Changing the Structural Neglect of Local Governments

“We are still driving on Eisenhower’s roads and sending our kids to Roosevelt’s schools.”

– American Society of Civil Engineers President Blaine Leonard, 2010

Cities aren’t static. They are living, breathing places that require constant monitoring to flourish. It’s what makes them great. The best ones are “managed” by a healthy mix of engaged citizens, thoughtful civic leaders, committed business owners, and competent local officials. While I can  argue that the importance of all four groups is equal in relation to the others, I would like to focus this post on the importance of the local government structure and the challenges that confront the system today.

At a time when the world’s population is dashing towards urban areas at a rate of nearly 60 million people a year, cities in the U.S. are grappling with challenges borne out of decades of disinvestment in big ticket areas like transportation, public safety, and basic infrastructure.

The neglect in certain areas is, no doubt, intentional. In the latter half of the 20th Century as populations shifted, demographics swung and the political landscape hastened changes in funding priorities at the state and federal levels of government, cities often found themselves on the losing end of budget battles with other competitors in the race for public dollars and dedicated programming.

Some of the inattention to cities, though, takes on a more benign feel. In a political system where any and all development is mistakenly deemed “growth”, cities often finds themselves battling low cost green fields for commercial and residential investment. Lawmakers, land speculators, and even well intentioned consumers follow along with the latest and greatest promises for a better tomorrow. However, these clumsy development patterns often create instability for the new and old places alike. Sprawl occurs. Private dollars are spread over ever increasing tracts of land. Lawmakers who are predisposed to take a narrow, short term view of the growth pattern du jour, begin reallocating key funds and programs to “follow the growth”and a new normal is declared. In the end, it doesn’t work well for anyone.  The smart growth advocates have done a nice job of illustrating the pitfalls that come with such thinking.

Throw in a heavy dose of anti-government rhetoric, the public’s mood to cut taxes, and some high profile cases of the mismanagement of funds and you have a perfect storm for public disinvestment in the very places that oodles of studies show represent our greatest chance for competing for future growth and jobs in the global economy.

Very few communities have been spared. While problems in cities like Detroit receive the most coverage, towns of all shapes and sizes are struggling with budgets, cutting services, and deferring critical infrastructure projects. The Feds balance their budgets on the states. The states do it to the locals. And the locals wind up cutting critical services to citizens. Something has to give.

So while infrastructure updates and programming for public spaces aren’t the sexiest of topics surrounding the reemergence of American cities (are you listening Mr. Hipster coffee/bike/soft serve ice cream shop owner?), they remain vitally important to the health of communities and the ability of their inhabitants to lead prosperous lives. It is important that we continue the work to shift the ‘growth and job creation’ discussions away from simple ideological meanderings regarding taxes and regulations and place more emphasis on the importance of having attractive, energetic, competitive places that will compete on a global scale because they offer a better quality-of-life and more economic opportunity than other destinations.

I am more convinced than ever that local governments are part of the answer. City Hall is changing, not fast enough for many, but the changes are real. A move toward providing a secure platform for the community, not simply the traditional role of local regulator, is underway in many cities and villages already. It is happening out of economic necessity and because it is the right thing to do. This bodes well for the future if we find it within our local, state, and national discussions to provide a new focus on the critical parts they play in the equation.