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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The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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