Annapolis Institute Overview


Reforms could make cities work

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, April 9, 1998

Talk to anyone about cities and the conversation quickly moves to negatives — to issues like crime and violence, traffic congestion, schools that don’t work, poverty, decay, racial tensions and divisions, out-of-control taxing and spending and, too often, out-of-control police and self-serving politicians.

But that’s not the way it has to be. Cities are also about grand public spaces and places to work; porches and sidewalks, lofts and high-rises — and neighborhoods, places to live; and all kinds of people from all walks of life scurrying about to make a living or to enjoy themselves — from the coffee house and sports arenas to the performing arts centers. Put another way, cities are about diversity, proximity, choice, community and markets — good and desirable things, not bad things. And if we can change the way government does business, we can change the way people experience cities. That is the message of Milwaukee mayor John O. Norquist in a soon-to-be released book called The Wealth of Cities: Revitalizing the Centers of American Life.

Norquist is a Democratic Leadership Council kind of Democrat. To some that means “moderate” or “centrist.” What it really means is a pragmatic approach to ideas that work, to public policies that can help achieve traditional values like opportunity, responsibility and community. Most of Norquist’s ideas to fix cities meet those tests. Here is a sampling.

  • Taxes and spending. Leaner governments, lower taxes and eliminating the federal deficit benefit cities. “Cities must recognize that it is an act of social justice to reduce the tax burden on urban taxpayers, whether the tax is local, state or federal.” It is the job of the city to reduce costs through sound management and especially by introducing competition into the process of providing government services.
  • Urban design. While strip malls, cul-de-sacs and sprawl are some downsides, cities must learn from the successes of suburban life — affordable housing, convenience, choices, security, self-government, predictable and coherent architectural rules, mixed uses, sidewalks and, increasingly, front porches and bike paths — to make cities more attractive places to live and work.
  • Work, not workfare. “Welfare reform must be changed from workfare to work.” Example: Job-placement and job-maintenance agencies, both public and private, should not be paid until they demonstrate success in getting people into work and keeping them there.
  • Education. “The federal government should support parental school choice” for K-12 students. The city can provide the quality education choices that are needed “when the publicly financed school monopoly is broken.”
  • Housing. “The federal government should get out of the housing business altogether.” Reason: Federal housing policies have virtually eliminated privately financed, low-cost housing. Norquist also favors a cap on the mortgage interest deduction to stop subsidizing the construction of large suburban homes — though it would also discourage high-end downtown housing.
  • Trade and immigration. Trade, says Norquist, is “the underpinning of most cities.” The federal government should concentrate on safeguarding trade routes and navigation and get out of managing trade. “Tariffs and quotas should be abolished (and) restrictions on immigration, especially for skilled and educated applicants, should be loosened” so we can continue to benefit from the “rejuvenation…energy and ideas of immigrants.”
  • Transportation. Norquist calls for complete defederalization of transportation. Using Canada as a model, Norquist says transportation decisions should be made locally and regionally, using lcoal and regional money, to move people and not just cars.

Not everyone will agree with all of Norquist’s ideas. I certainly have problems with some of his ideas about environmental regulation. But the more political and civic leaders discuss and implement public policies that reflect the core ideas of opportunity, responsibility and community that guide Norquist’s thinking, the faster we will fix the cities where most Americans live.

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