When Global Goes Local: City and County Governments Tackle Climate Change

(Originally Posted at Voterheads.com)

To many of us, climate change feels like an overwhelming, global issue.  International organizations host world forums to determine what steps countries should take to help lessen what many consider to be the negative impacts of development on the earth and environment.  The recent Paris agreement, for example, took years to plan and long, hard negotiations to finalize.  So you may wonder: what can be done, or is being done, by local governments in terms of climate change? Continue reading

More on Fiscal Autonomy for Cities

Note: I attach an article I wrote for Practical Law about municipal finances. The kind people there have given me permission to share the article in my personal writing, and in exchange I will encourage you to take a look at the resources offered by Practical Law. Their existing content is probably the most useful resource of which I am aware, and they are diligently building new content for the state and local government lawyer. It’s a great tool and I hope you will explore it.

If you are interested in the topic, please refer to the attached article for a much more detailed treatment.

There is an enormous variation among the states on the specific laws applicable to municipal finances, but so far I’ve seen nothing to disabuse me of the notion that cities don’t have much latitude in how they raise, spend, and borrow money. There are probably lots of good reasons to narrow the options available to city government, from low voter turnout in city elections to (arguably) greater incidence of corruption at the city level to the possibility of disruptive urban economic protectionism. But I remain convinced that cities need more local flexibility in fiscal matters. Continue reading

Urban Devolution: The Need for Fiscal Autonomy

Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin have just published an article calling for urban devolution. I agree with their argument and have previously suggested that the future might involve a return to the city-state model. In the ensuing conversation, Michael Hoexter suggested that talk of urban devolution was pointless because “[w]ithout federal subsidies the ambitions of urban and regional planners will be fiscally stifled.” Of course he’s right – but I want to argue back to a logically prior premise. Continue reading

City-States of the Future

Crazy stuff is going to happen in the cities of the future. P.D. Smith’s City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age considers some of the possibilities in a section called “Futuropolis.” He describes “fantastic cities equipped with moving pavements, travelators, airships and aerial taxis landing on the tops of skyscrapers, personal jet-packs, computer-controlled vehicles, vertiginous glass skyscrapers, and even bioluminescent trees to replace street lights.” That all sounds pretty stupendous, so here’s hoping. Continue reading

The Data-Driven City 1: Initial Problems and Frames

We love data. Especially “big data” that fits neatly into spreadsheets and generates impressive graphs. We call some of those graphs infographics, or infauxgraphics, but even that witticism hints at an underlying discomfort: Data can be cool and interesting without being useful.

This note is the first in a proposed series about making data useful. My own occupation and curiosity is in city government, so the notes will consider the questions attendant to using data to make better decisions there. For the last four years, I have tried to do so in my own organization, the government in a city of 41,000 people in South Carolina. I have not had any outstanding success, and I would certainly not call myself an expert. But I have learned. I plan to ask questions, encourage comments, welcome communication, and adapt. I hope that people from inside and outside city government will find the series useful, and will consider participation worth their effort.

In short, I am trying to start a conversation about the data-driven city. Continue reading

The Prototyping City Government: Implement, Study, Correct.

I recently shared Tom Wujec’s “Build a Tower, Build a Team,” a TED Talk that explores results from the marshmallow challenge:

“Teams of four have to build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and a marshmallow. The marshmallow has to be on top. And, though it seems really simple, it’s actually pretty hard because it forces people to collaborate very quickly.”

I encourage you to watch it; the talk is less than seven minutes long and has several very useful insights. In this note, I discuss the primary insight that prototyping is more effective than planning.

Continue reading

Oh Public Transportation, wherefore art thou?

As I return from a trip to San Francisco, I reflect on how different my transportation needs and experience are between there and my home base in Columbia, South Carolina. This was the second of two work-related trips this year, and was a relatively long one of two weeks. During that time, including vehicular weekend trips, probably 70% of my segments were on mass transit, while during any period of time back home, none are. I find it strange, especially given that I grew up in with mass-transit as my default mode of transportation from childhood through high school, that my behavior is so incongruous.

This is a common conundrum for many transit planners across the Southeast, and one with which I empathize. Given my upbringing, why don’t I take transit more? At the same time, as I observe our local buses, I generously estimate most of them operate at less than 10% capacity: I’m clearly not the only one. So, I thought I’d deliberately walk through the mental calculus I’ve gone through in the past to see if I could figure out what it would take. Continue reading

The Invention of People Watching

During the short interval of my life in which I lived in New York City, I never lacked for a way to spend a Saturday. When in doubt, I just walked out my front door and wandered around. That doesn’t work where I live now; for all the attentive landscaping in my neighborhood (thank you, flower gardeners), I can’t seem to lose track of time here like I could walking in NYC.

I could draw out the punchline, but given the title of this entry you’ve likely guessed it already. What made NYC continuously and invariably interesting was other people, out and around, either watching other people like I was, or doing something else entirely. We call this, unsurprisingly but without variation, “people watching.”


Continue reading

Communities, Real and Artificial

Alan Ehrenhalt makes a fascinating aside in The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. In discussing the residential revival of New York’s financial district, he asks, “This is  neighborhood, then, but is it a community the way Sheffield [in Chicago] is, the way communities existed in the great European cities of a century ago?” His answer is thoughtful but inconclusive. For now, to expand the question, what might be meant by asking whether a place is a “real community”? Continue reading