What should cities give us? Safety? Diversity? A place to live? A place to work? Places to eat? Places to learn?
This is the time of year where across the world, we turn our attention to gifts and what we can give people and what we have been given.
While this week marked the beginning of the church year and the season of giving that many Christian churches mark as Advent, representing the gift of the Christ-child, a more secular beginning also happened this weekend, as this weekend’s trifecta of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday marked the beginning of the major buying season. While the origins of why the days after Thanksgiving (plus now Giving Tuesday, which is today) have become THE ABSOLUTE DAYS YOU MUST SHOP AND GIVE OR ELSE are a bit muddy, the ideas of giving and getting are as old as time.
Since this is a city blog (and since I thanked cities last week in honor of the United States celebration of Thanksgiving), I wanted to take the time and mention three things this week that cities should give us, if they want us to think of themselves as cities.
If you are calling yourself a city or town, legally or for the sake of a marketing brochure and you don’t have a health clinic, a school or system of schools or even just a library that can educate people from 0-100, a place where people can either sell their wares and make a living or make wares for someone else and get a paycheck, then you aren’t a city. Also, I’d add that you need a variety of housing at different sizes and price points. You may be a community without these things, maybe even a village, but not a city.
Most of the major cities we think about are nation-states, even in a country like the US that also grants a federal and state layer of governance on top of their cities. In regions like the one I currently reside in (and our Nations’s Capital), the city and its suburbs cross multiple state and county lines, yet function together as a symbiotic whole.
Yet, some of these legal cities and towns are just neighborhoods with a civic building or some other bare minimum standard of being a legal entity capable of taxing or not taxing people. Let’s not even start with how many of these places have created school districts, police and fire departments and still legal means of housing discrimination such as only selling homes in a certain price range, to try to control their populations.
While I don’t like what you are doing if that’s the kind of municipality you are, I’ll give you a pass if you stop calling yourself a city. If you want to be a city, open yourself up to providing the basics, plus diversity, which I’ll explain in the next section.
While there are plenty of homogenous neighborhoods, especially in countries like the US, Canada, France and Australia that have grown into cities by adding those basic needs I just mentioned above, I think some neighborhoods still lack the capacity to be a city.
A city allows people to come into it with whatever they have and contribute that service or product. Again, it provides the basic needs, so that a person can then contribute their unique contribution. For example, a cupcake baker sets up shop. They know that their kids, if they have them, can go to school. They themselves can get some extra educational help because some sort of adult learning experience exists, even if it’s just a public library or a culinary school.
A city is also not afraid of the variety of people it has. Actual, known criminals are dealt with, in a way that doesn’t strip them of their humanity, but helps them get back to life after learning some lessons. There are housing types at every size and price level. The difference in housing comes in basic, safe, bare minimum functions and high-end, luxury finishes. Far too many developers and cities are trying to build luxury-only and they wonder why we have a housing crisis. Same with groceries, hair salons and sadly hospitals, clinics and schools. Paying extra should be an enrichment and entertainment experience, not a do-or-die thing.
One would say that schools are winning at diversity, at least when you look at a metro area. However, that diversity diminishes when you have different school districts, with different tax rates, yet in a close geographic area. I believe that school systems that incorporate a singular taxing entity and operate on a county level or in partnership with more than one county, especially if the city extends into said county, do better.
Having one pot of money, plus one centralized superintendent, with regional superintendents, lifts up the value of the entire district. Instead of writing off schools in poorer neighborhoods, the school system is seen as a common good and outside of PTA money and other grants that go to schools on a more individual basis, the district as a whole invests the same amount of money and the same level of basic resources such as buildings and textbooks into the system as a whole. But I could digress here. Schools have their own thing going on and I’m planning on writing more about them at a future date. Let’s move on the final city need, mobility.
If your citizens can’t navigate on two feet (or in a motorized wheelchair) safely, you’ve failed the first test of city mobility. The second test is if your citizens can cycle safely, on more than residential streets. The third test is if the transportation you provide, connects all major regions and neighborhoods, in a timely manner, for able-bodied people, not just for folks to who you are mandated to provide curb-side service.
Many cities are failing at the mobility piece. It’s part of why I’m in the line of work I’m in, to push the needle forward in having adequate ways to get around.
Plus, on a romantic level, so many cities are associated with their transit and transportation systems. These entities are often stand alone characters in the books and shows and movies that highlight a particular city. One example that comes to the top of my head is the movie Coming to America and how the subway seemed to shut the door on a romance. Getting out of the movies, I’ve heard many stories of people who don’t date people who live on a certain train line because it takes time to get to that part of New York. Yet, at least they can take the train. Think of how many people consider long-distance relationships the inability to drive an hour or two. Think of folks like me who regularly meet a significant other at the other end of a cross-country flight or train ride.
Think of not having anything but the open highway to get us where we need to go. Yet, everybody can’t drive. Every trip, especially those “glass-of-milk-on-the-corner” trips should not be a car trip. Some cities are even seeing property values rise when they put in things like streetcars. Yet, transportation entities should lift all boats, not just the ones in the special district where the cars will run.
But what about governance?
You may notice governance is missing in what cities should give, at least in the bullet points above. Here’s the thing, it doesn’t take much to be governed. Even if you claim to be stateless and off the grid, some entity, even if it’s just the federal government, will eventually show up at your yurt and tell you these are the rules you have to follow. Essentially you don’t have to live in a city to be a citizen.
Yet, if an entity wants to incorporate itself, and tax its residents above and beyond what federal and states are doing, then this is what my tax dollars should go to ensuring. Also, if tax dollars are going to some businesses, there should be a central entity, much like the school board governs schools and the city council handles basic city workings like fire, police and water, maybe power and telecommunications, that governs how much and when any company can ask for tax abatements or unrestricted grant money from the city.
I believe that so many lawsuits and a major cause of political debate and contention could be eliminated if we didn’t give out tax incentives based on what we perceive would be a major investment. Instead, we could support our own companies, so they can make a decent living at places like the City Market shown above.
So that’s what I think cities should give us. I’d be remiss during this season of giving (and wishes) if I didn’t mention the gifts I have for you. A year ago today, I published my first print volume of essays and blogs A Black Urbanist: Essays Vol. 1. Yet I’ve felt like I need to print more, not just of that book, but more of my writings in general. While I’m still working a major full-length volume, in the meantime, I’m launching The Black Urbanist Monthly. For $25 a month, starting in January of 2016 you’ll get a print magazine edition of the blog, with both stories and images that you can take offline and share with your colleagues. The first five people to sign up will get a free, signed copy of A Black Urbanist: Essays Vol. 1. Also, your subscription will help me continue to grow my writing, podcasting and in-person speaking and training opportunities. Learn more and sign up here.