New Edition of The Urban Lawyer

The Spring Edition of The Urban Lawyer is up on the ABA’s page for the Section of State and Local Government. My article, Federalism and Municipal Innovation: Lessons from the Fight Against Vacant Properties, is part this edition. It is also available on SSRN.

Here’s a list of the other articles in this edition, with links to SSRN versions:

Review: “The Metropolitan Revolution”

the metropolitan revolution cover imageThere is an inherent difficulty in writing about the increasing strength of cities: The movement is decentralized, with thousands of varied initiatives across different states and even countries. Not every city needs grass-removal rebates; not every city needs an aggressive vacant-property-registration program. This variation leads to two opposing pitfalls in discourse about cities: getting bogged down in details about individual programs, or speaking so broadly that it amounts to nothing but vague pro-urban cheerleading. Thankfully, in their new book “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy,” Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley (from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program) consistently strike the right balance.

The book’s strength comes in identifying emerging trends in city governance, and backing them up with solid examples. The last half of the books does this explicitly, discussing three ideas: (1) the creation of “innovation districts” formed by clustering companies to spur economic growth (chapter 6); (2) the growing importance of U.S. cities engaging with cities in other countries, as Portland has done by selling eco-friendly products, and Miami has done by attracting business from South America (chapter 7); and (3) the need for support and freedom, rather than resistance and constriction, from federal and state government (chapter 8, calling for a rethinking of federalism, as Katz does in this video).

The book is littered with other useful tidbits about the “metropolitan revolution.”  One general theme for the book is the advantage metro-leaders have in seeking pragmatic solutions to ground-level problems, and the increasing ability for successful solutions to spread because of advances in communication technology. Katz and Bradley also highlight some specific solutions. In chapter 5, which discusses Houston, they underscore the value of community centers in assimilating immigrants. Other chapters describe the importance of regional cooperation. Chapter 3, for example, discusses how metropolitan Denver came together to support the arts, plan more-efficient public transportation, and compete for business as a region rather than as individual suburbs. And chapter 4 covers efforts in Northeast Ohio to build a coalition of businesses to kickstart the region’s economy.

Another example I found particularly interesting is the book’s emphasis on the need to create science and technology jobs. The authors note the conclusion of economist Enrico Moretti that “each new high-tech job in a metropolitan area leads to, over the long term, two additional professional and three additional nonprofessional jobs.” They then showcase efforts in New York City to build tech colleges to attract talent to the area (chapter 1), and attempts to build hubs for tech companies in Cleveland and Detroit (chapters 3 and 6).

The book is refreshingly up-to-date, at least in regard to Detroit, the city it covers that I follow the most closely. The book was published this summer, yet the authors managed to squeeze in the March 2013 appointment of Kevyn Orr as an emergency manager, and the January 2013 federal grant to support a new rail line connecting the suburbs to downtown.

I caution that Katz and Bradley don’t always avoid the pitfalls in writing about cities that I mentioned earlier. They occasionally slip into careless politicking, filling up paragraphs with buzzword-laden stump speeches for urban living (as with the example I’ve noted before about the “new growth model and economic vision” that will “build an economy that works for working family,” p. 2-3). Other times, they get lost in the details of documenting stories, albeit compelling ones, about the communities they write about, at the risk of readers glossing over the trends the authors seek to identify.

Nevertheless, for a frontline analysis of the growing strength of cities in the United States, this is the book to check out.

Video about potential effects of city beautification

This TED Talk is a good reminder why big data, as David Brooks recently put it, is “good at some things and not at others.” In this talk, Edi Rama, mayor of Tirana, Albania, discusses how residents started to take responsibility for their city after he initiated beautification projects, and how he attributes decreases in corruption, littering, and tax deficiency to this new-found city pride. I don’t agree with everything he says, and it’s a long video, but I think that his point about civic pride is a good example of something data doesn’t always do well. It reminds me of Mayor Daley’s efforts to create beautiful public spaces (see here and here), such as Millennium Park, which is often hailed as a major success. A mayor looking only to hard data might not have pursued those projects.

Google Glass promo showcases potentials for city life

Google released a new promo video for its exciting Glass project, which is essentially augmented-reality glasses. The video focuses on the chat and image-capture features, but there is a shot near the middle of a person diving through a city and getting directions, and another shot near the end of the glasses providing flight information. I see three top uses for this technology in city life: (1) transit info, (2) driving directions, (3) information about nearby attractions and restaurants. Could we also see people walking around video-chatting as they would with a cellphone? Only time will tell.

MIT’s SENSEable City Lab’s TED talk – Video Wednesday

This video is from March 2011. It features Carlo Ratti from the MIT SENSEable City Lab discussing how they track real-time data from cities, particularly cellphone data. I like the video because it moves beyond visualizations to some useful analysis. It also covers some of their cool projects, such as trash_track. The lab is also doing some other great stuff, I encourage you to check it out. Here’s an article covering some of their older projects. One of their latest projects, United Cities of America, tracks how far commuters travel in US cities, again using cellphone data. The results are surprising and have real implications on how we run our cities. Continue reading “MIT’s SENSEable City Lab’s TED talk – Video Wednesday”

Federal crime in Chicago versus southern Illinois

I thought it would be interesting to look at the different type of criminal cases in the federal Northern District of Illinois versus the Southern District of Illinois. (There is also the Central District of Illinois, which I am not going to discuss.) Obviously, the Northern District includes more than just Chicago, but the city makes the District much more city oriented than the Southern District. I checked out the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s sourcebook on federal sentencing statistics for 2010 and looked at the total cases by category for these two districts (these include cases which went to sentencing, not just those where charges were brought).

Here’s the Northern District’s stats by primary offense:

Here’s the Southern District’s:

Here are a couple of thoughts. Continue reading “Federal crime in Chicago versus southern Illinois”

The legal limits on government use of social media

Ad-tech London 2010 (5)What are the limits on government use of social media? If a city has a Facebook page, can it remove distasteful comments? profane ones? racist ones?

Professor Lyrissa Lidsky explains in her recent article, Public Forum 2.0,  that the answers to these questions isn’t always easy. The Supreme Court’s decisions on public forum and government speech are complex., she points out, creating a “maze” of different categories of speech. She breaks them down into five:

1. The traditional public forum, including public streets, parks, and sidewalks. The state is prohibited from imposing content-based restrictions on speech in these forums unless those limits are “necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and . . . narrowly drawn to achieve that end.” Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators’ Association, 460 U.S. 37, 45 (1983). Content-neutral limits (such as time, place, or manner) are allowed if they are “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” Id. Lidsky maintains that is unlikely this category applies to social media because the Court “has signaled clearly that the category is defined by the historical use of government property.”

2.The designated public forum, which applies when a government clearly indicates that it is designates the forum for public use. These forums are treated the same as traditional public forums.

3. The limited public forum is one the government designates for use by certain groups or for certain topics. For example, a school district can limit an area for use by students or restrict a meeting to speech about school-board business. The government’s creation and application of these limits must be reasonable and viewpoint neutral. As an example, the Supreme Court upheld a law school’s rule that all student groups, in order to receive school funding, must accept “all comers” to leadership positions, meaning the school could refuse to fund a Christian group that prohibited people with contrary beliefs from being leaders. Christian Legal Society Chapter of the University of California v. Martinez, 130 S.Ct. 2971 (2010). As Lindsky points out, this category becomes murky when courts try to determine whether a government is applying its rules is a reasonable manner. For example, the Supreme Court has also prohibited a university from cutting funding to a Christian newspaper, reasoning that the school could not exclude a group from expressing religious viewpoints because it allowed discussion of religion as a subject matter more generally. Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995).

4. The nonpublic forum, including anything that’s not a traditional public forum or designated by the government as a public forum. In these areas, the government may impose time, place, and manner restrictions and exclude speakers as long as the exclusion is “reasonable and not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker’s view.” Perry, 460 U.S. at 49. The distinction between this category and a limited public forum is clear in theory, but difficult to pin down in reality because an area can be “designated” a limited public theory simply because of a pattern or practice of its use in that manner.

5. Government speech is a newly created category that recognizes, in Lidsky’s words, that “the government is permitted to use media to communicate its views to citizens, and when it does so, it need not include opposing viewpoints.” The most-prominent example comes from the Court’s 2009 decision in Summum v. Pleasant Grove City, 129 S.Ct. 1125, allowing a city to refuse to erect a Summon religious monument in a public park, even though there was already a Ten Commandments monument in the park. The Court said that the monument represented the government’s own expression of speech, and the government “is entitled to say what it wishes, and to select the views that it wants to express.”

So what are some take-aways for local governments using social media? It’s a bit unclear. But Lidsky makes these  suggestions. First, “[a] non-interactive Facebook page controlled by a government actor would doubtless be treated as government speech, meaning that private speakers have no First Amendment rights to speak in those forums.” But an interactive site, she says, may be labeled a “designated” or “limited” public forum, thus limiting the government’s ability to police comments made on its site, though the government may retain some ability to limit profanity. Finally, she argues that “if a government actor is very careful in setting up its social media site, it can usually guarantee that the site is either government speech or a nonpublic forum and can therefore retain maximum control over speech that occurs there.”

I encourage you to read the whole article, which is available on SSRN. Lidsky eventually recommends a new approach to free-speech law as it relates to government use of social media.

Urbanflow’s view of a touchscreen-filled data-driven city – Video Wednesday

This week’s video is a fun one; it’s a concept video about Urbanflow, a collaboration between a NYC-based design company Urbanscale and Finnish designers Nordkapp. They want touchscreens everywhere in Helsinki, so the public can access maps and transit info, interact with each other, and report municipal concerns like potholes. John Pavlus has raised some concerns about their plan—you can read his view here—but for now, just enjoy their beautiful visualization of the data-driven city of the future (after the jump).

Continue reading “Urbanflow’s view of a touchscreen-filled data-driven city – Video Wednesday”

Featured Website: Random Hacks of Kindness and Sheltr

Today I want to highlight a great project that showcases the potential for technology to change city life for the better. Random Hacks of Kindness (or RHoK) is as an initiative started in 2009 by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, NASA, and the World Bank that hosts app contests aimed at the more social-justice side of open data. (It was originally aimed at disaster and crisis response, but as they say on their site, they’re “always looking for new problems to work on.”) So far, they’ve hosted 3 worldwide events in 31 cities, engaging more than 3,000 participants. All projects developed during their events are required to be released under an open-source license. Here’s a link to their blog.

I’ll highlight one example of an app developed at a RHoK event: Sheltr, an app developed at the December 2011 RHoK contest in Philadelphia that recently won GovFresh’s Award for “Best Social Services App” of 2011. Sheltr is a mobile app that provides information about resources for the homeless in Philadelphia, including intake centers, places to get meals, and places to sleep. Their goal is to categorize this information so that it is easily accessible to community members and service providers. The problem is outlined on the project’s website: “Currently there is no way to gauge real-time availability of food and shelter services for these disparate groups. The Philly Sheltr Project establishes consolidated baseline information (service availability), contact for intake centers, and specific instructions to access resources.”

Hopefully, the Sheltr project will spread to new cities soon. I knew some homeless advocates in Atlanta, and this project would have been a big help to them. They gave volunteers hardcopy lists of shelters and meal sites, but the lists had to be constantly updated and redistributed to volunteers. This project would make it a lot easier not only to update the list but also to distribute it throughout the community.

Kudos to RHok, Sheltr, and all the other hackers working for the public good!

The Legal Framework for Cities of the Future: Book Review of “City Bound”

As I’ve previously written, it is vital to the realization of city 2.0 that city planners understand how state law limits city power. As Gerald Frug and David Barron, two professors at Harvard Law, put it, “The importance of this starting point is regularly overlooked by analysts of city power, as well as by those who call for regional policies even though there is no regional authority empowered to adopt them.”

But with their 2008 book, City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation, Frug and Barron have created an accessible introduction to the state-created limits on city power and a handbook to how states and cities can encourage innovation within that framework. “By framing city power in the right way,” they argue, “states can do more to address urban issues, both local and regional, than is currently thought possible.”

I like their approach because it’s pragmatic; indeed, you could even call it data-driven. To develop their theory of how to frame city power, they analyze and discuss the legal framework of seven major American cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.

In the end, they recognize that some state constraints on city authority are necessary but that, at the same time, cities must be given power to innovate to key areas. These points are best illustrated, in my mind, by two examples. First, why state constraints can be bad: when NYC tried  to impose congestion charges on city traffic in 2007, the city asked the state for permission, but the state set up a needless bureaucracy to study the proposal, hindering innovation. Yet on the other hand, some state constraints are necessary: for example, eco-friendly cities cannot control their air-polluting neighbors, making it necessary for the state to pass statewide air-quality regulations.

From their study, Frug and Barron derive a vision of four “city futures” (which, they point out, are not mutually exclusive):

  1. A global city—seeking to stake an important place in the global economy
  2. A tourist city—seeking to develop rich placemaking to attract visitors
  3. A middle-class city—seeking to provide services to citizens, especially education
  4. A regional city—seeking to enhance relationship with surrounding communities

They then argue that the now-prevailing legal framework in most states makes it easier for major cities to pursue being a global or tourist city, rather than a middle-class or regional city. States should restructure these frameworks, they propose, to give the cities more control over land use, revenues and expenditures, and regional cooperation. They emphasize that these limits, correctable through political will, are easier to change than geographic, social, or economic limitations.

Aside from these observations, however, the book is a bit light on specific, concrete recommendations for cities. The authors are more interested in examining the contours of their proposed city futures than suggesting specific goals for cities to pursue. But the authors description of the limitations of city power is so detailed that the things that need to change are self-evident, especially in regard to city control over land use, education, and revenues and expenditures (though many of their observations are Boston-centric). And they do a good job fulfilling their stated goals of re-igniting a discussion of state-defined legal limits on city power and highlighting how those limits are usually overlooked by city-planning theorists. And this discussion is vital: If cities are to be the innovation centers of the future, city planners must be acutely aware of the legal framework in which they are operate, and the obstacles they face in creating the cities of tomorrow.