As part of NLC's work in tracking and analyzing the issues and challenges facing cities, Nation's Cities Weekly publishes a monthly "Emerging Issues" column written by NLC staff member Bill Barnes. The columns focus on issues and topics --- beyond or beneath the day-to-day news --- that affect municipal governments and regions and the people who live in them. All previous columns are available below and are organized by the year and month of publication.
Doing Less with Less, and Beyond (December 19)
Many municipal leaders are now figuring out how to do less with less. It's not a short-term holding action; this promises to be a long slog. No time like the present, then, to imagine what other surprises may be slouching toward us even now and to stress test local and regional systems for capacity to weather probable scenarios.
To act or not to act --- Is that the question for governments? (October 3)
We can all agree with NY Times columnist David Brooks that it's difficult for government and planning to accomplish big, complicated things. But he's very wrong about both his excessive cautions against "the limits of social policy" and also about the small-bore way he urges us to think about what governments and planning can do about the economic and financial mess we're in. It matters how he, his readers, and we frame this whole challenge.
Hyphens and Documents, Hopes and Fears (September 5)
Immigrant integration is happening "steadily," albeit "unevenly," in the United States, according to a new report. This is a big deal, not only because some progress is occurring but also because this news contrasts with what you get from your regular encounters with the news media and national leaders. It's a neglected story and, when it's told --- by local leaders and others --- it could contribute to re-shaping constructively the nation's rather dismal national discourse on immigration.
Weigh the Anchors, but Join Them Up (August 8)
University presidents describe their schools as increasingly "engaged" and ready to undertake "anchor institution" roles in their communities and regions. This emerging attitude presents both a great opportunity for positive partnerships in cities and a challenge for everyone to avoid the negatives of some past university/community relationships.
Closing the Regional Disconnect (July 11)
Boundary crossing for regional governance is on its way to becoming normal. We should put aside the false choice twixt doing nothing or engineering jurisdictional consolidation and instead shift to a focus on regional governance as capacity and process.
It's the Stupid Economy! (June 6)
We're nowhere near agreement on the question of "what's the problem with the economy?" and so we're in complete disarray about "what is to be done?" Three factors make matters worse: tattered frameworks; the long and short of it; and violation of Goldberg's rule.
U Street and Neighborhood Change: A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever (May 9)
Here's a value that often eludes urban policy thinkers: adding beauty to the world. Blair Ruble, in contrast, thinks "there is no higher mission for an urban community to fulfill." He's not so much talking about the aesthetics of physical surroundings; he's moved by the beauty of what people do and create in the places they make. Ruble asserts this view in his terrific "biography" of "Washington's U Street."
Big Think Books, Part Two: Cities and Destiny (April 4)
Transportation is destiny--- and cities must adapt. Demography is destiny---ditto. So say authors of recent Big Think Books. Whatever destiny is, these five BTBs offer readable ways to engage the provocative, befuddling, and important public conversation about the future of cities.
Big Think Books, Part One: BTBs See Big Roles for Cities in Big Global Changes (March 28)
A flotilla of Big Think Books (BTB's) about cities has heaved into view. This article and next week's provide a glimpse of key themes in these BTB's and some analysis of controversial issues on which the authors agree and disagree.
Intergovernmental System Requires Attention (February 21)
The U.S. system of intergovernmental relations is pervaded by "a lack of trust and respect." It is "broken down across the board." And, besides, it's "not much of a 'system' now" anyway.
A Unique Time in Municipal Finance: Not for Hunkering Down (January 17)
Fundamental dollars and cents challenges lead directly to fundamental governance challenges, including questions that may not be part of the normal budgetary discussions. Michael Pagano says cities should try to address these questions.
Putting Poverty in its Places (November 8)
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.
Are we Ready for Government by the People? (October 12)
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.
Related Resource: Making Local Democracy Work
We Don't Know What We're Talking About (August 30)
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.
Debating Redevelopment by Proxy: Getting Past the Past (June 28)
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.
Wrestling with Jane Jacobs (June 21)
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."
City Mysteries Have Their Places (May 17)
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.
Trends in Public Administration Affect Local Practice, Outcomes (April 12)
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' State of the City Addresses Express Cautious Optimism (March 15)
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.
The First HUD Secretary (February 1)
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.
The Economic Development Game Has Changed (January 11)
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.
Are We Suckers for 'Warped History? (December 12)
In the policy debates about the current Great Recession - debates in which cities and towns have much at stake - references to the Great Depression and the New Deal play important roles. Without some understanding of the 1930s, citizens and officials alike are susceptible to arguments from what Washington Post book reviewer Jonathan Yardley calls "warped history that gets us into trouble." To paraphrase Ben Franklin, if we don't know something, we'll fall for anything.
Countercyclical Fiscal Program: An Idea Whose Time Hasn't Yet Come (October 26)
Oddly missing in the past year of discussions about Federal economic "stimulus" is the idea of a straightforward fiscal transfer to local and state governments. The issue is what works to bring national and local economies out of recessions. Simply stated, the problem is that state and local governments' legally-required budget-balancing makes the downturn in business cycles worse.
What Will Be the 'New Normal' in Your City? (October 12)
Despite dragons, perhaps it's useful and important to challenge assumptions about the return of previous conditions after the recession passes and to ask: "After the crisis, what comes next? Are there any silver linings in the clouds? How will we deal with whatever the new situation may be?" Some leaders in Kalamazoo MI, recently wrestled with those questions.
Forms Follow Functions for Municipal governments (September 7)
Recent research shows that local leaders have opted increasingly for mixed forms of municipal government. These adapted and hybrid cities now outnumber the pure form cities.
Obama Urban Policy Ideas Likely to Have Consequences (July 27)
Obama has sketched a set of significant and far-reaching ideas that potentially take us to a Federal policy framework that is more appropriate to 21st century conditions than the ideas that have dominated the field for decades. He has not laid out an "urban policy"; he has outlined key concepts for a foundation on which such a policy might be built. His ideas also provoke some important questions.
Cities, Regions Respond to Foreclosure Crisis (July 6)
A new report examines the ways that leaders have worked together in their metropolitan regions to respond to the foreclosures crisis over the past year.
Old Hands Seek to Shape New Futures for Cities (June 8)
Old hands. New books. Bill Hudnut and Neal Peirce are indeed "old hands" in the municipal affairs world. Each has contributed a new book that looks to the future of cities.