I just arrived in Champaign today after a rather bizarre and shall we say “adventurous” roadtrip from my home in California. On this trip, my girlfriend and I mostly went by maps because what were once our sightseeing plans had hit a few hiccups, so we had to take a different (and shorter) route. While studying the maps of the country between California and Illinois, I was struck by how artificial our political subdivision boundary lines are. I was struck by the number of metropolitan areas that spanned not only dozens, and occasionally hundreds, of municipalities and square miles, but also multiple states. This got me to thinking that there’s something wrong, almost offensive to common sense, in this scenario.
States, municipalities, counties. They are largely artificial. The most obvious is counties. They are, for the most part, entirely artificial lines drawn in the sand by state governments to make governing larger states easier – they are mere subdivisions of the state. States aren’t always as obvious. A few, like Hawaii or some of the original colonies make sense in that they were around as pre-existing entities with something like a cohesive foundation and common identity and then became states. A larger number of states, however, are just more lines drawn in the sand by the Federal Government throughout history to make sense of huge annexations of territory into the United States. To get a sense of this, think mostly of the territory west of the Mississippi, you know, all them funny square states with nice straight line borders.
Municipalities, what we call cities, are perhaps even less obvious. Well cities are areas people live together and decide to make some sort of government to organize group projects and they are largely formed by the people who live there, so they aren’t exactly arbitrary in the sense that they aren’t imposed by some distant authority with no consideration for ground level realities. Americans have this funny attachment to municipal autonomy and authority despite the fact that no one votes for their local government, but that’s not really the point. What I’m really trying to get at here is that the system of municipal governance is seriously defunct. The idea that a group of people living in a geographic area within a city can suddenly declare their independence (in some states) without the consent or even input of the rest of the city is sort of bizarre. Even more often, developers will create tailored enclaves just outside of established cities in the county where they have more freedom, and then make those enclaves into suburban municipalities strikes me as a sort of theft. They get the benefits of the city, but share none of its burdens.
That’s all just sort of background for the real point: our current system of political organization is largely artificial and fails to correspond to the realities on the ground. I think there is certainly a role for a national government in terms of foreign policy, defense, trade, and large-scale public health and development projects. With that in mind, everything below that level needs work. This division into states, counties, and cities sets up false distinctions. The most logical level of organization is the city-state. A city-state, in my mind, is what we often refer to as a “metropolitan area,” but even that’s not quite correct, because a lot of metropolitan areas overlap and would more properly be absorbed into a city state. A city-state would basically be any number of more-or-less geographically contiguous municipalities that have a common cultural and economic nexus. A convenient example would be to take the area right around the University of Illinois and admit that having three municipal governments in Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy is a little bit silly because they all share a common geographic locus, are economically interdependent, and have common issues and problems. A larger example would be taking the Chicagoland area including Chicago and the suburbs in both Illinois and Indiana and admitting that they have a lot of strong common interests and need something more than dozens of municipal governments to tackle regional issues.
The shift to organization around the city-state would involve a some rather large and probably uncomfortable changes. One of the most obvious would be either the dissolution of states, or a reconception of what states’ powers are. It could also just be as simple as redrawing state boundaries to reflect the fact that, for instance, northwest Indiana is more part of Chicago than it is part of Indianapolis. The point is that power would change hands, and no one seems to like that very much. A second change would be a rethinking of the powers or even existence of municipal governments. This could go in a few directions. One would be to dissolve all municipal governments and make one larger city-state government. A second would be to have the municipalities cede certain powers to a larger regional government in areas affecting the city-state/region at large. The point here isn’t really the exact form, but that a single municipality should not be able to have absolute veto power over the direction, growth, and make-up of the city-state. This also means that cities should not be able to unfairly benefit from ordinances/laws that unfairly burden their neighbors.
A proper city-state governance system would require that burdens be spread more evenly amongst geographic areas and the people in general. Perhaps an example would help clear this up: a municipal government, for the hell of it let’s just call it “Santa Monica” wants to maintain its character and limit multi-unit housing and commercial development. These limitations create a housing shortage which drives up prices in the city and pushes traffic congestion into neighboring cities. Or perhaps this city decides to limit development to single family housing and completely bars multi-family units. Land prices go up, and the people who work in some of the lower-end jobs are forced to commute in increasing traffic both in the city and in surrounding communities and driving up rental prices in the surrounding ares. Or perhaps the government decides to create a huge office park near the highway which creates huge traffic snarls as people commute to work in this new place.
These are all problems. Cities can create unfair benefits for themselves or unfair burdens on their neighbors because of the fragmented urban landscape in which most of us live. I’m not saying the big cities should just swallow the small ones, but that the small ones shouldn’t have unilateral power to enrich themselves and impose costs on their neighbors without consent or even deliberation. City B shouldn’t be able to block a subway line that connects cities A and C just because the residents of city B think that it might bring colored folk (this happened in L.A. in the 70s). Or if they do block the subway line, they should either defray the cost of rerouting it, or find an equally suitable and cost-neutral alternative. None of this necessarily entails the loss of all local autonomy, not per-se, but merely requires that problems that are regional in scope (housing, economic development, zoning, etc) be dealt with in a realistic and fair manner.
The thing is I don’t think this is so much an aspiration as a matter of time. City-states are probably going to be the next big thing. Just ask Tom :-D