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The Management of Large Cities in the Developed World

A Note by the Director (95/1)

22-22 January 1995

Ditchley began 1995 by looking at large cities. (We evaded defining large, lest a discussion already sadly without Berlin and Tokyo should alienate Birmingham and Glasgow.) We recognised from the outset that in practice large cities were not just small ones multiplied; they generated problems, as well as opportunities, virtually different in kind – for example through their customary role as prime reception centres for immigration, and the exceptional difficulty of relating parts coherently to the  whole.

The whole, for a massive conurbation like New York, was itself hard to define. None of the cities on which we focused had a formal administrative ambit matching up-to-date functional reality; boundaries mostly reflected a snapshot from past history, long overtaken by the phenomenon of urban sprawl which, if unchecked, would render any redefinition obsolete even if expansion now to match newer reality were politically manageable. Reality itself was not uniform - the life of big cities reflected an operational (and political) geography which might vary widely from one function to another.

The diversity of natural boundary, set alongside the official-boundary mismatch, contributed in many settings to an awkward fragmenting and inter-meshing of tasks which made the governmental structure of large cities difficult even for practitioners to comprehend in detail, and almost impossibly opaque for most ordinary citizens. Responsibilities were shared - or shuffled - between levels of government (national, state/provincial or local) in ways varying from one function to another; add the executive/legislative/judicial division of role, and there could result an intractable multi-dimensional matrix of tasks and tensions.

Such complications deepened the problems of achieving democratic working credible to the ordinary citizen. The particular form and severity of those problems varied with the differences of political culture between North America, Britain and France (and these differences made us wary of assuming that particular devices could be easily exported in either direction across the Atlantic).  In the United States, for example, the concept of a powerful executive Mayor had many strengths, and led to patterns and attitudes notably unlike those of the British collective tradition. The latter, many participants felt, intensified the problems of fragmented responsibility; and London's now-unique pattern of (in one comment) Balkanised management, with no single overseeing city authority at all, found very little favour in discussion.

Both administrative efficiency and democratic accountability called for clear definition of responsibilities; but in practice this was hard to achieve (especially if a mega-city happened also to pose to central government the temptations towards interference which capital-city status generated). The individual citizen tended naturally to look towards a nearby local authority as the recipient of service demand and of complaint; yet to a large and perhaps growing degree effective responsibility lay elsewhere. In the United States there was an increasingly heavy incidence of unfunded mandates - extra requirements imposed upon city authorities by federal or state law without any matching provision of resources.

Resource provision was indeed an acute structural prob­lem everywhere. There was a severe mismatch between the scale and intensity of service need and the local tax revenue available to pay for meeting it. That tax revenue rested, typically, upon property; but quite aside from the limitations of such a basis in magnitude of available income, it yielded only a weak perceived linkage between taxation and service provision, to the detriment of democratic responsibility. The record of attempts to find alternative local-tax systems, as in the brief British experiment with a community charge levied on resident individuals, was not encouraging; yet the result of present shortcomings, especially in Britain, was to throw the burden back upon subventions provided by central or state government, often through formula systems of great complexity and therefore poor public comprehensibility.

This general difficulty - to which we discerned no ready solutions - lay alongside another consideration awkward for effective local democracy. Particularly in tackling special remedial problems like the salvage of London's Docklands area, institutions with a longer time-horizon and a sharper executive focus than an ordinary elected council might be needed; but it was then very desirable (though not at present always done) to devise methods of two-way communication between such institutions and local opinion.

The role of city authorities in strategic planning for their areas generated considerable discussion. Almost all of us agreed that the days of comprehensive master-plans defined in detail were over; some indeed argued that planning itself the activity of consciously thinking about the future - mattered more than plans. But we did mostly recognise a major continuing role for public activity and provision, notably in establishing the infrastructure, in encouraging (not supplanting) private-sector economic development and in channelling it into coherent patterns. Historically, we were reminded, public-sector co-ordination and leadership in city planning had generally sprung from the evident failure of unconstrained private enterprise on its own to meet city needs. Many of the assets which made a city as a whole attractive to desired incomers like mobile industry were of a public-good kind; and the tackling of poverty - a concern of especial gravity in most big cities, with pockets of acute deprivation often found cheek-by-jowl with considerable wealth - needed public action in some form.

The poverty problem in some big cities was of an order requiring addressal as a national rather than a local problem, and we heard some concern that in the United States this reality was not yet adequately acknowledged. But whatever the basic split of responsibilities, local authority had an inescapable role - the ordinary citizen would not understand otherwise. City leaderships were increasingly recognising the need to play their part (though local government structures in Britain were not well shaped for this) by encouraging opportunity rather than just by organising relief. Our discussion emphasised that the problem moreover required action targeted upon the disadvantaged – as the continuing scale of poverty even in generally-prosperous cities like Frankfurt showed, it could not be assumed that successful general wealth-creation would meet the need; a rising tide would not necessarily lift all boats.

We did not thrash out a clear consensus on which particular lines of action best addressed urban poverty - a vigorous case was heard that well-intentioned public measures had often worsened the long-run problem. But no-one doubted that prevention was very much better (and cheaper) than cure - better educate, indeed, than incarcerate. We were much stimulated by hearing of the exemplary contribution made in Chicago by the South Shore Bank, private­ sector and commercial in operation but deliberately focused upon the support of small businesses in disadvantaged areas. We had no difficulty in applauding co-operation between the public and private sectors in addressing mega­-city problems, though some participants reminded us of the complexity of designing truly effective partnerships in ways that would not weaken private-sector strengths by introducing the distortions of artificial incentive.

Time-constraint limited the depth of our discussion of city transport, and of environmental issues. Road congestion (with attendant pollution) was an acute problem everywhere, but remedies were not straightforward; pricing structures to shape economic incentives to the effect desired were hard to devise in ways that captured the complex externalities, and formidable barriers of public acceptance further limited the options. More generally, there were undoubted environmental successes to note, as with London air and Thames water; but water more generally, and waste disposal, imposed both heavy economic burdens and, in some settings, sharp constraints on city development and operation - the carrying capacity of the surrounding area could be a crucial constraint. City planners were increasingly recognising the importance of environmental quality in a city's general attractiveness and so in its ability to prosper in the competition to draw in economic activity and wealth. Such competition was in some ways an uncomfortable phenomenon, with potential (given that cities scarcely constituted an ordinary market group) for waste, distortion and inequity; but it was an inescapable reality, both nationally and more widely.

Inevitably, our conference spent much time upon problems, difficulties and shortcomings. But our mood was not sombre; we were constantly aware that a great city was a special resource and storehouse - a centre of innovation, of constructive human interaction, of culture (this moreover a distinctive feature, and surely from one standpoint a growth industry offering distinctive opportunity), of talent and of energy. Big cities might in the next century develop (for example through the impact of information technology) in ways altering their configuration, as indeed technology and social change had already tended to diminish their political predominance within national frameworks. On any view, however, they remained assets of entirely special importance; and their fruitful management merited corresponding attention and idea-sharing.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

CHAIR: The Hon David Dinkins
Mr William T Lane
Mr Stephen G McLaughlin
Mr David Powell
Monsieur Jean-Marie Delarue

Sir John Banham
Mr C J S Brearley CB
Sir Robert Calderwood
Mr Herbert Girardet
Professor Peter Hall FBA
Mr Alastair Mackenzie
Mr Bryan Magee
Professor Michael Parkinson
Mr Nick Raynsford MP
Mr K Eric C Sorensen
Mr Roger M W Taylor
Councillor David Weeks
Mr Christian Wolmar
Mr Irving Yass CB

Dr Steven Cohen
Dr Ester R Fuchs
The Hon Neil F Hartigan
Peter J Johnson Jr Esquire
Mr Christopher Johnson
Mr Robert H McNulty
Professor Mitchell L Moss
Mr Daniel Rose
Mr Ian Shapiro
Ms Joan E Shapiro
The Hon Henry J Stern
Mr Michael K Woo

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