Cities: what 'world class' means; what US Federal policy for cities could do

The first a deliciously cranky short piece about why cities striving to be “world class” is a rotten idea: “World class” just means banal:

The joy of great cities lies in their differences. What’s special about Stockholm is different from what makes London or Vienna attractive. The “world class city”, and its gormless sibling, the “world class place”, is a political slogan, conjured by globally minded, air-travel addicted wonks, that has been adopted, sadly and dimly, by politicians, quangos and planners around the world. I’ve even heard, much to my disbelief, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson talking of London’s need to become a “world class city”.

London isn’t already “world class?” I don’t think I understand what that phrase means, in that case.

The author’s best criticism is that “world class” seems to mean “looks like every other major city,” which I agree would be a sad thing, but then when I travel it’s to see and try new things, not go to the same franchise I can find locally.

Helsinki. . .  is about to get the “world class” treatment.

This means historic buildings being vandalised to ensure they suit the needs of wilfully vulgar global “brand” shops, the rerouting of trams from the historic centre because these, apparently, aren’t best suited to tourist-oriented “pedestrianisation” schemes . . .

“World class” is sounding more and more like “let’s turn everything into the same mall I mean ‘lifestyle center‘ no wait ‘village center,’ or maybe ‘town square’ those sound nice!” (Here’s more on the lifestyle center phenomena, including a problem with it: it makes you think you’re in a public place, but it’s all private property.)

Moving on to US cities, here is an interesting (and longer) article from the Urbanophile, Thoughts on a Federal Policy for American Cities.

America is a metropolitan nation, as has been tirelessly documented by the Brookings Institution and many others. Two-thirds of Americans live in the top 100 metro areas, which generate 68% of employment and 75% of GDP. You’ve heard the stats before I’m sure.

Yet the federal government has often given cities short shrift, preferring to think instead of the federal-state partnership through our system of federalism. The Obama administration has brought a new focus on cities, creating the first ever White House Office of Urban Affairs, but we are still a long way from having a real 21st century federal policy for America’s cities.

He writes that, because of the great diversity in our cities (whoops I guess we’ll have to pass up on having “world class” cities, then!), such a policy must allow flexibility, rather than a “one size fits all” approach, because in order for a city to do well, it needs to find its niche, its specialty, whatever it is that makes it a distinctive place*.

There are several areas that the policy needs to address: transportation, housing, environmental policy, and immigration reform. As an example of how flexibility in Federal funding could work, take housing:

…[F]or a city like Chicago, the main issue might be affordable housing. That’s less of an issue in smaller cities where housing is virtually free given the levels of abandonment. A city like Cleveland might want to emphasize spending money on demolition of vacant structures. Other cities might want to look at middle class neighborhoods that are declining and try to stabilize them through public investment before they become the next basket case.

Regarding environmental policy, he points out that sometimes, federal policy can have rather bad (unintended?) consequences. The Clean Water Act, which requires the elimination of combined sewer overflows, may have increased  sprawl, because it is cheaper to build new developments, including the infrastructure, than to retrofit existing sewer and stormwater systems. Rather than rebuild the entire system, what happens is something called a “deep tunnel”, which means a big hole drilled into bedrock where excess sewage is stored (or, as we saw recently in Boston during  an episode of H2OMG, dumping raw sewage into the ocean during unusually heavy rain because your choice is either do that, or let your treatment facility flood with sewage, causing terrible damage, which sewage backs up into homes).

Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to deal with storm water than to build a completely separate sewer-type system of pipes and culverts, like rain gardens, green roofs, and larger systems like Chicago’s green alleys and Seattle’s SEA Streets, which are slowly starting to become more popular.

But the EPA hasn’t been with the program on this. Cincinnati wanted to do this and got shot down. Philadelphia is trying now and we’ll see where they get. This should be encouraged. We need to stop pursuing 1970’s solutions.

There are two big things the federal government could do here. First, the President could tell the EPA to get serious about green stormwater management and do everything possible to put a halt to any more deep tunnels. Second, the federal government ought to pick up tab for Clean Water Act Compliance.

Now some people say that the federal government is spending too much money. I agree. So let’s stop the endless stream of bailouts for what Reihan Salam called the “McMansion-and-Hummer economy” and start focusing what we do spend on investment in the upgrades of basic urban infrastructure that will actually power our future economy. And in this case the money is being spent one way or the other. The question is whether or not we’ll do it in a way that promotes sprawl or not.

*He points to this interview with Joe Cortright, an economist in Portland, OR, which talks about the need for cities to be distinctive, and also has some commentary on what politicians can do to help cities: “Think about things like Social Security, the way we pay for health insurance and how we fund public transportation.”

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