Stop Moving Your @$#{@% City Hall!

Want to Kill Your Downtown? Move Your Customer-Facing Functions Away

I’ve traveled to and met with hundreds of small municipalities. Almost none of them are as fully occupied and vibrant as they once were There are a ton of historic factors for this that I won’t bother to mention here.

While there are a lot of factors a retail establishment control over their success (product, customer service, marketing), there are two factors that drive where a store decides to open and then are largely out of there control once they’re in place: visibility and foot traffic. These factors are also the two over which the Town has the most influence.

So let’s say our town of 5,000 residents is lucky enough to also own the water utility, which has 3,000 customers. In the communities I’ve asked, approximately 15-20% still come in and pay their bill; some are still as high as 40%. Not even counting new and departing customers who may come in to establish or close an account, our small town is driving 600 people per month into Town, (hopefully) getting them out of their cars and potentially performing some other activity while they’re there. When you move it out onto the bypass at the old bank that has that cool drive-through, what’s going to replace that activity? We’re unknowingly trading a newer building for a downtown recession.

A community’s size is not a prerequisite for this insanity. The City of Columbia, SC with 133,000 residents and 375,000 customers just moved their primary collections (as well as most other customer-facing activities) way from their Main Street, reducing foot-traffic downtown by more than 1,000 people each day.

Before you take advantage of that great deal on that building with all that space, consider carefully: am I trading some short-term convenience for the long-term health of my community?

International Design in Gov’t Day (Code for America Summit Day 1)

Ever since I organized the first two National Days of Civic Hacking in Columbia, SC (HackforSC), I’ve wanted to go to the Code for America Summit.  In previous years I was using all my travel budget on Voterheads and startup-related matters.  Now that I’m no longer working on that project and am instead fully focused again on providing services and code to local government, I saw this as a chance.  I’ve also been both irked by the design decisions I was seeing in the local government software my customers were using as well as grappling with the complexities of user interface design for several tools I’ve been working on for my clients, so the opportunity to attend both Code for America and the first International Design in Government Day this side of the pond was too good to pass up. 

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So Where Is the Data?

I work for a progressive, well-intentioned city, and I have become convinced that analysis and visualization of data can improve my city’s outcomes. But I immediately ran into a problem in the effort. Sure, we’ve been working to learn data analysis skills. We have sophisticated tech tools to analyze and visualize data. Our leadership is supportive.

But we weren’t sure where to find the data. We had a sort of blank page problem, a where-to-start uncertainty. Continue reading

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

(Originally Posted at

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