Urban Politics
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Urban Politics

Cities and Suburbs in a Global Age

Myron A. Levine

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eBook - ePub

Urban Politics

Cities and Suburbs in a Global Age

Myron A. Levine

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Urban Politics blends the most insightful classic and current political science and related literature with current issues in urban affairs. The book's integrative theme is 'power, ' demonstrating that the study of urban politics requires an analysist to look beyond the formal institutions and procedures of local government. The book also develops important subthemes: the impact of globalization; the dominance of economic development over competing local policy concerns; the continuing importance of race in the urban arena; local government activism versus the 'limits' imposed on local action by the American constitutional system and economic competition; and the impact of national and state government action on cities. Urban Politics engages students with pragmatic case studies and boxed material that use classic and current urban films and TV shows to illustrate particular aspects of urban politics. The book's substantial concluding discussion of local policies for environmental sustainability and green cities also appeals to today's students. Each chapter has been thoroughly rewritten to clearly relate the content to current events and academic literature, including the following:

  • the importance of the intergovernmental city
  • the role of local governments as active policy actors andvital policy makers even in areas outside traditional municipal policy concerns
  • the prospects for urban policy and change in and beyond the Trump administration, including the ways in which urban politics is affected by, but not determined by, Washington.

Mixing classic theory and research on urban politics with the most recent developments and data in urban and metropolitan affairs, Urban Politics, 10e is an ideal introductory textbook for students of metropolitan and regional politics and policy. The book's material on citizen participation, urban bureaucracy, policy analysis, and intergovernmental relations also makes the volume an appropriate choice for Urban Administration courses.

Chapter2 of this book is freely available as a downloadable Open Access PDF at http://www.taylorfrancis.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND) 4.0 license.

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The Urban Situation

Urban refers to cities and suburbs—to central cities and their surroundings as distinct from less-densely populated rural areas. This book examines the politics of cities and suburbs. It focuses on how “power” is exercised in the urban arena.
An insightful study of urban politics must do more than describe the formal structures and procedures of local government. A focus solely on the actions of local officeholders would miss much of what is truly important in the urban political arena. Many of the more important decisions that affect a community’s well-being are not made by municipal (that is, local government) officials but by actors who hold no formal governmental position in a city’s or suburb’s government. Corporate CEOs (chief executive officers) make decisions as to where will they will build a firm’s headquarters, back offices, and production facilities. These decisions have a great influence on a locality’s economic growth or decline.
The state and national governments, too, are outside actors whose decisions affect local well-being. The states, in particular, have an ability to reach deep into city affairs. Numerous states, for instance, have named state-appointed managers to oversee a city’s fiscal affairs or to run a city or a local school system, taking authority away from local elected officials. Municipal government (that is, local government) officials have only a limited ability to respond to local problems. Acting on their own, municipal officials lack the ability to combat local population decline, a loss of jobs, increases in local poverty, property abandonment, and even the racial imbalance of public-school populations. An effective response to such problems requires that local officials enter into effective partnerships with other actors: the heads of corporations, national and state officials, and even the leaders of nonprofit and community organizations.
Cities and suburbs are not in total control of their fate. The precarious position of localities is most dramatically illustration by a brief examination of fairly recent events in Flint, Michigan. Flint has suffered long-term decline as a result of corporate rationalization decisions that downsized Flint’s industrial base. Flint also saw its population dwindle as residents moved to the suburbs and to communities in the Sunbelt (the American South and Southwest). Flint gained national headlines when studies revealed that thousands of Flint children were the victims of lead poisoning, that they were suffering very dangerous levels of lead in their blood. This disastrous problem was largely the result of the State of Michigan’s power to intrude in local affairs. State-appointed managers forced Flint to switch the source of its water, a decision that was supposed to save money but was not well researched. The nonelected outside-appointed managers essentially ignored the outcries of local residents who protested the smell and color of their tap water.
The Flint case study reminds us that not all cities and neighborhoods in the United States are faring well, even in an age where popular commentators have celebrated the renaissance or revival of so many cities—as seen in the comeback of central business districts and the revival of neighborhoods located in close proximity to a city’s downtown. However, as we shall see, there is no simple and uniform story to be told regarding the contemporary urban condition. While many communities are doing well, others have not been able to reverse decades-old patterns of decline. Even the nation’s suburbs have become a new site of American poverty.
The metaphors that are often used to describe the urban condition denote complexity, a mix of progress and continued decline. As this chapter will detail, there are glaring differences between the Global City (communities that have adapted and prospered in a postindustrial and global age), the Tourist City (where local economic policies have revived certain areas of the local economy but not others), and the Bankrupt City (cities like Flint that continue to face severe economic, fiscal, and social problems as a result of the U.S. transition to a postindustrial economy). In suburbia, too, dynamic “edge city” growth and “edgeless” strip-mall development contrast with communities that are increasingly home to unemployment, poverty, and recently arrived immigrants. A growing suburbia in the United States has become increasingly diverse and politically powerful.
We begin by reviewing the dramatic story of the lead poisoning of drinking water in Flint and just what that unfortunate situation reveals about the nature of politics and political power in urban America.


A 2015 health study of Flint, Michigan, children below the age of five revealed that lead blood levels had doubled—and in some cases tripled. No similar increases were observed in young children residing in the city’s suburbs.1
Lead is a neurotoxin. The introduction of high lead levels in young children has serious health consequences that are “believed to be irreversible.”2 High levels of lead adversely affect a child’s brain development, reducing IQ levels, shortening attention spans, lowering educational achievement, and increasing antisocial behavior over the course of a person’s life. High lead levels are also associated with a number of health problems, including anemia, hypertension, seizures, and immunotoxicity. In Flint, lead poisoning appears to help account for the sudden and precipitous drop in third-grade achievement scores. Before the crisis, 42 percent of the city’s third-graders scored as proficient on state reading exams; after the lead poisoning that resulted from a switch in the city’s water supply, only 11 percent of the third graders—that is, only one of every nine students—scored as proficient in reading.3
How could something as horrendous as the lead poisoning of children occur in the modern United States? Of course, the poisoning was not intentional—although state officials (and at times federal and city officials as well) sadly were slow to acknowledge the crisis and attempt to correct the problem. Flint parents had protested that a state-forced change in Flint’s water provision had produced tap water that was odorous, cloudy, and discolored, indications that rust and chemicals had leached from city water pipes. General Motors factories in Flint even stopped using city water which it saw as corroding automobile parts. But state officials were largely unmoved by the complaints of Flint residents, and the befouled water was piped into residents’s homes.
The lead poisoning of Flint was no natural disaster; it was neither a natural nor an unavoidable problem. As Flint’s newly elected mayor (who came to office in the middle of the crisis) correctly observed, lead poisoning in Flint was a man-made disaster, the result of decisions made by officials and forces from beyond Flint’s borders.
The water crisis in Flint had its roots in the Michigan state government’s concern that Flint’s political leaders were unwilling to enact business-like practices that would produce greater efficiencies and reduce costs. Flint was a postindustrial city in deep financial trouble. Over the decades, the city had witnessed the shutdown of much of its manufacturing base. Residents watched as population and commercial activity migrated to the city’s suburbs. Contemporary Flint is predominantly poor (nearly half of Flint residents fall below the poverty line) and has a population that is mostly African American.
At the time, a state government audit showed that unless new cost-saving steps were initiated, the city was facing projected deficits that would add $25 million a year to the city’s outstanding debt.4 Frustrated by the city’s inaction, as no easy solutions were readily available, Republican Governor Rick Snyder and a Republican-controlled state legislature took matters more directly into their own hands. The Michigan state legislature had previously enacted a law that enabled state officials to place problem cities under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager. Governor Snyder utilized the law to force changes in Flint’s operations.
The state’s emergency manager for Flint argued that the city could realize millions of dollars in cost savings—at estimated $5 million or more over two years, with some estimates even pointing to the possibility of $100 million in savings over the long term— by providing its own water. The state-appointed manager pushed the city to discontinue the contract that the city had with the Detroit Water Department to supply Flint with water from Lake Huron, the fifth largest fresh water lake on the planet. Critics of the change argued that the projected estimates of costs savings were highly exaggerated. Still, the emergency manager, backed by efficiency-minded political forces in the state government, continued to insist that Flint terminate its contract with Detroit and, instead, begin to draw its water from the city’s older and disused source, the Flint River.
The emergency manager was neither elected by Flint’s residents nor appointed by the city’s elected officials. Instead, the emergency manager reported to the Michigan Department of Treasury, a body committed to budget savings, an agency that had no particular expertise in water quality and public health.5 Under pressure from the state, Flint’s city council followed the emergency manager’s lead.
Residents of the overwhelmingly poor, African-American, and Democratic city began immediately to complain about the appearance, taste, and odor of the water drawn from their taps. Parents reported that their children suffered a sudden breakout of body rashes. But the complaints were largely ignored by state and local officials intent on cutting costs and unwilling to admit that their own participation in the decision to switch may have been a mistake.6 Reflecting the distaste of state Republicans for strong regulation, the state regulatory agency in charge of water safety took a “minimalist approach” to its job. The agency’s members insisted that the water posed no hazard to health; members of the agency even sought to “discredit” citizens who raised complaints.7
Within a year, pediatricians, university scientists, and even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency all reported that the city’s drinking water contained dangerously high levels of lead; in some instances, lead levels were seven times higher than the EPA standard.8 A later study further reported that the switch in the city’s drinking water produced a “horrifyingly large” increase in miscarriages and fetal deaths.9 Why did that happen? Simply put, water from the Flint River was not properly treated to prevent corrosion in the system’s aging and long-disused iron water pipes. The old pipes leached unsafe levels of lead into city drinking water.
At last, in the face of mounting evidence and citizen outrage, public officials finally determined that the city’s drinking water was unsafe. A state of emergency was declared. The Michigan National Guard helped to distribute bottled water to affected residents (Figure 1.1).
Figure 1.1 The National Guard Distributes Bottled Water in Flint, Michigan, January 2016.
Figure 1.1 The National Guard Distributes Bottled Water in Flint, Michigan, January 2016.
Source: Photo by Linda Parton/Shutterstock.com.
In the wake of the crisis, the Governor Snyder and the State of Michigan ultimately decided to spend approximately a hundred million dollars to reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system and to replace the iron and galvanized steel pipes that were the source of contamination. But at the height of the ci...

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