The False Choices for Urban Policy That We Need to Get Past

It shouldn't be about Republicans favoring suburbs or Democrats favoring cities. Cities and their suburbs will succeed or fail together. We need reforms and dialogue that benefit both.

Chicago aerial view of skyline and suburbs in foreground.
The city of Chicago and its suburbs. (Shutterstock)
Across the country, many mayors are eagerly awaiting a Biden presidency, assuming friendlier language and support for cities than what they've received from the current administration. Many Republicans — including the incumbent president — have objected to helping cities, and some have used language that pits suburban living against urban living. Reaching consensus on anything seems elusive right now, but it is worth pointing out that the path to a better regional quality of life requires rejecting these unnecessary false choices and following with steps that could make a difference.

First, the choice is not between favoring suburbs as a Republican or cities as a Democrat. Cities and their suburbs will, over time, succeed or fail together. The chances of enduring prosperity and tranquility in a wealthier suburb diminish as its neighboring urban area suffers with poor infrastructure, deleterious social determinants of health, high rates of unemployment and exploding despair.

In many cities, wealth has moved to the outer suburbs, often one ring out from the older communities adjoining the city limits. Those with the resources to live in prosperous communities rarely see the challenges of life in densely poor communities. There is a moral imperative for people in adjoining communities to help each other and to support governance that works for those on both sides of the wealth divide — it's not in the long-term self-interest of those wealthier areas to live adjacent to neighborhoods dominated by frustration and hopelessness. In addition, the lost productivity (or gross regional product, if you will) from areas of high poverty and insufficient employment affects everyone. The more adults in a region who operate as productive, taxpaying, gainfully working citizens, the better for all.

The first thing President-Elect Biden could do to bolster cities is extend his message of unity in a way that encourages progress across racial, class and geographic lines. The first thing Congress should do, whether dominated by one party or split between two, is to tamp down policies and rhetoric that create counterproductive us-versus-them tensions.

Second, we don't have to decide whether cities legitimately need federal help or whether they could, on their own, produce operational reforms on a scale that would resolve the issues that confront them. The answer is conjunctive, not disjunctive. COVID-19 has crushed city economies, especially those dependent on retail, hospitality and related service jobs. Those cities need help.

Yet it's disingenuous to deny that many cities could do much more on their own. As the New York City Citizens Budget Commission concludes, even with support that greatly exceeds that provided during and after the Great Recession, the city and state budget gaps are so wide that both levels of government will need to implement significant stabilizing actions. And there is a broad array of such actions available.

Accelerating the conversion to digital services, as many cities have begun in response to COVID-19, will bring long-lasting benefits. Carefully crafted public-private partnerships in areas as diverse as recycling and parking management can reduce city costs and increase revenues by more than 20 percent without laying off a single union worker or raising fees. Contracts for managing airports that produce operational and capital improvements can generate hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for cities. Recent discussions about a private concession partnership for the promising but aging St. Louis airport, for example, included an estimated $1 billion in investments in urban neighborhoods. Water and wastewater consolidation, according to international best management practices, could similarly unlock billions. Indianapolis' consolidation of water and wastewater several years ago under a quasi-government trust provided the city with $400 million in savings.

City revenues have collapsed and will stay down for at least two years, just as many unemployed individuals and failing small businesses are reaching out for help. Cities need to both squeeze out inefficiencies and receive help from Washington. Federal support should be dispensed in a manner that helps cities prepare for the future and doesn't just serve to replace depressed local tax revenues. The federal funds that followed the 2007-2009 Great Recession helped fill city coffers in the short term but did little to help cities restructure government.

A new federal agenda would deliver relief from the crushing revenue burdens brought on by the pandemic, but in a fashion that supports broad reforms. These reforms, for example, could stretch from the discrete — such as expanded broadband access, vacant-housing remediation and innovative workforce development efforts — to broad support for comprehensive neighborhood restoration.

The third false dichotomy is the one that suggests that officials need to choose between the police and people of color. This summer, millions of people showed broad support for taking action to stop police abuses. This fall showed broad support for actions to reduce murder and gun violence. City officials and federal policymakers shouldn't be forced to choose between these goals. Mayors can support public safety funding while at the same time demanding broad reforms that make the police more a part of the community.

Forcing a false choice may make for a clever campaign commercial, but it makes for quite bad governance. Changing the trajectory of America's high-need communities and facilitating policies that result in neighborhoods more integrated by race and class and infused with hope will produce a more just and productive region for everyone.


Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

A professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program. He can be reached at stephen_goldsmith@harvard.edu.
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