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.

For more of this stuff, follow us on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.