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Cities and Governance

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Esther Dyson writes,

Most cities evolved blindly, and have ended up semi-workable, whereas a city that is started from scratch can, in theory, benefit from intelligent design. But, even with long-term investors, to build a viable city at scale nowadays represents a daunting challenge, requiring not just architecture, but also modern infrastructure, schools, and hospitals. Moreover, in addition to people, investors, land, and other tangible assets, an independent yet accountable government must create and enforce rules, and a charter must specify how the rules can be changed.

Suppose that you owned land that you wished to use to create a city of several million people. What sort of governance structure would you put in place? Possibilities:

1. Dictatorship. One person ultimately sets all the rules for the city.
2. Representative democracy. Have the rules set by an elected legislature.
3. Decentralized by location. Divide the territory into boroughs or neighborhoods, and give each autonomy.
4. Decentralized by function. Divide government functions into water treatment, transportation, zoning, police, etc., and create autonomous government agencies to manage these functions.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Ted Craig writes:

1 and 3 have the best chance of working, 4 the worst.

RPLong writes:

Call me crazy, I think city planning has lead to more problems than solutions. The fewer planners, and the fewer rules, the better.

Kevin L writes:

I've often considered how a truly private city might work. I suppose if I were the "owner" of a city, I would run it more or less like an extended shopping mall. I'd lease out land or building space (probably on long-term covenants), and bid out common functions like water, waste, power, security, and network. Decisions about long-term efforts like large structures would be vetted by the owner or more likely a board of directors. I think if stocks were issued and shareholders voted in directors, the end result would not be much different from a democratic city. There would be favoritism in contracting, protection from competition, and rent-seeking. The direction of the city would very much depend on the ideology of those in charge and prevailing opinion among shareholders.

Peter Mazsa writes:

I'd prefer some clever (central) institutional framework à la and then let it go

Becky Hargrove writes:

1 and 3 are definitely on the right track but perhaps not for the reasons imagined. New cities need 'dictators' in the sense that this individual would set up the 'game' plan, which they would need to explain to anyone who might desire to take part. For instance, would education and work be part and parcel of each other? Neighborhoods would then utilize variations of the plan in terms of how people want to style their own environment. Some neighborhoods might want to share a small nature commons for instance, say a wildflower prairie instead of mowed lawns. Each city could represent different visions and compete on those characteristics.

John Fast writes:
a city that is started from scratch can, in theory, benefit from intelligent design.
Yeah, in theory. I want to move to Theory, because everything works there.

Seriously, though, I'm less concerned with the process used to determine the rules and more concerned with what type of rules come out. Specifically, I agree with the axiom given in Starship Troopers that any system will "work" as long as authority and responsibility go together, and good performance receives positive feedback while poor performance receives negative feedback. ("Work" simply means "produce the desired results.")

Of course, the simplest such system of rules is private property and a free market, with some minor clarifications for issues such as externalities and takings -- essentially the system described by Richard Epstein in Simple Rules for a Complex World, or David Friedman in The Machinery of Freedom.

Peter Gordon writes:

The cities with famous plans (New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Paris) are mostly infill that the original master plan never considered. They are an amalgam of top-down and bottom-up (private) planning. The latter was probably dominant.

AMW writes:

A mix of 3 and 4. 3 makes it easier to exit, which sends a pretty good "market" signal to the authorities, and incents good government on their part. 4 makes government less of a basket of goods, and allows people to more easily retain leadership of the good parts and replace the leadership of the bad.

Julien Couvreur writes:

There are two variants on (3). You can have an overall owner who delegates various neighborhood to local directors. Or you can have an initial owner who sells out the various neighborhood to autonomous owners (maybe with a few basic rules attached).

Chris writes:

@Peter Gordon - you missed Chicago. After burning down in 1871 the whole city was planned and has stuck to it for the most part....

That being said -
Dictatorial control means that your first decision is the only important decision.
Representative Government is an exercise is rent seeking.
Burroughs may be the best choice, but at that point why call it a city of several million and not 20 cities of a couple hundred thousand?

Gian writes:

There can be no context-free answer to this question.
A lot depends upon the character and the virtues of the intended population.
I.e. a city of Germans could be 3.
A city of Indians could be 1 or 4.
A city of Americans could be 2.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

See Brasília as an example of a government planned city done badly.

Columbia, MD was a privately planned city that turned out OK for the kind of people who wanted to live in the suburbs.

mark writes:

5) direct democracy, limited to persons who pass certain criteria of capability.

If you exclude that idea, I vote for 4. Frankly I think the whole US should be reformed around 4.

John David Galt writes:

I would not create a government entity at all. I would create a company to build and own the infrastructure, and have it build the city and sell the parcels, with sufficient deed restrictions on each lot to protect the values of the neighboring properties. This has already been done, I believe, in Irvine, CA.

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