The People Define the City

Technology allows lots of people to work from home in a snow storm. Colleagues email one another. They catch up on newsletters unread and webinars unviewed. But there is little satisfaction in it.  Most bide their time until the office or business reopens. Upon returning, friends and peers reengage with a vengeance. There is invigoration in the swirl of humanity on the street, in the train car, or at the coffee shop while moving through the line.

We are social creatures who have built cities and towns in order to share our lives. After all, the word “community” derives from the Latin communitas, translated fairly as ‘coming together with gifts’.

Alexis De Tocqueville described the United States a nation of joiners; a place where people come together for purposes great and minor. Fast forward to 1995 and Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone takes a different tack. Americans as a people are distrustful, isolated and absent a unified social purpose. According the Putnam, the same technology that connects the world allowing people to work from home also is fostering disconnections.  How’s that for irony?

A snow storm turns out to be a wonderful laboratory for exploring instances of communal cooperation and support; the kind of support that seldom graces the evening newscasts or a scholarly paper. Neighbors sharing the duty to clear a side walk of snow. Two strangers who agree to divide the market’s last loaf of bread between them. The jovial “hello” of unacquainted parents whose gang of kids are engaged in building the world’s biggest snow fort. Volunteers who use their SUV’s to shuttle health workers and firefighters to their shifts.

Does it matter if a community is forged in hardship or in plenty? Are the bonds any less valid or lasting in one case or the other? In the end, what matters is that people need each other and they take steps everyday to solidify the bonds of community. This is why cities have so much potential for greatness. The people make it so.

Cities Can’t Cut Their Way to Prosperity

“Cities to cut….” will be the prevailing storyline in much of the coverage of city fiscal conditions over the next couple of years.  But, city leaders still have the job of making decisions that position their cities for prosperity in the future according to 50+ local officials who participated in an NLC seminar in late January.  Other conclusions included:

-      5% cuts in any given year may be possible, but most cities are facing more dramatic cuts over the next several years;

-      Old assumptions about city services are being challenged, and city leaders must rethink what cities do and how they do it when making budget decisions; and

-      Choices city leaders make will involve tradeoffs between balancing the budget and quality of life, or the public good.

In short, as Kalamazoo, Michigan Vice Mayor Hannah McKinney noted, “We can’t cut our way to prosperity.”

McKinney led the group in a brainstorming session about what the future of cities must look like.  A word cloud on Cities in the New Normal shows the words and phrases that rose to the forefront of this session.  A clear theme emerged – of cities turning outward to collaborate, partner, and regionalize.  Very few, if any, comments suggested a turning inward, of cities becoming more insular.

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Mike Pagano drove this theme home with a series of recommendations for city action, including:

-          Pushing state governments to authorize new local revenue authority and reduce tax and spending limits imposed on local governments; and

-          Broadening local tax bases and revisiting pricing structures for city services; and

-          Regionalizing service provision wherever possible.

In other words, cities can’t go it alone.  But, this doesn’t mean that we will see a rash of attempts to consolidate local governments.  Much more likely is that we’ll see concerted efforts to consolidate, or regionalize functions – specific services – of governments. Preference for these types of efforts could be seen in an exercise that the city leaders engaged in that asked them to rank 10 budget-balancing options on budget impact vs. what was best for the community overall.  Consolidation ranked at the top of the budget impact list, but near the bottom of the public good list. A number of local officials noted that people may have reservations about government in general, but they tend to have very strong views about, and ties to, their own local government.