail transit, of course, but I am sure other kinds of infrastructure suffer from the same problem: “free” federal money for capital improvements with no stipulations that grant recipients can afford to maintain and operate whatever the grants build.

    Though rail transit is frequently built by “independent” transit authorities, not municipal or county governments, and in at least some instances, by state agencies. Though I suppose that elected officials representing cities are often enthused about building those rail transit lines.

    One of the federal government’s grant programs that I actually agree with is the USEPA’s funding of wastewater treatment plant upgrades. That is infrastructure that benefits the nation as a whole.

    Finally, Congress or the Supreme Court should remind state and regional governments that private property rights trump the rights of government planners to control aesthetic values such as historic architecture or scenic views. This would allow the opening of land outside cities in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Washington, and other unaffordable states to development so that median housing prices can return to their natural values (see p. 6) of about twice median family incomes, and the costs of commercial, retail, industrial, and other kinds of development will similarly drop.

    No disagreement there – see also Paul Krugman’s excellent op-ed from 2005 in which he coined the great terms Flatland (areas without excessive land use controls) and the Zoned Zone (places along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts with stringent land use zoning and planning control). Yes, I have cited this Krugman op-ed before, and I will likely reference it again (it was a pretty good warning of the housing market crash that was coming).

    But in many cases, those urban growth boundaries are not set by central city governments. It’s either a county government, or (in the unique case of Portland, Oregon) set by a regional government (at least the part of the region that is actually in Oregon).

    Government should provide a level playing ground and let cities, suburbs, and exurbs be what they want to be. This will allow the economy to grow without being undermined by futile and self-defeating attempts to pick winners and losers.

    No dispute there.

  4. C. P. Zilliacus

    English Major wrote:

    Shoot- you want creatives, legalize pot.

    One of the things that the federal government could do that would obviously benefit cities would be to end the so-called War on Drugs (and I mean most recreational drugs that are .currently illegal, not just marihuana).

  5. LazyReader

    For one, if the government is gonna legalize marijuana for typical consumtion, it’s not just something that would occur in just a day. First thing to do would be to establish it’s own supply. I suppose USDA or FDA certified ensuring a quality or reputable product rather buying what might be oregano or worse toxic foliage or weed laced with solvents or poisons. Or to regulate the drug by permitting growers and it’s not as environmentally friendly as advocates claim. Hemp requires far richer soil to grow properly. An explosion of medical marijuana farms has dramatically changed the California landscape over the past few years. A rush to profit from patient demand for pot has resulted in irresponsible forest clearing, illegal stream diversions, and careless pesticide and fertilizer use that has polluted waterways and killed wildlife. The impacts of water withdrawal has affected rivers and because pot requires a ton of water, droughts have curtailed ambition. Growers with no real experience in agriculture spray herbicides, fungicides and pesticides in far larger doses to address unsuitable growing conditions. Not every person that is growing out there is an ethical person or a steward of the environment. One grower built an earthen dam to feed his irrigation site damaging a steelhead and salmon tributary. It’s demand has fueled thousands of new clear cuts of forests in Humboldt County. All of it’s mostly grown by amateurs and with no regards to environmental harm.

  6. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Finally, Congress or the Supreme Court should remind state and regional governments that private property rights trump the rights of government planners to control aesthetic values such as historic architecture or scenic views.

    On a related note, this ran in the N.Y. Times yesterday – Cuomo Seeking Home Buyouts in Flood Zones

    Quoting from that article:

    Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing to spend as much as $400 million to purchase homes wrecked by Hurricane Sandy, have them demolished and then preserve the flood-prone land permanently, as undeveloped coastline.

    The purchase program, which still requires approval from federal officials, would be among the most ambitious ever undertaken, not only in scale but also in how Mr. Cuomo would be using the money to begin reshaping coastal land use. Residents living in flood plains with homes that were significantly damaged would be offered the pre-storm value of their houses to relocate; those in even more vulnerable areas would be offered a bonus to sell; and in a small number of highly flood-prone areas, the state would double the bonus if an entire block of homeowners agreed to leave.

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    LazyReader wrote:

    For one, if the government is gonna legalize marijuana for typical consumtion, it’s not just something that would occur in just a day.

    Why? How long did it take to repeal Prohibition under President F. D. Roosevelt?

    First thing to do would be to establish it’s own supply. I suppose USDA or FDA certified ensuring a quality or reputable product rather buying what might be oregano or worse toxic foliage or weed laced with solvents or poisons.

    How much regulation is there of another (legal) weed – tobacco?

    Or to regulate the drug by permitting growers and it’s not as environmentally friendly as advocates claim. Hemp requires far richer soil to grow properly. An explosion of medical marijuana farms has dramatically changed the California landscape over the past few years.

    Yet curiously, hemp grows pretty naturally in many parts of rural West Virginia. Goodness knows, the Mountaineer State could use the increased economic activity that would come from legal cultivation of marihuana.

    A rush to profit from patient demand for pot has resulted in irresponsible forest clearing, illegal stream diversions, and careless pesticide and fertilizer use that has polluted waterways and killed wildlife. The impacts of water withdrawal has affected rivers and because pot requires a ton of water, droughts have curtailed ambition. Growers with no real experience in agriculture spray herbicides, fungicides and pesticides in far larger doses to address unsuitable growing conditions. Not every person that is growing out there is an ethical person or a steward of the environment.

    Agreed. And it seems that a lot of that marihuana is grown on lands owned by people of the United States (in other words, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and perhaps the Bureau of Land Management) and I don’t think the growers are paying any rent to those agencies.

    One grower built an earthen dam to feed his irrigation site damaging a steelhead and salmon tributary. It’s demand has fueled thousands of new clear cuts of forests in Humboldt County. All of it’s mostly grown by amateurs and with no regards to environmental harm.

    Yet I have not heard even one peep from the Sierra Club about the damage done by dope cultivation on public (and presumably) private lands. I suppose they prefer to object to highways and the rubber tired vehicles that use them, (legal and approved) logging, electric power generating stations and transmission lines, and dams for drinking water (the club was founded in large part because of objections to the damming of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park to provide drinking water for San Francisco and nearby counties, and it still promotes the removal of the O’Shaughnessy Dam).

  8. Dan

    First thing to do would be to establish it’s own supply.

    Nope. Colo Amendment 64.

    Hemp requires far richer soil to grow properly.

    Nope. Hemp for fiber doesn’t need much at all. And not much water either, which is why Amendment 64 said go ahead and grow it starting 2014.

    DS

  9. C. P. Zilliacus

    Dan wrote:

    Nope. Hemp for fiber doesn’t need much at all. And not much water either, which is why Amendment 64 said go ahead and grow it starting 2014.

    Before you educated me (and perhaps others that read these pages, especially from the East and other places where availability of fresh water is reasonably unconstrained) I would have questioned your reference to water above. But I understand the context now.

    Having said that, I have seen (what I think is) hemp/marihuana/cannabis growing by the side of the highways and roads of West Virginia (I did not stop to investigate, as I consider weed to be a foul and noxious substance). The wild stuff seems to like to spring up near creeks and rivers, which are presumably more plentiful in West Virginia than they are in Colorado. Or maybe the plants are able to get some nutrients from the waters of the Mountaineer State (though some of them are tainted by acid runoff from abandoned coal mining operations)?

    Getting back to marihuana cultivation in Colorado, why not just use tap water and grow the stuff in a secure indoor facility? Or is that an illegal of the scarce water?

  10. English Major

    Florida was interviewed on NPR today about the fact that the “creative class” does not lift up service workers. His answer: ask employers to pay workers more and pack them in like sardines in dense hovels along traffic corridors..

    Florida also said that studies show that service workers don’t need micro-managing- that studies show they make good decisions re: industrial safety etc.

    But their lifestyles must be micro-managed by Richard Florida. A waiter cannot be trusted to decide how he wants to travel.

    If I understand him correctly, Florida is tacitly admitting that his “creative class” argument is weak and therefore he must change the metric of success so his theory looks passable.

    BTW- I have royalty checks to prove that I am in the “creative class.” As an artistic type person, I find Florida’s analysis laughable. Also- it is kinda weird to lump me in with software engineers. Most artists I know have day jobs anyway. Creative people don’t need new urbanists telling us how to live.

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