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How Fragile Cities Get That Way

They fail to maintain critical social compacts, degrading their ability to function over time.

Chicago skyline
(David Kidd)
Is Chicago the nation's most corrupt city? That's the verdict of a report issued last May by the University of Illinois-Chicago that cited hundreds of investigations and convictions of city officials over two decades for bribery, extortion, contract steering and other ethical transgressions. Chicago's police department has a history of corruption and brutality in a city where more people were murdered in 2016 and 2017 than in Los Angeles and New York City combined. All of this points to an inescapable reality: Chicago may be the Midwest's greatest economic engine, but it is fragile.

Our recent research has taken a critical look at fragile cities in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world. Major cities in developed countries drive their nations' economies. They are the threads that hold the web of globalization together, meaning that events in one city can ripple throughout the rest the global ecosystem. Given the increasing importance of cities in the modern world, it is imperative that officials understand why a city is fragile.

We trace fragility to a failure to maintain social compacts -- the implied agreements between government and individuals in which the government governs justly and, in return, the people behave civilly. If, for example, police in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., had used force appropriately, the riots that occurred in those communities in recent years probably would not have happened. Important compacts had been broken.

We broadly categorize social compacts into four levels: fundamental, stability, integrity and prosperity; each level builds off the previous level:

Fundamental: the agreement that a city's residents will have access to the things they need to survive and function, such as decent housing, an efficient transportation system and access to clean drinking water. The failure by local and state officials to provide safe drinking water for the residents of Flint, Mich., represents a failure of this fundamental compact.

Stability: the agreement that the city will be a safe and predictable place. Examples of a city maintaining this compact include providing effective police services, fire safety and public health. The prevalence of violence in Chicago, whether perpetrated by police or by residents, is an example of a city failing this commitment.

Integrity: the agreement that government officials will be good stewards of the people's trust and power. They will not promote one special interest over another, behave unethically or mismanage the people's money. Integrity compacts concern the confidence individuals have in a government to treat its citizens justly, obey the rule of law and not abuse its power.

Prosperity: the agreement that government will strive to enrich residents' lives and economic capacity. Increasingly city governments are being held responsible for attracting and retaining businesses and jobs, and providing an education system that enables residents to succeed in today's economy is a key part of the prosperity compact. It is important to note that we are advocating not that all individuals must experience the same level of prosperity but that all have access to the opportunity to prosper.

As cities work to combat fragility, officials need to be careful that their actions do not disregard the interdependent nature of social compacts. Efforts to stem police corruption or brutality, for example, should not jeopardize other aspects of the stability compact by reducing public-safety funding rather than increasing oversight. Officials should understand that fractures or failures of a higher-level compact may signal issues with a deeper, foundational compact. And governments should ensure that they are nurturing and fulfilling compacts for all of the city's people, not just for select social groups. Fairness is the element that all of these compacts have in common.

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