The End of Urban Policy—and the Beginning

By Paul Kantor (Fordham University)

It is no longer fruitful to treat cities and other urban places as special interests with special problems in order to successfully address many of America’s urban inequalities. Critical forces now shaping urban America overwhelmingly are found beyond it. Future policies should become more holistic in scope and purpose than in the past, treating urban populations and places as they are connected to America’s system of power and governance. Doing so would make local politics more important to the cause of social equity by enabling cities and suburbs to pursue their responsibilities more effectively than they presently are capable.

There are two faces of American urban policy, a Social and a Developmental Face. The Social Face concerns programs widely perceived to be redistributive in content, many of which affect urban populations indirectly and most often as part of broad income groups.  These tend to involve highly partisan issues, such as income assistance, affordable housing and other “welfare” related programs to help people and places suffering from disadvantage. The Developmental Face is about policies perceived to significantly impact the growth and economic competitiveness of business and population centers comprising the urban system. These policies are deeply rooted in the network of programs, practices, and traditions regulating America’s intergovernmental system.

Urban reformers in the past favored specifically urban assistance to help concentrations of poor in programs in anti-poverty initiatives, such as public housing, community development, legal aid, and other targeted social assistance efforts. Yet in more than the past half-century of social policy experimentation these could not be sustained politically. Nearly all of these programs were eliminated, shrunk or neglected as policy coalitions protecting them have come and gone. In recent decades individual and universalistic approaches have become the most viable means of redistributing assistance to people in urban areas. Political support for these programs has usually hinged on forging inclusive and often cross-party coalitions in national and state politics. In recent decades, however, voters and officials have become more hostile to social programs targeted at special areas. Nevertheless, they have remained more accepting of assisting people through individual benefits. For example, Medicare and Social Security benefits have steadily expanded even as the American electorate has become more polarized politically. Individual benefit programs in health care, community development, employment and income assistance often win cross-party support (or acceptance); while efforts to funnel social assistance to needy concentrations of people located in the big cities and poor suburbs usually fail. In effect, old-style urban social programs have largely ended, but new-style individual efforts flourish today.

In order for such individual benefit programs to work well, local governments must play a bigger role getting vital assistance to the needy. Yet local governments are not in a strong position to do this due to obstacles in the Developmental Face of urban policy. America’s de facto policy for urban development promotes devolution of decision making on local economic issues to the lowest governmental levels. This, in turn, forces cities, suburbs and towns to struggle for economic survival by attracting jobs and dollars from increasingly footloose business and investment markets. Consequently, local communities tend to favor policies promoting growth while giving much less attention to ensuring that benefits redound to the wider community, particularly to lower income groups and neighborhoods. Pro-growth politics commonly takes the form of subsidies and tax breaks to lure business, favoring downtown development over neighborhoods, exclusionary zoning and housing regulation, and other socially unbalanced practices.

Three alternative reform strategies could help change the Developmental Face in order to achieve greater equity: Community Development Reform (CDR), Regional Cooperation Reform (RCR), and National Urban Reform (NUR). All offer some potential, but only National Urban Reform is capable of directly challenging the forces supporting inequitable urban development and enabling the other approaches to have some success.

Community Development Reform seeks to encourage the development of greater economic independence of urban communities by promoting home-grown industries that do not depend on outside corporate business and by encouraging community organizations to undertake self-help services within needy neighborhoods. The main problem with this idea: sustaining localized industries and self-help organizations is difficult in practice. Further, these organizations and enterprises actually rely heavily on outside resources.

Regional Cooperation Reform promotes regional networks of governments or creating a big single metro-government in order to limit destructive local intergovernmental economic rivalry and to attack common problems. For example, joint cooperation among localities could promote new industries or share tax resources more equitably within the region. The difficulty is that local governments have little incentive to cooperate with each other in a fragmented urban system; rivalry is the norm.

National Urban Reform seeks to chip away at devolutionary features in the urban system that encourages local governments to play games of self-defeating economic warfare and pro-growth politics. For example, revenue sharing on a national scale would help diminish the practice of urban communities using development only to expand their access to tax revenues. In most other developed nations higher level governments play a major role in using general revenue sharing and block grants to equalize the capacity of localities to provide essential services. America could follow this path. Further, the national government also could help local governments borrow for capital projects in local development, freeing local officials from the pursuit of socially unbalanced building programs just to please the private bond market. There are many other changes in national policies that could encourage socially balanced urban development, including taxes to discourage profligate use of local tax abatements and other giveaways to business.

National Urban Reform is likely to be politically difficult in today’s political climate. Yet it does not require a single tight and explicit set of urban programs to succeed. It is an incremental strategy relying upon a variety of possible policy changes in many issue areas as political opportunities open up. Reforming American urban policy in this way would make the whole inter-governmental environment more just and efficient.

Editor’s Note: You can read the full article that this is based on here


Dr. Paul Kantor is Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Fordham University and was the Fulbright John Marshall Distinguished Chair in Political Science (Hungary) in 2005-2006. He has lectured extensively in the USA, China, South America, and throughout Europe. He served as Fulbright Senior Specialist Scholar at universities in Italy and the Netherlands, and was a visiting research professor at the Amsterdam Institute for Metropolitan and International Development Studies (AMIDST). Dr. Kantor is on the editorial boards of journals in political science, American studies and urban affairs, and is on the advisory board of the European Urban Research Association (EURA). He is a former President of the American Political Science Association Urban Politics Section.

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  1. The Multiscalar Nature of Urban Security - Progress in Political Economy (PPE)

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