MyGov.nyc Offers New Yorkers a More Transparent City, with a Page for Every Capital Project

Few things impact the lives of New Yorkers more than the city’s “capital projects.” These projects create, maintain, and improve the infrastructure New Yorkers use every day, including: streets, bridges, tunnels, sewers, parks, and so much more. In 2018, the capital budget will be $16.2 billion, approximately 17% the size of the city’s $85.2 billion “expense budget.” What are these projects? How can you find out about them? It’s not easy, but it should be.

The Capital Budgeting process is a complex endeavour. The City maintains a 10 Year Capital Strategy that it updates every two years, and an Annual Capital Budget that is passed every year by the City Council, and a Capital Commitment Plan that is prepared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) three times a year, which outlines precisely how and when funds are being allocated to agencies on a project by project basis. The Commitment Plan is the most interesting because it’s the closest to the reality of how the city is planning to spend our money. It comes in fourvolumes” of PDFs containing 2,162 pages of table after table of information describing nearly 10,000 different projects. Printing this out results in a stack of paper about one foot tall.

In 2017, why isn’t all this information in an easy-to-use spreadsheet or database? The only reasonable answer is that the city doesn’t want the public to scrutinize this information too deeply.

Fortunately, recent advances in technology have made it much easier to turn PDFs into spreadsheets, and spreadsheets into web applications. And that’s what we’ve done at MyGov.NYC, a website developed by Sarapis that generates a web page for every single capital project in New York City, organized by agency and sortable by project cost. Of course, our ability to display useful information about projects is limited by the information in the capital budget reports – but there’s more than enough information to pique any budget conscious New Yorker’s interest.

Here’s an example: Project HBMA23216 from the DOT is a $312 million construction project for the “Promenade over FDR E81st – 90th St Bin 2232167.” That’s a lot of money for a promenade. By Googling the project’s name, description, and various internal codes (FMS Number, Budgetline and Commitment Codes) we can find a lot more information, like the RFP Notice, proposed architectural plans, and more.

As you browse the budget, sorting the most expensive projects by agency, more questions arise: Why does the City’s 311 system need a “Re-Architecture” that costs over $5.5 million this year? Why does the “Vision Zero Street Reconstuction” [sic] go from $2 million in 2018 to $100 million per year in 2021-2023?

I’m sure good answers exist for these and other, more probing, questions. These projects are, after all, funded by us taxpayers. Making this information more accessible would not only create more opportunities for civic engagement, it would also allow the public, journalists, academics, and others to serve as watchdogs, which might result in millions of dollars of identifiable cost savings.

A quick trip to the New York City Charter reveals that the City is required by law to document its capital projects in a very specific way. Presumably the City follows its Charter, which means this information exists, so shouldn’t the city share more of it? Cost shouldn’t be the reason we don’t have access to this information. If the City spent just 1/100th of 1% of the capital budget on public documentation, they could easily fund an exceptional website with a team of data organizers and content publishers who could keep it up-to-date.

Image of the city’s capital commitment plan vs. our MyGov web app

What would that website look like? It would certainly have a lot more information than what the city currently publishes in its PDFs and on their “Capital Project Dashboard,” which offers very little additional information about the 189 “active projects over $25 millions.”

Imagine if the City maintained a web page for every capital project that contained all related public information: project status, project scope summaries, location on a map, lists of hired contractors and their fees, and an activity log so we, the people, could watch as projects move through their various stages. Now that’s the types of transparency we should expect from our city government!

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on November 2, 2017 and updated in March, 2018 for this website. Image from Wikipedia.

Sim City Showed Us Brilliant Civic Technology Interfaces 30 Years Ago. Lets Building Them.

I was eight years old when I first encountered a computer game called “SimCity.” The general premise of the game was that you were the mayor of a virtual city, and you would use game money to create a place for communities of “Sims” to live. First you set up basic infrastructure like roads, pipes, and zoning and soon after, the “Sims” would arrive to build buildings and pay taxes. As tax revenue flowed in, you would use it to make citywide improvements by establishing public infrastructure like schools, hospitals and parks. The more robust your city’s services, the more Sims would want to live there, and the more taxes revenue would roll in. As the game progressed and your city grew, your decisions as mayor became increasingly complex. However, an easy-to-use interface simplified the tasks and made the whole experience a lot of fun.

That was 1994, and at the time, I assumed that one day, my neighbors and I would all have a hand in understanding and shaping New York City through tools and interfaces like SimCity’s. Apparently I wasn’t the only one.  A recent story in the LA Times entitled claims that “‘Sim City’ inspired a generation of city planners.”

As the internet was getting increasingly popular, my confidence in that idea strengthened. How difficult could it possibly be for the biggest city in the world’s richest country to create “Sim NYCity”?

Apparently it’s quite difficult – not from a technical perspective, but from an organizational development one.

Technically, government agencies have the vast majority of the data Sim City offers to viewers, such as information about geographic information like zoning and elevation; statistical information like crime rates and population, educations rates; and infrastructure monitoring like traffic rates, electricity use, water flow rates, etc. But bringing it all together to give the residents an intelligible, (relatively) real-time dashboard for seeing their city operate clearly just isn’t a priority.

Thanks to the tireless work of open source software developers and open government advocates, we don’t have to wait for our city to organize this information for us. We can begin to do it ourselves.

Here are a few of the features that would make “SIMNYCity” such a valuable contribution to civic life.

Interactive Community Maps

The centerpiece of the system is a map similar to Google Maps or the City’s Planning Lab’s new Community District Profiles website. It would have highly curated data layers that display education, health, police, fire and mass transit indicators (in SimCity parlance: data maps), as well as useful demographic information of residents. Anyone could click a few layers on and off to see which neighborhoods have access to which services, and which don’t. Users could select which facilities they’d like to see added to an area, and then receive a projection of how the addition of such a facility would impact access in the neighborhood. Of course, accurate projections would be difficult to create, but basic estimates wouldn’t be, and more importantly, the existence of such a tool would whet the public’s appetite for more information and involvement in planning processes.

Citizen-Driven Budgets

Offering opinions on the budget could be as easy as pulling a few sliders.

Managing the budget was one of the most important jobs of the mayor in SimCity. The tool for doing this was similar to a mortgage calculator. Income and expenses were presented with about 10 line items each, and you could pull the slider in one direction or another to change funding allocations and see how those allocation impact the entire city’s budget.

We should offer a similar tool to New Yorkers. We can synthesize the NYC budget from thousands of line items into a dozen or so, enabling anyone to quickly see how money flows in and out of NYC’s government. Then we can invite them to create their budget by pulling sliders. As they do, the city’s budget projections change. So, if someone would like to increase the education budget they would toggle education to the right. Then they might adjust income by increasing taxes to balance the budget. Bonds could be included into the mix too by showing a list of public bond offers and requests. This type of tool would allow New Yorkers to create the budgetary mixes they want to see, and they can share it with others. We could also generate statistics about all the different budgets New Yorkers create to develop insights about how the city’s budget could more accurately reflect the values of the city’s residents.

Decision-Making Moments

City advisers could send out messages to New Yorkers and ask for their direct feedback.

When time sensitive decisions were needed in Sim City, a popup would appear with a message from an adviser asking the mayor for a decision. “SimNYCity” could work similar by providing citizens with more opportunities to indicate their preferences on key civic issues. For example, when a controversial zoning change is being proposed, an alert from the Commissioner of City Planning could be sent to SimNYCity users saying something like: “Residents are wondering what you plan to do with the Bedford Armory. Here’s some information about the various interest groups. Do you think the current proposals should move forward or should it be rewritten?” Users could then say how they feel. This type of feedback could provide useful information for city leaders that they could incorporate into their decision-making processes. A similar workflow could be used for legislative and administrative decision-making.

Moving Beyond the Vote

Imagine if all the active and proposed city ordinances were laid out in a simple list.

Our current democratic processes are, unfortunately, failing New York City. Less than 25% of eligible New Yorkers voted in the last election cycle. In this cycle, over 95% of incumbents won their primaries and it appears that over 95% of general election races will be noncompetitive. This means that a very small group of Democratic party insiders are the people determining who will serve in New York City government. That isn’t very democratic, and it’s the main reason so few New Yorkers show up to the polls.

We don’t have to wait for deep reforms to our city’s democratic process before we start experimenting with new and innovative ways to provide participatory democratic experiences to New Yorkers. We can offer citizens methods for engagement right now – and if these methods turn out to be popular, then we can organize the public to pressure existing politicians into incorporating these methods into their decision-making processes.

These are just a few interfaces Sim City has for making cities and their government more legible, and interacting with them more enjoyable. The technical hurdles to implementing similar interfaces for the city are certainly significant, but not impossible to overcome. Planning Labs, a digital service organization within NYC’s City Planning agency is building open source software and open data resources that could power many of the complicated mapping elements. Furthermore, New York City’s Open Data law mandates that much of the information we’d need from the government to build such a system is being published to the city’s official Open Data Portal.

Exploring what that data is and how it can be connected together to build the type of deep data resources needed to power interfaces similar to Sim City’s is the next step – and it’s work we’ve begun to do through our MyGov.NYC project, which connects nearly a dozen (and counting!) city datasets together to create data-driven government agency profiles. Our primary goal with this project is to make this information easier for civicly minded people, especially journalists, to navigate and use for their work. This process also gives us uniquely sharp insights about what data is and isn’t available. By understanding those gaps, we can develop a list of data we’d need to build Sim City style interfaces for New York City.

Expect a report on that in the not too distant future…

Featured image from SIMNYC blog

Nations are no longer driving globalization—cities are — Quartz

Urbanization has already declared itself the mega-trend of the 21st century, with half the world’s population now living in cities for the first time in human history. While the implications for economic growth have been widely discussed, urbanization’s impact on diplomacy and sovereignty will be equally profound.

Read the Article at the Source: Nations are no longer driving globalization—cities are — Quartz

Consider just two major issues on the global agenda: security and climate change. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and the November 2008 terror attack on Mumbai, both cities moved to strengthen their own security services and intelligence capabilities beyond what Washington and Delhi could provide and mandate. The Mideast’s iconic Dubai has long done the same beyond the shadow of federal Emirati capital Abu Dhabi.

Now look at climate change. Two decades of climate diplomacy have yielded little progress in devising a meaningful global framework to reduce carbon emissions. Instead, new regimes led by cities are emerging. Started by London mayor Ken Livingstone in 2006, the C40 initiative brings together over 60 cities and mayors to exchange best practices, transfer technologies, and promote public-private partnerships that reduce the urban carbon footprint. The standards set by C40 members in clean-energy buildings, waste management, and sustainable transport systems substantially exceed existing standards set by inter-governmental negotiation.

As cities continue to arrogate major diplomatic and economic functions, should we still be talking about international relations?

To appreciate the role of the city in 21st century, we must remember that cities are humanity’s first and most permanent fixed settlements, and arguably oldest diplomatic actors. Ancient Mesopotamian and Anatolian cities engaged in regular exchange of envoys to establish mutual recognition and merchants who conducted trade missions. Medieval and Renaissance diplomacy was similarly dominated by city-states, particularly in Italy and northern Europe with the Hanseatic League, whose intense diplomatic competition and interactions helped to undermine the Holy Roman Empire, while fueling the commercial revolution and voyages of exploration across the Atlantic and to Asia. Even after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, widely marked as the transition to sovereign nation-states, diplomacy remained a heterogeneous affair all the way until the post-Napoleonic Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1815. From a “city” viewpoint, nation-states have only been the (nearly) exclusive diplomatic actors for less than two centuries.

Globalization itself is as much an inter-city phenomenon as it is about lowering national borders. According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, almost the entire world economy is represented by approximately 400 cities. Airline connections around the world depend on the development of robust “hubs” such as Chicago, London, Zurich or Singapore, which in turn magnify the reach of globalization inward to smaller cities in their regions.

Read the Rest of the Article at the Source: Nations are no longer driving globalization—cities are — Quartz

Blue Cities Want to Make Their Own Rules. Red States Won’t Let Them. – NYTimes.com

States have banned local ordinances on minimum wage increases, paid sick days and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. They’ve bannedsanctuary cities.” They’ve even banned a number of bans (it’s now illegal for Michigan cities to ban plastic bags, for Texas towns to ban fracking).

A law passed in Arizona last year threatens to withhold shared state revenue from local governments that adopt ordinances in conflict with state policy. Texas’ new sanctuary city law imposes civil fines as high as $25,500 a day on local governments and officials who block cooperation with federal immigration requests. And it threatens officials who flout the law with removal from office and misdemeanor charges.

Read the Article at the Source: Blue Cities Want to Make Their Own Rules. Red States Won’t Let Them. – NYTimes.com

Texas’ four largest cities are now suing the state in response. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, has been a vocal advocate for state laws that he says are necessary to protect individual liberty from local government overreach. When cities overstep their bounds, he said this year, they “should have to pay a price for it.”

Policies in these states block or limit local laws.

These new pre-emption laws echo 19th-century “ripper bills,” legal scholars say, state laws that ripped control from cities over their finances, utilities, police forces and local charters. The backlash against them helped spur the movement for local control in the United States. Now home rule is under a “troubling nationwide assault,” warn municipal lawyers and law professors, including Mr. Davidson, in an amicus brief supporting another legal fight, in Cleveland.

There, Ohio passed a law blocking a longstanding requirement that city construction contracts hire some local workers. Cleveland, in other words, was trying to ensure that local projects created local jobs, alleviating local poverty.

Both state legislators and municipal groups agree that pre-emption laws have proliferated in the last few years in number and in the breadth of issues they touch. They disagree on who started the fight: states in stripping municipal power, or cities in seizing new roles that weren’t theirs to begin with.

Read the Read of the Article at the Source: Blue Cities Want to Make Their Own Rules. Red States Won’t Let Them. – NYTimes.com

Singaporean Dollar Tokenized Through Ethereum’s Blockchain by the Monetary Authority of Singapore

The future is here. So say a report by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), which in collaboration with a number of banks and blockchain technology firms recently announced that phase one of tokenizing Singaporean Dollars through an ethereum blockchain has successfully completed.

“The Distributed Ledger network consisted of two MAS nodes running Ethereum and MQ Client with the genesis block created by one of the MAS nodes and eight bank nodes running Ethereum, MQ Client, and Common Payment Gateway (CPG),” says the report.

Read the Article at the Source: Singaporean Dollar Tokenized Through Ethereum’s Blockchain by the Monetary Authority of Singapore | Trust Nodes

The project connects current systems, such as clearing houses and processes running through MQ Clients or other software such as MAS’s MEPS, to an Ethereum private blockchain as, according to the report, there can be a number of benefits. The report says:

“MAS can create “atomic” transactions for the first time for cross-border fixed income products with payments directly on central bank money. This would enable true Delivery vs Paymen (DvP) where security and corresponding payment switches ownership simultaneously at the deepest technical level.

This could remove the occurrence of late payments and payment failures. Certainty around delivery and near real-time, same-day (t+0) delivery also becomes viable. These could make both domestic as well as cross-border transactions more attractive from both a technology and end user experience standpoint.

Furthermore, the reduction in counterparty risk may drive a reduction in collateral requirements in some circumstances.”

The process of tokenizing Singaporean Dollars through Ethereum’s blockchain – image source MAS.

The tokenization was inspired by R3’s Project Jasper, which was trialed by the Bank of Canada, but they seem to have opted for the use of Ethereum, probably because it has a public blockchain which may allow for greater interoperability and security.

“The distributed ledger network (Ethereum-based blockchain) was designed to interface with existing MEPS+ and RTGS systems, which allowed for a working integrated transfer prototype,” – the report says.

They now plan to move to the second phase, focusing on cross-boarder payments as well as further evaluation of the technology for domestic payments, according to the report.

The Race is On

The Central Bank of England has for quite some time studied the potential use of blockchain technology to digitize the pound, but not much has been heard from them recently.

The deputy chair of Russia’s Central Bank has stated digital currencies – like a crypto-ruble – are the future. They are looking to see how they can make that a reality.

China’s Central Bank has long stated they may digitize their money, but according to Andrew Keys from ConsenSys, their focus may have now moved to see how they can tokenize Yuan through ethereum’s blockchain.

It will probably be some years until we see the pound or dollar become a copy of eth, but it appears nations are becoming aware that blockchain technology can upgrade money from static paper to dynamic code, just as it was upgraded from shells to metal to paper.

A race, therefore, might be underway as the benefits of dynamic money over static fiat are clear and potentially greatest for whoever manages to get there first.

Paris Is a Binding Agreement: Here’s Why that Matters | Just Security

A growing chorus of U.S. business leaders, state and local government officials, civil society groups, and foreign partners have condemned the President’s announcement that, effective Thursday, June 1, “the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord.”  As former National Security Adviser Susan Rice put it, pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement is a self-inflicted “coup de grâce for America’s postwar global leadership for the foreseeable future.”

Read the Article at the Source: Paris Is a Binding Agreement: Here’s Why that Matters | Just Security

Over at foreignpolicy.com, a group of former Obama Administration officials present a forceful and compelling exposition of “Why Abandoning Paris is a Disaster for America.”  They spell out why abiding by our Paris commitments would be far better not only for climate outcomes, but also for our national security, the future of our economy, and for U.S. standing in an increasingly unstable world.  A key point noted by many observers is that within the framework of the Paris Agreement, the President has the ability to adjust downward our nationally determined contribution (NDC) to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, although doing so would be short-sighted at best, because states are not legally bound to hit any particular emissions targets.  If the targets themselves are essentially voluntary, the notion advanced by the President that the United States must completely withdraw from the Agreement in order to unburden ourselves from its supposed economic costs is false.

The non-binding nature of the emissions targets is a central and purposeful feature of the Paris Agreement.  As the U.S. chief negotiator Todd Stern explains, allowing parties to set their own emissions targets was intended to encourage broad participation among states and incentivize maximum ambition.  At the same time, this approach is flexible enough to create a durable framework that will allow further reductions in emissions over time.

While the non-binding nature of these key commitments is worthy of commentators’ focus, there is another essential feature of the Agreement that is important to focus on as well: its provisions that create binding legal obligations for the parties.  These provisions, which are largely procedural in nature, are important to the goals of the Agreement as a whole.  In addition, because they govern the mechanics and timeline of withdrawal, they are important to understand with respect to the debate that will likely rage over the next four years about the future of U.S. participation in the Agreement.

I write to provide a very brief overview of the law of international agreements to explain that the Paris Agreement is a binding agreement under international law, despite containing key non-binding elements, and to offer some reasons why that matters.  In short, the Paris Agreement’s non-binding and binding provisions are vital to its overall structure, and walking away from either type of commitment, whether or not doing so would put the United States in breach of specific treaty law obligations, is disastrous for achieving our strategic aims as well as for U.S. leadership and credibility.  I also explain why giving away our seat at the table for free—while key implementation rules are still being negotiated and before any eventual withdrawal could legally take effect—does not free us but rather ties our hands as a nation.  And contrary to Donald Trump’s assertions that he will be able to seek a better deal, the United States cannot unilaterally request renegotiation of an agreement signed by 195 states.  Dealing ourselves out does not position us to do better, it strikes a huge blow to our ability to negotiate at all in this most important international arena on climate change, because we will no longer be at the table.

The Article Continue. Read it all at the Source: Paris Is a Binding Agreement: Here’s Why that Matters | Just Security

 

Bucking Trump, These Cities, States and Companies Commit to Paris Accord – The New York Times

It was unclear how, exactly, that submission to the United Nations would take place. Christiana Figueres, a former top United Nations climate official, said there was currently no formal mechanism for entities that were not countries to be full parties to the Paris accord.

Ms. Figueres, who described the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw as a “vacuous political melodrama,” said the American government was required to continue reporting its emissions to the United Nations because a formal withdrawal would not take place for several years.

But Ms. Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change until last year, said the Bloomberg group’s submission could be included in future reports the United Nations compiled on the progress made by the signatories of the Paris deal.

Read the Article at the Source: Bucking Trump, These Cities, States and Companies Commit to Paris Accord – The New York Times

There are 195 countries committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions as part of the 2015 agreement.

Still, producing what Mr. Bloomberg described as a “parallel” pledge would indicate that leadership in the fight against climate change in the United States had shifted from the federal government to lower levels of government, academia and industry.

Mr. Bloomberg, a United Nations envoy on climate, is a political independent who has been among the critics of Mr. Trump’s climate and energy policies.

Mayors of cities including Los Angeles, Atlanta and Salt Lake City have signed on — along with Pittsburgh, which Mr. Trump mentioned in his speech announcing the withdrawal — as have Hewlett-Packard, Mars and dozens of other companies.

Finish the Article at the Source: Bucking Trump, These Cities, States and Companies Commit to Paris Accord – The New York Times

Texas Bill Overrides Local Ride-Hailing Regulation

HB 100, signed Monday, creates a “statewide regulatory framework for ride-hailing companies,” the Texas Tribune reports.

House Bill 100 undoes local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models. It requires ride-hailing companies to have a permit from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and pay an annual fee of $5,000 to operate throughout the state. It also calls for companies to perform local, state and national criminal background checks on drivers annually — but doesn’t require drivers to be fingerprinted.

Read the Article at the Source: Texas Bill Overrides Local Ride-Hailing Regulation

Fingerprinting has been a hot topic in Austin, as in other cities. After city officials began mandating this type of background check, Uber and Lyft fought back — but were defeated on the issue by Austin voters in May 2016. Both companies then ceased operations there.

According to the Houston Business Journal, Lyft left Houston in 2014, after the city council passed a number of regulations, including mandated fingerprinting for drivers. Uber reportedly brokered a deal with the city to keep operating locally.

In Austin, ride-hailing apps filled a definite mobility gap, considering the city’s failed light-rail votes, congestion and faltering transit ridership, as Jen Kinney wrote on Next City last year. After the companies left town, alternatives popped up — but so did a number of innovative proposals on how to remake the city’s transportation grid, from smart city technology to better bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

On Monday, Abbott touted HB 100 as a victory for “freedom and free enterprise.”

“This is freedom for every Texan — especially those who live in the Austin area — to be able to choose the provider of their choice as it concerns transportation,” he said, according to the Texas Tribune.

Viewed through another lens, however, the bill could be seen as limiting the freedom of local governments — particularly because voters in Austin supported fingerprinting. Despite the governor’s words, HB 100 looks like yet another example of a red statehouse overriding a blue city hall.

Read the Article at the Source: Texas Bill Overrides Local Ride-Hailing Regulation

*Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Federal systems don’t preclude national urban policies | Citiscope

Both in the lead-up to and following on the heels of October’s Habitat III conference on sustainable cities, there has been a renewed interest around the world in promoting national urban policies.

This interest stems from an increasing recognition of the importance of such policies for multiple purposes at multiple levels of government. These include, for instance, long-term strategic planning by central governments and their role in financing infrastructure. But they also include attempts to fight poverty, inequality and climate change, as well as to facilitate policy coordination among ministries or agencies.

As OECD Secretary-General Ángel Gurría put it during a Habitat III side event, national urban policy “provides a framework so governments and other stakeholders can ‘get cities right.’”

Article: Federal systems don’t preclude national urban policies by ABIGAIL FRIENDLY MAY 8, 2017

Still, what exactly constitutes that framework remains open. The United Nations’ lead agency on urban issues defines a national urban policy as “a coherent set of decisions derived through a deliberate government-led process of coordinating and rallying various actors for a common vision and goal that will promote more transformative, productive, inclusive and resilient urban development for the long term.”

But beyond this neat definition is a recognition of the diversity of national institutional arrangements and the challenge of figuring out how to actually implement a national urban policy without offering a one-size-fits-all approach — something that proponents have clearly been keen to steer around.

[See: Since Habitat III, an uptick in interest around national urban policies]

As momentum picks up for the elaboration and implementation of national urban policies in various countries, the question is increasingly arising: Can federal systems, too, adopt such a framework?

Certainly a federal system could make formulating a national urban policy more complex, simply because such policies often involve three or more levels of government. Likewise, well-established state, provincial or municipal capabilities could complicate the formulation of a national urban policy even further.

So is a national urban policy possible under a federal system? As it turns out, such policies and federalism are, in fact, compatible. But formulating these policies successfully within such a context depends on the view of federalism followed in any particular country.

Key examples

Despite the apparent challenges to a federal role in cities within specific national contexts, multiple examples show that a federal system doesn’t preclude a national urban policy.

“Despite the apparent challenges to a federal role in cities within specific national contexts, multiple examples show that a federal system doesn’t preclude a national urban policy.”

In Australia, for instance, national urban policy seems to have succeeded under a federal system. Within a country that is demographically 90 percent urban, few policies are not de facto urban policies. So with the appointment of a federal minister for cities and the built environment in 2015, commentators asked: Does the federal government finally ‘get’ cities?

[See: Six months after Habitat III, is the New Urban Agenda gaining political traction?]

The question had a long backstory. Following a failed 2011 attempt to institute a national urban policy and years of federal disengagement in cities, the Australian government inaugurated a Smart Cities Plan in 2016, formulated around investment, policy and technology.

The policy is based on metropolitan strategic planning, infrastructure funding and on the British “City Deals” approach, bringing together all levels of government to “deliver better outcomes through a coordinated investment plan for our cities”. In the City Deals approach, introduced in the United Kingdom in 2012, the national government works directly with large cities through individual arrangements, reflecting the unique needs of each city by devolving powers and financial tools, and strengthening local governance.

While the Australian approach is interesting, it is just over a year old. For now, the test — and lesson for other countries — is whether it will survive a change in government.

Brazil, on the other hand, is a decentralized federal system that is unusual in its recognition of the importance of cities. In 2001, a law known as the Statute of the City (Estatuto da Cidade) was approved, setting out the rights and obligations of cities in the Brazilian federation. The government also created the Ministry of Cities, a federal institution to deal with matters related to urban development and a long-standing demand by the urban reform movements. Since 2003, the ministry has helped Brazil’s numerous municipalities implement the Statute’s directives and acted as a national voice for cities.

Another example is Belgium, which is also highly urbanized. Dating from 1999, the country’s national urban policy — the Big City Policy (Politique des Grandes Villes) — supports Belgian cities most affected by deprived neighbourhoods through contracts between the central government and individual cities. These contracts include horizontal coordination between federal sectors and vertical coordination between other stakeholders (at the European, national, regional, local and neighbourhood level). In 2001, the Belgian authorities created the Urban Policy Service to implement the national urban policy. Belgium’s regions also have their own regional urban policies.

[See: Can the New Urban Agenda heal India’s urban-rural divide?]

Other examples of federal countries with national urban policies include Germany, Mexico and Switzerland.

Contentious proposition

Despite these positive examples, scepticism continues to flourish over the prospect of a national urban policy being instituted in a federal system. One of the major arguments against this idea rests on a conceptual view of federalism that imagines a constitutional impediment to such policies. Another barrier could be simply that while federal urban policy is possible, it’s unnecessary.

“A federal government can play a substantial role in urban policy if it is prepared to mobilize the fiscal and policy levers at its disposal, in addition to the political consequences of doing so.”

An alternative viewpoint, however, comes from a more pragmatic approach. This stance makes the case that a federal government can play a substantial role in urban policy if it is prepared to mobilize the fiscal and policy levers at its disposal, in addition to the political consequences of doing so. This pragmatic approach — in contrast to a more theoretical position — was raised in the 1970s by urban scholar Patrick Troy (in reference to the Australian case).

[See: Joan Clos: New Urban Agenda ideas ‘are now trickling down’]

Here, Canada provides an instructive example. In the 1970s, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau created the Ministry of State for Urban Affairs, establishing a federal urban policy. But that move came about only after a change of mind from the Trudeau, who initially took a more cautious approach to federalism: At first, the prime minister saw any deviation from the constitutional roles of the provinces as a possible cause of friction and instability.

This interest in Canada began in earnest in the 1960s, considered a watershed in federal-municipal relations. But in fact, discussion over national urban policy in Canada has come up time and again. Multiple federal governments have attempted to institute such a policy, although each initiative eventually has fizzled away.

Over the years, one argument often cited in this perennial discussion has to do with Canada’s unique federal system. As “creatures of the provinces”, Canada’s cities can be formed, dissolved, amalgamated or otherwise altered and their power expanded or restricted only by provincial governments. As a result, Ottawa cannot stoke provincial resentment — particularly from Quebec — about jurisdictional intrusions.

Instead, the federal government must seek to enhance federal policy capacity and visibility in Canada’s cities, the country’s key locales of economic, social and cultural interaction. Given significant pressure from the opposition, Trudeau’s move created the most successful foray into national urban policy in Canada thus far. However, such efforts collapsed among intergovernmental tensions — thus highlighting the need for consensus among the collective stakeholders involved in crafting national urban policies in federations.

[See: After Habitat III, we need to institutionalize our urban policy dialogues]

A similar discussion has taken place in Australia, also a highly federalized country. Despite Australia being a truly urban nation, politicians, scholars and jurists have argued that the federal government has no authority to intervene in urban affairs. As in Canada, several short-lived advances over the years — such as key urban and housing development initiatives in 1972, when both the Labour and left-wing parties agreed to create a cities portfolio within the Commonwealth ministry — have made the case for a federal presence in urban issues.

In the United States, there is no national urban policy per se, although there certainly has been interest in the issue. Nonetheless, the federal government had been largely removed from national urban policy since the 1960s. That said, easing the approach to federalism actually has allowed for some steps toward an urban policy.

Following years of disengagement in urban affairs, President Barack Obama renewed a federal role in city life, driven by an approach that officials called a “new wave of federalism”. In 2009, the White House launched an Office of Urban Affairs to mobilize federal resources in a coordinated fashion toward cities and to collaborate with local communities through sustainable investments.

[See: Why are U. S. mayors missing Habitat III?]

While the Obama-era programmes did not amount to a national urban policy, the change in orientation was unquestionable — although it now appears that the Trump administration is dismantling these advances.

Flexibility and consensus-building

Despite the uncertain situation of the United States, interest in national urban policy is clearly rising. Importantly, this growing attention is being accompanied by a strengthening body of international guidance on the issue.

Before Habitat III, for instance, UN-Habitat and Cities Alliance published a global overview of national urban policies, while the OECD published a compendium detailing European efforts toward such policies. Both studies highlighted the diversity of national experiences, including those with federal systems. The policy paper on national urban policy prepared for Habitat III likewise recommends flexibility in the institutional form of such policies.

[See: Habitat III struggled to deliver — but nonetheless, a new global urban agenda is upon us]

By the same token, considering how consensus can be forged around the need for a national urban policy would greatly facilitate this process. Germany’s national urban policy, launched in 2007, is a notable example of such consensus-building. There, prior consensus-building allowed the national urban policy to more easily fit within the complex federal context and to encourage power-sharing among members of the federation.

How did Germany approach this process? To build consensus and support for the policy through engagement of a broad range of stakeholders, Germany authorities created a National Urban Development policy board. This body included representatives of a broad range of stakeholders including all levels of government, architects, planners, engineers, chambers of commerce, property owners, tenants, craft associations, the construction industry, retailers, civil society groups and academics. This example is instructive for other countries heading down a similar path.

There is also a global initiative already underway that deserves attention: the National Urban Policy Programme of the OECD, UN-Habitat and Cities Alliance. This is a global knowledge-sharing platform on national urban policies and best practices aimed at supporting capacity development. Given the buzz over national urban policy since Habitat III, the time is ripe to demystify the advent of these policies in the context of federal systems.

Article: Federal systems don’t preclude national urban policies by ABIGAIL FRIENDLY MAY 8, 2017

For Federal Climate Change Research, Visit City of Chicago’s Website | Next City

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had a swift response to President Donald Trump’s administration pulling climate change information from federal websites: The city has posted the deleted content on its own domain, and called on other mayors to do the same.

“The Trump administration can attempt to erase decades of work from scientists and federal employees on the reality of climate change, but burying your head in the sand doesn’t erase the problem,” Emanuel said in a statement. “We are going to ensure Chicago’s residents remain well informed about the effects of climate change.”

The city of Chicago launched the new online section ​— dubbed in a press release “Climate Change is Real” — over the weekend. It includes information from decades of EPA research and background on the basic science behind climate change, the different ways in which weather is impacted by increased greenhouse gas emissions and actions the federal government has taken to reduce the impact.

“While this information may not be readily available on the agency’s webpage right now, here in Chicago we know climate change is real and we will continue to take action to fight it,” the site’s banner states.

Article: For Federal Climate Change Research, Visit City of Chicago’s Website BY KELSEY E. THOMAS | MAY 8, 2017

Since the EPA scrapped its climate change website last week, that particular federal URL has carried a banner that says the “page is being updated” and a note reading: “We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator [Scott] Pruitt.” (On Friday, Pruitt dismissed several science advisers.)

Last month, amid rumors that the EPA might close its Chicago office (which an agency rep denied), an ex-EPA official in the region wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune about what the EPA had accomplished locally with regards to pollution and public health threats.

Chicago’s website addition builds on several climate efforts Emanuel has announced in recent months, including a plan to power all of Chicago’s buildings with renewable energy by 2025 and the city’s recently implemented 7-cent tax on disposable carry-out bags, which, according to the city, is already having an impact.

In the absence of any federal strategy or leadership, many U.S. mayors are growing more vocal about the need for climate change mitigation and resiliency efforts. Mayors have banded together to release two open letters urging Trump to uphold a U.S. commitment to the Paris climate agreement and to keep Obama-era environmental regulations.

“As mayors, we work with our constituents face-to-face, every day, and they demand that we act on climate to improve quality of life and create economic growth,” the second letter read.

Article: For Federal Climate Change Research, Visit City of Chicago’s Website BY KELSEY E. THOMAS | MAY 8, 2017

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