The 2009 national poverty rate of 14.3% varies by type of place. The highest rates are in centrally located cities in both metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. Even, and perhaps especially, amidst the gloom of the current Great Recession, don’t the high poverty rate and the larger pattern of increased inequality remain (as Galbraith and Harrington said fifty years ago) remarkable, disgraceful, an outrage and a scandal.
Many city officials and many citizens feel they and their community have been hurt by well-intended public participation processes gone badly awry. Once burned, twice shy. So a commitment to keep learning and keep trying will be crucial.
Psst! Quick, what is “sustainability”? Well, then, how about “civic engagement”? “the free market”? “smart growth”? Our political and policy discourse overflows with terms that encompass such a wide and changing range of idiosyncratic meanings that conversation is rendered meaningless and our abilities to address problems or seize opportunities are damaged.
The struggle about city redevelopment is often caricatured as Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs, “the imperious planning czar versus the tireless public advocate.” These are neat sound bites and great fun. It’s an argument about cities and redevelopment carried out by proxy. But it’s the wrong debate: this is not all about Bob and Jane; the issues are not only about New York; the either/or options are false choices; and the tough guy realism and self-righteousness are both tiresome. We do need a more careful discussion in many communities about the legacies and ideas inherited from “redevelopment” and its opponents. To do that requires an acknowledgement that the question of power --- by whom? for whom? --- lurks at the heart of any public issue. The struggle over the futures of cities and towns continues, and the past is very much a part of it.
Jane Jacobs wrote one of the most influential urban affairs books of the twentieth century. "Death and Life of Great American Cities" --- published in 1961 and still in print today --- has become a talisman, cited by many to advance their views and proposals. Jacobs' views have become conventional wisdom. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the book's publication, it's surely time now to celebrate her accomplishements and also to think freshly about her ideas. We don't need acolytes of Jane Jacobs; we need people who will think as hard and as well as she did about "the kind of problem a city is."
Decades ago, American detective novels were mainly set in New York City or Los Angeles. One observer puts the proportion at fifty percent. Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe and Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald dominated the detecting field. Not anymore. Now, murder mystery stories are set in lots of places, reflecting the vitality of local cultures, growing interest among readers in the varieties of American life, and the ingenuity of writers who are rooted in distinct places. For example, Sara Paretsky’s altogether wonderful V.I Warshawski sleuths her way around some seedy parts of the city of Chicago. Phoebe Atwood Taylor's Asey Mayo mysteries are set on Cape Cod. Local color matters and the color in a lot more places matters. For fans of this sort of entertainment, this is a great boon.
From new leadership styles to e-democracy to generational change, the “top ten trends in public administration” are affecting city governments, elected officials, and communities. Antoinette (“Toni”) Samuel, Executive Director of the American Society for Public Administration, presented the analysis to the NLC staff at the most recent Staff Seminar speaker series. Her presentation was based on suggestions from James Svara of Arizona State University. The other seven trends are: new governance, strategic management, citizen focus, reorganizing work structure and process, new thinking about service delivery, innovation, and ethics and transparency.
Mayors expressed, in early 2010 “State of the City” addresses, a commitment to important local initiatives, cautious optimism about their city's economic future and a sense of the hard work ahead. Some patterns and common themes emerged from this analysis by NLC staff. The project looked at 33 State of the City and several inaugural addresses that were delivered during the past few months in a cross-section of cities by size and geography.
Robert Weaver is surely one of the giants of the field, but his biographer, Wendell E. Pritchett, reports that he is by now an “obscure figure, forgotten by Americans.” Pritchett’s excellent book, “Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City” (University of Chicago Press, 2008) aims to end that obscurity, to place Weaver in the context of his times, and also to exhibit the continuing relevance of his achievements and the dilemmas he struggled with. Forty-five years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the law establishing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). After four months of delay and dalliance, he nominated Weaver to take the post as Secretary for the new department.
In an excellent new book, “The Post-American World.” Fareed Zakariah says that, while the United States will remain the sole “superpower” at “the politico-military level,” in every other dimension “the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.” Bill Stafford, president of the Trade Development Alliance (TDA) of Greater Seattle since 1991, says that these changes have direct, urgent and important implications for American cities and city leaders. Those implications are both negative and positive, but they do demand changed attitudes and orientations. In short, “the game has changed,” and it’s way past time for American players to play by the new rules.