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.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Detroit and the New York Times

Detroit street artists Ayem and Melo created a new mural on Grand River and Henry just north of Downtown. The colorful piece is a statement on Detroit's recent cash flow problems. The artists used 8 different overlapping colors to create a 3-D effect. 

The mural was approved by the property owner at 2481 Grand River, currently a vacant building. The piece is currently unfinished according to the artists who spent 6 hours on Saturday completing the letters, July 20. (Tanya Moutzalias |

The NYT published a letter yesterday. "Invitation to a Dialogue: A Plan to Help Cities," that will serve as the basis for the "Sunday Dialogure" in the Review section.  Here is the letter in its entirety:

A fact sometimes ignored in discussions of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing is that its metropolitan area, which officially includes three neighboring counties and unofficially parts of several more, has not shared the city’s distress. White flight, beginning in the early 1950s and accelerating thereafter, relocated much of the city’s tax base and economic vitality into the surrounding suburbs and exurbs.

The economic, social, political and demographic composition of southeastern Michigan looks different when the entire region is brought into view. In fact, the metropolitan area’s population increased from 1950 to 2010. And the region remains a major location for auto manufacturing and employment.

The failure to devise a workable regionalization of government and its services between the city and its surroundings accounts for many of the city’s problems. Perhaps there is a lesson for other cities that are under threat.

Two contrasting events in the region’s history hint at the problems and the promise of regionalization.

In the early 1970s racial tensions exploded when a federal court endorsed a plan for cross-district busing of school children between black Detroit and white suburbia. Eventually the Supreme Court calmed the tumult when it ruled against the plan. A regional approach had failed.

But in 2012 a three-county referendum that authorized a property tax levy to support a financially beleaguered Detroit Institute of Arts won approval. Common interests have the potential to cross the boundary separating city and suburbs.

Perhaps a regionally grounded effort, in collaboration with the state and federal governments, offers a way forward for other cities. The question is whether our rickety, dysfunctional political system can muster the wisdom and the will for such an effort. Anything less is likely to fail.

Orleans, Mass., July 29, 2013

I agree, regionalization is the issue. As was discussed recently here, "More on Detroit: Part 1" and "More on Detroit: Part 2."

I read something somewhere that pointed out that while the US government stepped in to help the "Detroit" auto industry, it's keeping its hands off stepping in to deal with various city/local government bankruptcies.  Also see the Booth Newspapers article "Who or what is to blame for Detroit's bankruptcy? 15 theories."

Reliant on property taxes, cities, towns, and special tax districts are increasingly unable to meet their financial needs and obligations

This is what's going on in the 21st century economy:

- continued population outmigration and exurbanization
- the integration of the US into a global economy
- declining wages
- declining number of high paying jobs requiring low skills as mass manufacturing becomes capital and knowledge intensive
- anti-tax sentiment
- pro-market neo-liberal policy paradigms that delegitimize the role of government and civil society as key actors (unless the economy tanks, and capital goes to the brink of disaster and requires bailouts)
- commercial and residential decision making at the metropolitan scale

So the way that many metropolitan areas are divvied up into a myriad of cities, towns, counties, and special tax districts is increasingly dysfunctional, given the financial demands to keep deteriorating infrastructure in functioning condition, in the face of continued outmigration, and declining property values.

In response to similar kinds of needs, New York City is a special city-county hybrid that merged the five boroughs in order to have enough taxing capacity to build the subway system, but also to provide and manage services on the right scale, because the separate boroughs were increasingly operating as one city.  This finally happened in 1898 after decades of campaigning for the change by Andrew Haswell Green and others.

There are three or four primary methods for dealing with these material changes in conditions and opportunities for local government districts:

- merging of the center city and the county (e.g., Indianapolis, Nashville, Lexington, Louisville, New York City in 1898, Toronto, etc.)
- not merging the center city and county but having strong metropolitan scale planning and governance institutions (Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon)
- tax revenue sharing across a metropolitan area (Minneapolis)
- special tax districts that operate across a city-county-region (Regional Asset District, Allegheny County, PA; Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Parks Authority, Southeastern Michigan).

There are probably more examples.

And in the previous 150 years there were earlier forms of this in both directions.  Philadelphia and San Francisco are city-county hybrids.

But Baltimore City and Baltimore County separated around the same time that Philadelphia consolidated--imagine if they had stayed together, it would be the biggest political jurisdiction in the region, with about 1.5 million residents.

Similar, Arlington and Alexandria broke off DC in the 1850s (so they could remain slave areas).  Had the change not occurred, DC would have 1 million residents now, and some of the worst economic repercussions of population outmigration may have been able to have been staved off.

The downside of the city-county merger is that the progressive politics that a center city typically has are drowned out by the greater number of suburban voters.  This prevents many cities from pursuing such a course. 

These writer-academics are probably the biggest proponents of the harmonization of taxing, funding, and certain elements of planning and governance on the metropolitan scale:

-- Gerald Frug, Harvard University
-- Myron Orfield, Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity, University of Minnesota Law School
-- David Rusk, Inside Game/Outside Game: Winning Strategies for Urban America

The biggest failure of the Obama Administration right now is on this issue, that they aren't taking the opportunity to raise the scale and breadth of the discussion.

Instead it's a great time to flog cities, unions, elected officials (although they deserve it).

We aren't very good at change, political institutions especially.

This is not dissimilar from my point that the failure of many of DC's local cultural institutions is an indicator of problems in how we manage, fund, and plan in the cultural sector.

The increased number of failures of local governments across the country is an indicator that we need to change the scale at which "local" government operates and is funded.

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