Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Nibbling Away at City Autonomy

I recently attended a presentation on the growing urbanism of Sacramento and the projects that will help it to achieve a successful future. 

I spent my high school years in a suburb of Sacramento.  Like many youths, I was eager to see other parts of the world.  At that age, I couldn’t visualize myself ever returning to Sacramento.  But in adulthood, Sacramento looks far less provincial and boring.  I welcome my occasional opportunities to wander its leafy streets.  And I find that many of my classmates, who were just as eager to depart as I, have now returned to the Sacramento area.

With my enlightening attitude toward the River City, I was pleased about the number of urban elements that are coming together in Sacramento, from transit systems to mixed-use housing to civic amenities.

However, there were a couple of disappointing moments during the presentation.  Moments that cast doubt on our ability to create healthy cities.

First, Congresswoman Doris Matsui proudly explained that the federal government is now looking for “ancillary benefits” for new projects, such as reduced emissions or improved access to affordable housing.  Those are admirable benefits, but I was disappointed not to hear “economic sustainability” or “financially supportable” on the list.  If we don’t look to long-term maintenance issues, we make our cities depending on continuing federal largesse.  And given the news out of Washington, D.C. this week, that isn’t a good place for cities to be.

Even more concerning was a later comment by John Dangberg, Assistant City Manager for Sacramento.  Dangberg acknowledged that we live in a time when cities are dependent on federal assistance for many projects and that the federal funds don’t always conform to perceived local needs.  As he described it, the role of a city is to identify available funds and then to tweak the funding as much as possible to serve local desires.

I’m often skeptical about the ability of a city to accurately scope local projects, given the need to balance public opinion, the agendas of elected officials, and the knowledgeable if sometimes locally-ignorant input from consultants.  To refract that dubious consensus through the ivory tower prism that is Capitol Hill is a recipe for the inefficient use of limited funds.

I’ve written before that cities may be the best laboratories for 21st century problem-solving.  But for them to fill that role, we need to give them the freedom to find their own paths.

I don’t mean to criticize Dangberg for his comments.  In fact, his candor was refreshing.  There are times to criticize rules.  And there are times to swallow and to play the game under the rules that exist.  It often takes wisdom to know the difference.

One last thought.  Some may interpret a call for smarter government “investments” as a call for government austerity.  I’m not one of those.  I think government has the inevitable duty to help us adjust to a world in which resources are stretched thin and dire environmental consequences are looming.  And to fill that role effectively, government must be smart.  Not small, but smart.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. I was recently listening to a podcast of the Petaluma City Council talking about the garbage contract renewal, and ways to structure the new revenue from that process into debt so as to lock it up for infrastructure maintenance, away from the control of future City Councils.

    It wasn't 'til I read this piece that I realized that what they were saying was that the current Council members were saying that they could predict the future better than future Council members could react to the actual future.

    1. Dan, it has long been an observation of mine that public bodies often believe that they have a solid vision for the future, but lack the funds to implement it. So instead they authorize a study to document their vision and make it mandatory on later generations. By the time some later generation might truly have the resources to implement a project, any ideas are so fully constrained by a multitude of prior studies that little can be done. And every opponent has grounds for legal challenges.

      Nor is the problem limited to public bodies. A great many wills and trusts try to exert control from beyond the grave. Look at "Downton Abbey".