Urban Notebook

Why Don't More Cities Sell Air Rights?

Public works projects often come at heavy expense. Whether it’s building new schools, municipal halls or other facilities, such projects produce not only upfront costs, but depending on their magnitude, long-term debts. There is, however, a way to mitigate costs, or even make a project more profitable: Sell off the air rights. 

This is an idea that, while holding vast economic potential, is used sparingly in America. Nowadays whenever cities build a central library, to name one example, they usually construct a single-use facility that is only a few stories tall, if that. But what if, before such libraries were built, the air rights -- the undeveloped space above the roofline -- were deregulated and sold off? In expensive and vertically inclined U.S. cities, private developers would pay governments enormous sums for the right to build a high-rise apartment complex or business space above public projects. This would lead to the broad maximization of public land values, and thus to enormous cash windfalls for local governments. READ MORE

How to Keep Construction from Killing Businesses

With all the new public works construction underway in my hometown of Charlottesville, Va., it can be tough avoiding traffic jams these days. The main thruway, the U.S. Route 250 bypass, can be a particular nightmare because of construction on an interchange. For a nearby retail center, though, the construction has been a downright business killer. An article in the local newspaper quoted a coffeehouse owner as saying he had lost customers and was cutting staff; other businesses’ sales have dipped by 40 percent.

Certainly, this is a common problem everywhere as growth leads to numerous infrastructure improvement and repair projects. But can anything be done to help affected businesses? READ MORE

Streetcars: The Transit System America Threw Away

In the 1951 sci-fi movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," pedestrians are seen descending staircases on the edge of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. These days, the stairs are still there, but now they’re blocked off. They led to a once-busy 75,000-square-foot below-ground streetcar station built in 1949. The station has been closed since 1962.

Dupont Circle’s ghostly streetcar station is another reminder that America once had an extensive and efficient interurban transit system. Now, as cities from Buffalo to San Diego look to light rail -- today’s iteration of the streetcar, which itself evolved from the horse-drawn omnibus -- it’s worth thinking about the astonishing transit system we built and then threw away. READ MORE

How Zambian Cities Are Like American Suburbs

This story is part of Governing's annual International issue.

Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, is laid out a lot like many cities in sub-Saharan Africa. There’s an urban core dating back to the colonial era. Then on the outskirts there are dozens of ramshackle squatter settlements. The traditional urban planning response to these slums has been to demolish them, often in the middle of the night.  READ MORE

Small Cities Struggle to Battle the Rise in Heroin Abuse

The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from a heroin overdose shed new light on a startling truth: The drug has not only resurfaced, but is back with a vengeance. And unlike the 1970s and 1980s when it devastated inner-city neighborhoods, this time heroin is spawning a whole new generation of addicts in rural areas and smaller, struggling cities. 

The amount of heroin seized each year at the Mexican border increased 232 percent from 2008 to 2012. Meanwhile, the number of new heroin users jumped by almost 80 percent over a similar time period, according to surveys by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This has put a lot of pressure on cities already suffering from years of economic decline. These cities, some with multiple generations of heroin users, are worried they don’t have the resources to fight this latest scourge, which is being blamed on a successful crackdown by law enforcement on prescription painkillers. READ MORE