Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Out of this world perception

How CM Jack Evans thinks that progressives out lobby business interests in DC is beyond me. See "Fiscal Education" from the Washington City Paper Housing Complex Blog, which discusses the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which more or less, is an advocacy group focused on economic and social justice issues in terms of the DC budget and its priorities.

DC business interests are far more powerful.

The Federal City Council is basically a development lobby as is the DC Chamber of Commerce, the Restaurant Association, the Hotel Association, Destination DC, the Washington DC Economic Partnership, etc. Even the construction unions can at time have different agendas from other unions.

Jack Evans is basically the go to guy on council for tax abatements. That's hardly a citizen-centric agenda. (And note, in many instances I don't have a problem with such abatements, but I do have a problem with the basically untransparent process that exists for them.)

It's true that people power can have impact on this process, which is discussed both in the Growth Machine theory of local political and economic power from sociology as well the Urban Regime theory, which derives from political science.

But business interests have the upper hand, and the motivation and resources to organize and maintain an agenda and to fund it.

This is from a five year old blog entry:

I am a fervent proponent of the Growth Machine thesis, first laid out by sociologist Harvey Molotch, in the seminal article, City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place. From the abstract:

A city and, more generally, any locality, is conceived as the areal expression of the interests of some land-based elite. Such an elite is seen to profit through the increasing intensification of the land use of the area in which its members hold a common interest. An elite competes with other land-based elites in an effort to have growth-inducing resources invested within its own area as opposed to that of another. Governmental authority, at the local and nonlocal levels, is utilized to assist in achieving this growth at the expense of competing localities. Conditions of community life are largely a consequence of the social, economic, and political forces embodied in this growth machine.

Political scientist Clarence Stone, a professor at [formerly UMD, now GWU] has a competing thesis, that of the "urban regime." I don't think these theories are competing so much as different sides of the same coin. "Growth Machine" theory explains the motivation of "the land-based elite," and "urban regime" theory explains in detail how the land-based elite operates and functions.

Professor Stone was kind enough to send me his recent paper, "Now What? The continuing evolution of Urban Regime analysis," from 2005. He writes:

An urban regime can be preliminarily defined as the informal arrangements through which a locality is governed (Stone 1989). Because governance is about sustained efforts, it is important to think in agenda terms rather than about stand-alone issues. By agenda I mean the set of challenges which policy makers accord priority. A concern with agendas takes us away from focusing on short-term controversies and instead directs attention to continuing efforts and the level of weight they carry in the political life of a community. Rather than treating issues as if they are disconnected, a governance perspective calls for considering how any given issue fits into a flow of decisions and actions. This approach enlarges the scope of what is being analyzed, looking at the forest not a particular tree here or there. (emphasis added, in this paragraph and below)

In discussing Atlanta, Stone writes: "Land use, transportation, and housing formed an interrelated agenda that the city's major economic interests were keen to advance;" and

By looking closely at the policy role of business leaders and how their position in the civic structure of a community enabled that role, he identified connections between Atlanta's governing coalition and the resources it brought to bear, and on to the scheme of cooperation that made this informal system work. In his own way, Hunter had identified the key elements in an urban regime – governing coalition, agenda, resources, and mode of cooperation. These elements could be brought into the next debate about analyzing local politics, a debate about structural determinism.

In the past I have challenged Professor Stone about the urban regime theory, not in terms of how the UR operates, but in their motivation. I've never been satisfied with his explanations. In my experience, the Growth Machine theory is superior in explaining why local political and economic elites operate the way they do, and the Urban Regime theory is superior in explaining and describing how the Growth Machine--local political and economic elites--operate.

Another good book on this general topic is from urban history and is out of print--Planning the Capitalist City by Richard Foglesong. Highly recommended.

FWIW, I agree with some of DCFPI's positions and not others. Not every dollar on tax abatements is bad. Not every dollar spent on human and social services is well spent.

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