American cities are much more powerful than British ones – and that's not always a good thing

They have signs like this one from Texas, for a start. Image: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons.

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy is a Massachusetts-based think tank which researches the use, taxation and regulation of – yep, you guessed it – land. Every year, it holds a two day “Journalists’ Forum”, at which it gathers a bunch of relevant hacks, and invites mayors, government officials, and other land-appreciative types to talk to them. It’s basically my Mecca.

I was lucky enough to attend this year’s conference in Washington DC last week. The event was primarily concerned with American cities, and it left me thinking two Big Thoughts.

One was that the issues American cities are facing would be incredibly familiar to their peers here in blighty. They include austerity, in the aftermath of the 2008 crash; power struggles with higher levels of government; and the question of how you create jobs, when the heavy manufacturing industry your town was built on has just collapsed and/or moved to China.

The other Big Thought the conference left me with is quite how different the range of responses from American cities has been. Not because they have different goals; simply because they have a vastly different range of powers at their disposal.

So, here are five wonkish ways in which urban politics is different across the pond.


Land is plentiful

Okay, let’s start with an easy one. The landmass of the US is, give or take, 40 times that of the UK.

As a result, unlike the UK, the US is not gripped by a constant state public panic about the idea it might have to build on some things it hasn’t built on before. It’s actually possible for cities to expand to accommodate the growing number of people who want to live in them.

This is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s led to sprawling car-based cities like Houston and Atlantic which, which great from a house price point of view, are pretty ghastly in terms of the environment or walkabilty. And it hasn’t saved the whole country from housing crisis, or the economic damage that comes with it: plentiful land in Utah can’t provide homes in San Francisco.

But it does at least mean that, while housing came up, not once in two-days, did anyone snap “Brownfield!” and then look smug about it. And for that I am grateful.

Cities can set their own boundaries (sometimes)

One of the causes of the problems in Detroit, Congressman Dan Kildee told the conference, was that the state of Michigan revoked it’s powers to set its own boundaries. In the mid-20th century, huge numbers of people moved from the city proper to a ring of affluent commuter suburbs, in a phenomenon known as “white flight”.

Once upon a time, the state’s rules on municipal annexation meant that the city was empowered to expand its boundary (“city limits”) to include those new suburbs. But after the 1970s, it wasn’t. As a result, it lost those rich residents, and the taxes that came with them.

There are two things to notice about this story. The first is that cities can set their own boundaries. Not always – it depends on the rules set by the individual state – but often. As a result, you get oddities like this Chicago, whose city limits extend west in a 200 foot-wide strip so that it could incorporate O’Hare Airport.

Funny shape, Chicago. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine how much easier devolution deals would be if Leeds could unilaterally annex, say, Wakefield.

The other thing you’ll notice about that Detroit story, is...

US cities have financial freedom

...cities can set their own taxes. Which would be pretty handy, if they wanted to, say, build a new road.

They can issue municipal bonds pretty easily too: Carl Weisbrod, New York City’s director of planning, told the conference that the city’s goal is to keep its debt service payments below 15 per cent of its operating budget. In a city the size of New York, that’s a lot of room for manoeuvre.

All of which gives American cities a fair degree of financial freedom to invest in themselves. Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, gave a well-worn presentation about how the city had reinvented itself after tax breaks failed to persuade United Airlines to relocate to the city in the 1970s. The problem, Cornett explained, was that the firm sent a few executives and their partners to spend a weekend in Oklahoma City checking out their potential new home, and all of them were so bored that they decided they didn’t want to move there. (The firm went to Indianapolis instead, which probably burned a bit.)

After that, the city spent several decades reinventing itself: refilling a dry ditch that had once been a river with water; rebuilding its schools; building a street car. Now, the city has gone from a “suburb of nothing” to a city that people move to – voluntarily! – from as far away as California.

Water taxis in Oklahoma City's Bricktown district. This used to be a ditch. Image: SoonerFever/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s difficult to imagine a UK city pulling off this sort of trick, simply because they don’t have the ability to invest in themselves. UK cities can issue bonds, but the rules are set by the Treasury, and the vast majority haven’t. And while councils will soon get to retain their own business rates, that’s a long way from being able to levy local taxes. Most British cities just aren’t that powerful.


Transparency is assumed

Okay, this risks being a bit navel gazing, and isn’t specific to cities at all, so feel free to scroll past it. But it’s an important point, so I’m sticking it anyway

There was an entire presentation, from a member of the federal government, about how journalists can get the most out of publicly available data. Not only is that stuff out there – the government expects people to use it and, in a roundabout way, wants to help them do it.

The British authorities are, charitably, rather less comfortable with this sort of attention. We have a Freedom of Information Law – but we’ve only had it for 16 years, officials tend to see it as a burden rather than a constitutional right, and the man whose government introduced it noisily wishes he hasn’t.

In the US, for all its flaws, everyone in US politics knows who they work for and that they might be being watched. That dynamic is, er, less obvious in Britain.

Okay, now back to your regular service.

None of this is an unalloyed good

We’re pretty noisy advocates of more power for Britain’s cities. We love cities. I mean, it’s right there in the site’s name.

But there is another side to all this political and fiscal freedom. American cities can invest in themselves - but as a result, American cities are expected to invest in themselves.

The result is sometimes a downward spiral. The finances of cities like Detroit or Flint collapsed in part because, once the problems began, the cities lacked the resources to arrest the decline – and neither state nor federal government were coming to save them.

Britain’s cities are weak; Britain’s cities benefit from fiscal redistribution. There’s an extent to which these things are two sides of the same coin.

Jonn Elledge edits CityMetric and tweets too much.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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