Urban Policy in North America Research Paper

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In general usage, ‘urban policy’ takes on two closely related meanings. The word ‘policy’ may denote a definite course of action selected from among alternatives and intended to guide specific decisions. In that case, ‘urban policy’ refers to such courses of action in relation to urban areas and issues, especially in the public realm. ‘Policy’ may also indicate a more general and high level guide to decision and action, particularly by governmental or other public entities. In this case, urban policy should be seen as comprising general principles that guide public action in urban areas and on the issues associated with them. In practice, it is difficult to disentangle the two, especially in advanced societies, such as those in North America, where most of the population lives in urban areas. Furthermore, the diversity of urban areas within a national political system, no matter whether they are metropolitan regions, cities, or smaller urban places, engenders specific forms of complexity that are reflected in public policy. Thus, to understand urban policy, it is necessary to see how public decisions are formulated, as well as to examine the character of urban policies in both their specific and general senses.

1. Public Action In Relation To Urban Areas

The organization of public action reflects a profound dilemma associated with geographically differentiated places whose populations have political power. Metropolitan areas, cities, and other urban entities are the most dominant such places in our time. Considerations of technical efficiency often suggest that public action should be shaped by functional requirements, rather than in accord with governmental structure (examples are transportation, public utilities, and public safety). Such function-based structures might be seen as a ‘vertical’ form of organization, in which a particular function is managed coherently to take advantage of economies of scale. Most national states have ministries that reflect such a functional division, as do lower levels of government. In strongly unitary states, such national ministries extend their reach to virtually all aspects of life, even at the most local or individual level.

Society, however, comprises much more than the nation state, being a vastly complex structure of social, economic, and political relationships among individuals and groups. The reality of everyday life engenders strong relationships in a ‘horizontal’ form, crosscutting functional concerns and focusing on place itself. Such ‘place based’ concerns are accentuated where people in subnational communities have the political power to express their collective desires, even though they may run counter to national concerns expressed through vertical forms of organization. Democratic societies in which legislatures are elected on a geographic basis are particularly likely to express such horizontal pressures. However, the fundamental social organizational forces that create subnational communities are present everywhere, with concomitant tensions between the vertical and horizontal, the functional and the communal, at all levels of government.

One solution to this dilemma is a federal system, in which both legislative and executive responsibilities are allocated explicitly to different levels of government, usually associated with accompanying geographic disaggregation of the national space. This is so in all three countries in North America. Conventionally, systems of this type exhibit at least three formal levels of government: national, state (also called regional or provincial), and local, with the latter often further subdivided. Urban areas are rarely national in scale or scope, though Singapore provides an important exception. Singapore is, of course, a unitary state, albeit with local forms of administration within itself. Urban areas at the first level below the national in a federal system are also relatively infrequent, though Mexico City and Washington DC are principal examples. Even there, the capital is a unique political entity rather than a state within the federal system. Thus, most urban areas in explicitly federal systems fall under the jurisdiction of local governments.

Although urban places are geographically local in nature, urban policy is not also essentially local. To the contrary, cities are intricately involved in national politics in urbanized societies. Many strands of national policy affect urban areas or are intended to respond to the concerns of their inhabitants. The formation and execution of urban policy occurs at all levels of government. In addition, many policies that affect urban areas and their inhabitants deeply are couched in terms of other policy domains. Major governmental ministries or agencies whose explicit mission is to shape urban policy are rare. Nonetheless, urban places are the targets of many explicit policies, while also being the recipients of the consequences of others. It is often difficult to distill the urban policy implications of policies formulated in other fields.

2. Urban Policy In North America

North America is a continent comprising three separate nation states, each with a distinctive history, its cultural and demographic makeup, and its own economic, social, and political system. Nonetheless, Canada, Mexico, and the United States do have much that is common in their forms of urbanism, their governance, and the policies they have evolved. All three countries are highly urbanized, although Mexico has a somewhat lower proportion of its population living in urban areas, reflecting its status as a less-developed economy. In each country, market forces drive urbanization, though the extent to which they are regulated varies substantially. Cities in each are shaped by the dominant technologies of our time, especially by the automobile as the primary means of transportation. Demographic changes, especially immigration and aging, are affecting urban areas in each country. Nonetheless, there are important themes of urban policy in each. Critical to understanding those themes are the categories of public policy involved and the governments that address them.

Although ‘public policy’ is a widely used term, which now drives graduate and professional education and research, it is seldom voiced in governmental decrees. In relation to urban policy, it is especially important to differentiate the ways in which public policy may be understood. In the first meaning noted above, it is the expression of a particular public course of action that has been decided or is in the process of debate. More generally, in line with the second definition above, public policy also expresses a higher level of generality in the principles that guide public, especially governmental, action. This second sense, however, opens some important distinctions of its own. Much public policy, in fact, may be settled, broadly accepted, and challenged only when conditions change sufficiently to lead to questions being raised about its validity. Urban policy, in this view, is something like an iceberg, much of which is virtually invisible.

2.1 Urban Policy As Land Use And Development

Consider the fundamental question of how urban areas in most of North America are designed and built. Current policy debates concerning land use planning, urban sprawl, and transportation infrastructure investment are shaped by long-agreed public policy that urban development should be carried out by private investors, regulated by government and, in part, supported by public investment. Europeans established this policy in the early years of settlement of North America, even though the first settlements were far from pure capitalist enterprises. As colonies of Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Spain, they were intended to benefit their parent countries, and to varying degrees they were rigorously regulated and their forms prescribed. Nonetheless, in the United States, especially, there had emerged by the early nineteenth century a distinctive form of settlement that was to define the American form of urbanism, namely the grid-plan.

The urban grid, a rectilinear structure of streets, was the physical expression of a fundamental policy that urbanization would be market driven, privately organized, and minimally regulated. It enabled two key elements necessary for such a process to work. The first was the creation of easily laid out and marketable lots that could be sold speculatively to buyers at a distance. The second was the easy expandability of the urban structure, simply by adding further streets and subdivisions as the market expanded. Thus, a distinct and recognizable form of American city emerged, speculative in its origins, highly adaptable to changes in growth and technology, and based on the conception of land as a marketable commodity. Even when the grid was replaced in the twentieth century by the curvilinear streets of the suburbs, development remained a function of the private market. The suburbs, with their stronger appeal to the consumer’s sense of aesthetic quality and lifestyle choice, necessarily expanded the realm of public or quasi-public regulation, but they were equally the product of private, speculative development. With this shift, however, came major public policies that have supported this form of urbanization, notably the federal funding of major highways, and the deductibility of mortgage interest, the latter justified by an explicit policy of encouraging home ownership rather than rental tenure. The most recent challenge to suburban forms of urbanism, by neo-traditional or ‘New Urbanist’ critics, calls only for a change in the way in which urbanization is treated by regulation and taxation. Only relatively rarely in modern American history has government attempted directly to create urban places, even though national, state, and local laws have fundamentally shaped urban settlement patterns. US efforts to build new towns during the Great Depression of the 1930s were unusual in this respect and they failed.

Clearly, this account simplifies a complex, continental-scale reality. The legacy of Spain in Mexico was one of a much more centralized, class defined, and bureaucratic society. Mexican urban development reflected those facts in its slower growth and more constrained forms of urbanism. Similarly, development in Canada reflected both the earlier French centralizing influence and the British legacy of unitary parliamentary government, albeit grafted onto a federal system in which the provinces were relatively strong. It is no accident that public control of urban development in both Mexico and Canada remained historically much stronger than in the United States, yet in both countries cities are not built by governments.

The idea that urbanization is market driven has been powerfully consequential. Paradoxically, the market itself implies public constraints. No market functions without some prior structure of behavior or public order; some constraints must be established for markets to function at all. For urban policy, this implies public regulation of the urban development process. The nature and locus of that regulation has defined many of the key urban policy issues in North America during the twentieth century. In the United States, control of public policy is ultimately vested either at the level of the states or of the federal government, depending on the Constitution and its interpretation by the Supreme Court. With respect to land use, control is generally agreed to rest legally at the state level, although the basic legal doctrines that support land use regulation rest on constitutional decisions that are national. In fact, states have delegated land use regulation to local governments under a variety of names. California, for example, delegates the power under the doctrine of ‘Home Rule.’ On this legal basis, aided by a long history of piecemeal settlement and independent formation of urban places, US urban policy toward development and change is played out at the most local level.

This situation contrasts sharply with that in many other advanced countries, notably in Europe and Asia, where state or central governments play more centralized roles in land use planning, regulation, and development. Canada and Mexico also present substantially more centrally regulated versions of urban development. In Canada, cities in the central and western provinces tend to look more like those in the USA. The eastern provinces have a stronger tradition of central control, though always empowered at the provincial level. Toronto’s ability to control its suburban development contrasts markedly with any US city, but a change in political complexion at the Ontario provincial level has had substantial implications for the city’s policy. In Mexico, until very recently, with a single-party state, local control of development was limited. Although state or central governments did not always have the capacity to enforce their will more than intermittently over economically or politically powerful local groups, the tradition of central government finance and fiat remained powerful. How this will evolve in the first decade of the twenty-first century, as the political monopoly of the PRI ends, remains to be seen.

2.2 Urban Policy As Functional Management

Local power over development has major implications for urban development, particularly when viewed from a functional perspective. For decades now US observers and advocates have argued that urban problems of transportation, energy, utilities, and environmental quality require the political ability to act at a regional level. Again and again, such arguments have been turned back as localities have refused to form larger regional governments or to cooperate in accepting land uses that they deem undesirable. That refusal has been encapsulated in the term ‘NIMBY’ (‘Not in my back yard’), which has become both a rallying cry for control by local neighborhoods in the face of larger economic and political forces, and a term of opprobrium conveying selfishness and exclusion. Nonetheless, metropolitan areas cannot be built and cannot operate at a high level of amenity and income without necessary functional efficiency. One widely employed means around the problem has been the creation of single purpose special districts; for example, to handle water supply. These are typically limited in their range of action and their ability to override local decision-making. They are established by state law, but with the clear requirement that local political representatives support their formation. In recent decades, some entities of this type have also emanated from federal governments in all three countries.

Management of air quality is a good example of such urban policy, illustrating both its urban character and its placement within another organizational realm. Awareness of the dangers of air pollution has a long history in urban areas, but its modern manifestation in the USA may be dated from the passage of clean air legislation by the city of Pittsburgh in the 1950s and the enactment of state and federal air quality standards and legislation in the 1970s. At first, efforts to improve urban air quality focused on stationary sources of pollution, especially industrial sources such as steel mills and oil refineries. As they were controlled, however, it became apparent that the single greatest source of air pollution was from mobile sources, especially private automobiles. In metropolitan areas and cities such as Los Angeles, dirty air was identified as a contributing cause of serious public health problems and reduced quality of life associated with smog. Clearly, these were regional and in some cases inter-state problems. The federal government’s response was to treat environmental quality by regulatory legislation and the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. State governments reinforced the effort with similar legislation.

Air quality degradation by automobiles can be countered in many ways, including regulating the emissions permitted, increasing the cost of driving, providing incentives for use of cleaner vehicles, and changing the way in which urban areas are structured so as to reduce the number of miles driven. Any of these policies are conceivable, but the specifics of implementation differ among them. Furthermore, the mode of intervention might have a great deal or very little relationship to urban areas themselves. Regulation of automobile emissions through national specification of permissible technologies is only indirectly urban in character, and its effectiveness will vary with the standards applied from place to place. On the other hand, consider the problem of regulating development as a means to control emissions in metropolitan Los Angeles. Although both federal and state agencies have regional offices, neither would typically be able to carry out such a policy effectively at the local level. To do so for the metropolitan area required also a regional agency, in this case, the South Coast Air Quality Management District. This agency, established directly by the state, legally has the power to override local development decisions. However, in the face of overwhelming political opposition to such actions, which would violate home rule, it has been reluctant to do so, preferring to employ its regulatory powers in other directions. Alternative air quality policies may have similar goals, but their urban manifestation may be quite dissimilar.

This story of policy directed towards urban problems, defined on a functional basis, and legislated and implemented at multiple levels of government can be found again and again in North America, as it can everywhere in the urbanized and urbanizing world. Apart from being much worse than in Los Angeles, air pollution in Mexico City presents much the same set of problems. In transportation, public health, housing, water supply, wastewater disposal, garbage removal, and public safety, governments have been attempting to find solutions within their own financial and political situations. It is not a new phenomenon. From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, much of what we recognize as urban policy has been driven by attempts to deal with the dysfunctions of the industrial process. This process occurred a little earlier in Britain than in most of Europe and North America, but once on course it has barely slackened. Some urban concerns, of course, are much older. For example, laws to prevent disastrous fires by prohibiting wooden buildings may be found in the very earliest records of urbanization. However, the emergence of systematic urban policies really dates from the nineteenth century.

For early industrial cities in North America, the most urgent issues were public health, public safety, and transportation. The previous section indicated how the use of a planned grid permitted both a functioning land market and lines of transportation. Although the cores of cities were often congested, especially where, as in Boston, their cores were essentially unplanned, they could function with pedestrian and horse-drawn transportation before the advent of the railroads. However, such cities were necessarily densely built, outran their water supplies, and had primitive sewage disposal. Frequently, they endured epidemics, notably of cholera and yellow fever. As epidemiology evolved, the importance of clean water and sewerage became evident and the first great modern age of urban policy began. Although the delivery of pure water was, at first, a privately financed and run form of enterprise, it soon became a municipal monopoly, as did sewerage. Provision of electric power and gas, on the other hand, primarily remained private enterprises in North America, with a few minor exceptions. These utilities were regulated after the turn of the twentieth century in order to limit their monopoly power. Public safety became a key municipal function with the creation of police and fire forces in the nineteenth century and has generally remained so.

Beginning with the development of urban trolley lines and railroads in the nineteenth century, transportation investments have played an especially critical role in urban policy over the past 200 years. Although streets and street maintenance have primarily been managed by local governments, the provision and regulation of transportation has involved both private markets and public entities and governments. In the United States, most public policy in this realm was enacted by state and local governments throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The ability of dense but growing cities to expand depended on fast and reliable forms of transportation so long as employment remained centralized. Privately run trolley lines, buses, subways, and commuter railroads, operating under local or state charters, provided a workable, if often uncoordinated solution. Later, many were consolidated under public ownership. Together, they enabled development of the suburbanized city of the early twentieth century, brought to full flower by the automobile. With the advent of automobiles, the focus of public policy shifted from private investment in infrastructure to public investment in highways, funded in large part by taxes on the sale of gasoline. National government engagement in transportation within cities remained minor until the 1950s. By that time, the invention of the freeway had raised the cost of new investment beyond the capacity of both local and state governments.

Large-scale federal entry into the process began with the creation of the Interstate Highway Program in the 1950s. Despite its formal purpose of enhancing national defense by providing high-speed, controlled entry highways linking the entire country, the Interstate system played a substantial role in urban development through the second half of the twentieth century. By the year 2000, urban freeways ran both through and circumferentially around every major urban area in the USA, fostering suburban decentralization of cities across the continent. Similar freeway development took place in Canada and, more recently, has been occurring in Mexico. Although there has been much debate about the precise intent and impact of the Interstate system on US cities, there can be little doubt that the availability of federal funds has enhanced suburban development significantly since the 1960s. Whether these were conscious policy choices and whether this was the primary cause of the decline of central cities, discussed below, cannot be demonstrated. Given the rapid growth of population, productivity, and income, together with consumers’ desires for single-family housing and automobile transportation, it seems likely that economic and political pressures would have had similar effects, whether or not the federal government were involved. Nonetheless, this period saw the entry of federal policy into urban transportation in a major way. It remains there today, although the nexus has shifted. Since the 1980s there has been a resurgence of political support for urban mass transportation, driven by the perception that the freeway solution is either too costly or too destructive of environmental quality to be sustained. This perspective parallels the critique of the suburb and urban sprawl discussed above. As a result, federal transportation funds now include substantial subventions to mass transportation—buses, light rail, and commuter rail in metropolitan areas. While the effectiveness of this shift is being debated, it now appears to be an entrenched element of national policy towards urban areas.

2.3 Urban Policy As Social Policy

Since the 1960s, urban policy in the United States has not been associated in the media and public debate primarily with the issues discussed so far, though the recent resurgence of concern about urban sprawl has shifted attention back to the effects of urban growth. Rather, for several decades, urban policy has been identified primarily with problems of poverty, racial discrimination, segregation, and the decline of central cities. As is true in so many other instances, such a definition of urban policy is not new. It emerged in tandem with the industrial city in the nineteenth century, when low wages, intense overcrowding, dilapidated housing, crime, social disorganization, and disease combined to generate a new form of urban slum. The public health effects of industrial urbanism first engendered policy responses that were engineering solutions, especially in the form of potable water supplies and waste disposal. Epidemics and infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, also required medical responses, which took the form of public hospitals and health services. Crime problems engendered police forces and prisons.

However, by the late nineteenth century, the fact that so many of the new urban populations in the United States and Canada were immigrants, led to concerns for public safety in a larger sense, namely the stability of the society itself. Public education became a key element of local urban policy, its intent being both to provide a literate and capable labor force for the expanding economy, and to ensure that children were able to speak English and become acculturated into society at large. Fears that immigrants would bring with them European socialist ideas and form labor parties were not unjustified, for all that they were not realized. The momentum for these policies was certainly national in scope and linked to the prevailing sense of the United States as an emergent imperial power on a world scale. However, their realization was almost entirely at the state and local levels, where governments and influential voluntary groups were at times almost indistinguishable.

Poverty presented not only a risk to the health and social position of the affluent in American cities; it also affronted their belief in the United States as a place of freedom and opportunity. Efforts to help the ‘worthy poor’ raise themselves out of poverty took many forms, of which the Settlement House movement is the best known, evolving into forms of assistance associated with the social work profession. This movement also provided an early means for women of higher social status to become active in professional and social realms. Thus, by the early twentieth century, many believed that urban poverty called for effective governmental and voluntary actions.

A key realm of response was housing, and it is here that the largest challenge to the idea of urban development through the market emerged. The slum was perceived in many ways, but the vision of grossly overcrowded, unhealthy, dilapidated housing was intrinsic to all of them. Observers and critics of capitalism had noted the inability of markets to provide adequate urban housing from early in the Industrial Revolution. Public efforts to regulate construction or management were largely ineffectual, however. By the end of the nineteenth century in the USA, as in Britain and Europe, there had emerged two competing policy responses. Public regulation of housing quality took the form of building and housing codes, enforced by local bureaucracies. Those who saw regulation as insufficient or ineffective called for direct public or non-profit ownership and rental of housing for low-income families. Market advocates opposed both.

The twentieth century saw the parallel evolution of these approaches to low-income housing policy in all three countries of North America. Mexico, which was undergoing a revolution and installation of a one-party state, probably exemplifies the highest level of commitment to public provision. However, the lack of resources due to underdevelopment, and the mistaken effort to adhere to unrealistic standards, ultimately ensured that public housing would become only a very limited part of its mass urbanization. In common with other developing countries, urbanization for the poor primarily meant informal housing on the margins of major cities. Canada, with a stronger tradition of government intervention, though varying greatly across the provinces, has also adhered to policies that give greater weight to provision of low-income housing. In both the United States and Canada, the tradition of local regulation continues, with rising standards and incorporation of new areas of oversight. In the United States, a determined effort to create a public housing program in the 1930s saw its culmination in the Housing Act of 1949, which led to construction of federally funded rental housing for the poor in most cities. However, the program became discredited, in part because of social problems emanating from its increasing racial segregation and focus on the very poorest populations, and in part because of insufficient funding to maintain and control high-rise housing that was ill-designed for its purpose. In a major shift of federal policy affecting cities, the program was largely replaced after 1974 by a low-income rental subsidy, which remains the basis of federal policy in this area. As a result, direct provision of new housing for the poor has switched towards the nonprofit sector.

Entangled with housing and poverty policy, especially in the United States, is the issue of race. American cities have long been segregated, both by race and income. African-Americans were confined by economics and social pressure to limited residential areas within cities. This phenomenon was exacerbated by major migration from the rural South to northern cities throughout the first half of the twentieth century. While that migration resulted at first in opportunity and rising incomes, by the 1950s there had also emerged ghettoes of African-American and other minority groups in poverty, in which serious social problems persisted. This process was exacerbated by the out-migration from older cities of white middle-and working-class populations seeking a suburban lifestyle and impelled also by race-based fear and prejudice. As a result, cities’ financial capacity to address the needs of their populations declined. Education and public service quality diminished, which reinforced the migration. With improvements in civil rights during the 1960s, yet with racial discrimination still widespread, the contrasts between racial groups’ aspirations and achievement burst out into urban civil disorder on a massive scale. Large areas of cities including Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington DC were devastated.

The question of appropriately responsive policy is almost paradigmatic of urban policy in general. On the one hand, efforts were made to improve incomes and opportunity through broad programs, such as those for education and job training. On the other, were efforts to empower local communities through a variety of supports and incentives for the formation of community organizations. The so-called ‘War on Poverty’ of the 1970s exemplified both kinds of policy. It certainly led to the formation of new political networks and organizations among the urban poor, with long-term results on the racial and ethnic makeup of local politics. However, the position of the poorest and most socially disadvantaged populations improved little, if at all, in the face of a widening gap in the income distribution at large and a decline in the demand for unskilled labor. Increasing crime and social disorganization associated with rising drug use also contributed to the problem. In the face of falling national rates of economic growth, budget stringency led to the withering away of urban poverty programs. In the mid-1990s, these issues were once more addressed by national policy, operating this time through the medium of the welfare program, and especially its support for unmarried parents. Insistence on entry into the labor market has reduced the level of dependency substantially, but the results have yet to be tested outside a boom economy.

3. Conclusion

Urban policy in North America remains something of an anomaly. National governments have few policies that are identified explicitly as urban, yet most of their people live in urban areas and most national domestic policies have powerful urban implications. Urban areas contain their own local governments within larger federal and state structures, and those governments pursue the welfare of their inhabitants and other organizations within their boundaries. States and provinces occupy an intermediate role within the federal structure of each nation state, establishing the ground rules for much that urban governments may do while intervening directly. Although urban policy has come to be identified particularly with some sets of issues, notably those to do with poverty and racial segregation, in fact it is much broader than this. Indeed, it may be argued that many of the most important components of urban policy in the countries comprising North America are scarcely visible. Cities are the most dynamic form of human social organization. Urban policies reflect fundamental social agreements about how cities and towns will continue to be built and transformed and how their inhabitants will relate to each other. Only when those understandings are challenged does the visible portion of urban policy emerge, usually in the context of political and social conflict. Resolution of those conflicts has been a part of urban life throughout history and it will continue to be so.

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