Moving Toward a Metro-Regional Approach to Planning and Advocacy

This article was originally published on Gotham Gazette on December 8, 2018

New York City and its neighbors have a problem. Unlike Los Angeles, Chicago, and the other major U.S. metropolitan areas that fit neatly within the standard city, county, and state political boundaries, our metropolitan area of over 22 million people does not. We’re spread out over four states and 26 counties, five of which are called “boroughs” and were integrated together to create our city over 100 years ago.

All these complex boundaries and jurisdictions have resulted in a metropolitan area that has been “divided and conquered” by the politics of patronage, enabling networks of political insiders and special interest groups to dominate New York City’s electorate, advancing their own interests at the expense of ours. This has resulted in our area’s city and state governments passing higher taxes and providing lower quality services, more corruption, and less infrastructure investment than comparable cities and regions around the world.

We deserve better.

People living in the New York Metropolitan Area (NYMETA) might live over 100 miles apart, but we still work at the same jobs and in the same industries, go to many of the same universities and hospitals, and root for (or at least have strong opinions about) the same sports teams. We often travel the same roads, ride the same train lines, use the same airports, drink from some of the same aquifers, eat the same foods, and get rained on from the same clouds.

With so much shared environment and infrastructure, you’d think that there would be powerful entities helping us align our shared interests, coordinate our actions, and deliver us results at a regional scale. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening.

There is no single entity or group responsible for systematic coordination within our metropolitan area. Instead, we have a hodgepodge of coordinating bodies spanning different sectors, areas and functions. Sometimes those bodies are prestigious nonprofit entities with relatively meager budgets like the Regional Planning Association, other times they’re multi-state authorities with huge budgets run by political elites like the Port Authority, and often it’s informal coordinating bodies that do little more than network individuals and hold annual meetings, and most commonly, there is just no coordination taking place at all.

What types of opportunities could a better coordinated region be generating? Here are some examples.

We’re experiencing a housing crunch in New York City, and there are a myriad of housing development opportunities in the Hudson River Valley and tons of New Yorkers who’d happily commute from a high rise in Poughkeepsie to a job in Midtown Manhattan if the commute could be done in under two hours and for a reasonable price. A coordinating body — let’s call it NYMETA — would be responsible for bringing all the players together: Metro North Railroad, town governments, real estate developers, and New York City to streamline regulatory processes, align incentives, and get deals made and buildings built.

Another example: New York City schools are feeding over a million kids a day, our regions small farms are looking for reliable consumers of their products, and the school system is looking for locally sourced healthy food, but their corporate contractors are trucking in frozen produce from hundreds of miles away. The city is also building programs that expose youth to nature, rural communities, and agricultural-based industries. NYMETA could work with rural counties to help them aggregate and organize food supply, and work with New York City to aggregate and organize school demand, and then build the relationships needed to get our kids eating healthy local food and empowering our regional farmers at the same time.

Beyond managing classic coordination challenges like road and rail linkages, we also need an entity that can represent our region on the national and global stages, where major cities and their regions are playing an increasingly important role in global affairs. Many leaders, including major CEOs, politicians, philanthropists, philosophers, and futurists have predicted that, over the course of the 21st century, nation-states will cede more and more political power to cities and metro-regional governments, and those governments will network together to coordinate policies at global scale.

Evidence of the rise this “municipalist” power structure is everywhere, from the United Nations HABITAT conference that brought cities together through the U.N. structure for the very first time in 2016, to various networks of city governments like the League of Cities and Networks of Cities, and through outcomes like the C40 process to tackle global warming. Places like Paris and Los Angeles have, through the luck of sensible political boundaries, entities that can, to some extent, represent their metro region at these events. NYMETA could perform this function for us, enabling our region to leverage our massive population and other resources when negotiating agreements and deals with other major global regions, not to mention what could be done within the U.S.

An important step towards any political organizing project is collecting and displaying the most basic information about geography and demographics. Who would fall within a metro regional government? What would its boundaries be? The new Metro Region Explorer website from New York City’s premier digital service organization, NYC Planning Labs, answers these questions with an open source software tool that mashes a bunch of datasets about our metro region together to provide data-driven stories about demographics, employment, housing, and other baseline statistics needed to understand our region.

Unlike many GIS tools with lots of confusing check boxes that you need to click off and on to get useful information, Metro Region Explorer does the work for you by giving you some stories you can toggle through and menu items that reveal the most important data. Click around the site and insights will likely pop into your head as they did mine: New Jersey is building tons of housing while western Nassau and eastern Westchester counties aren’t. Lots of jobs are moving out of Connecticut and into New York City and Long Island. Central Jersey has a huge immigrant population. Wow.

tristate map

Metro Explorer isn’t just a cool mapping tool for planning nerds. As Gotham Gazette reported in its article “With New Data, City Takes First Step Toward Regional Planning,” its development indicates that the city is getting serious about improving our region’s capacity to understand itself and coordinate between and among jurisdictions.

As the largest government with the most capacity in the region, it’s up to New York City to begin the process of developing a more integrated regional coordinating body. But building a dedicated office to do this work is not enough. We need an entity accountable to the 22 million people, 900 municipalities, and 26 counties of NYMETA. Developing such an entity will produce tangible benefits in the short term and create a whole new set of opportunities over the long term.

It’s time to start envisioning NYMETA.

***
Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Photo: NYC City Planning

As City and State Politics Fail Us, Time to Rethink New York Metropolitan Area

This article originally appeared on Gotham Gazette on September 25, 2018

New York City is the world’s most popular city. We do lots of things exceptionally well here. But one thing we don’t do well is democracy. Voting rates within New York City are at historic lows, and corruption in Albany is at historic highs. Our politics is, in a word, an embarrassment.

But it’s not New Yorkers’ fault.

One of the oldest rules in politics is “divide and conquer,” and anyone who looks at a map of New York City and its metropolitan area, and compares it to a similarly scoped map of other big American cities, will see that we have been divided and conquered by our political boundaries. I’m not talking about gerrymandered districts, which are some of the most obscene in the nation, but something even more fundamental: the borders of our counties and our states.

The United States system of government is designed to operate with four layers: federal, state, county, and locality (city/town/village). This system works relatively well for most cities. Los Angeles, as a city, sits entirely within Los Angeles county, and it’s metropolitan area of 18 million people sits entirely within 4 counties, all of which are located in California. Chicago, as a city, like L.A., sits entirely within a single county: Cook County. It’s metro area of 10 million people inhabit 13 counties that extend into Indiana and Wisconsin, with the amount of “out of state” residents of “Chicagoland” numbering under a million in each state.

New York City simply doesn’t fit the U.S. model. Our city of over 8 million people is one of the only ones in the U.S. to extend beyond a single county: we have five. We call them boroughs here because…history. And each one has government appendages from a less integrated past: presidents, public administrators, courts, sheriffs, district attorneys, museums, and libraries. These institutions all cost taxpayer money to operate, and their opaque nature outside the normal purview of a city government makes them a great place for corruption to emerge. For example, longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hines was a master of using county level institutions to steal public money and punish opponents.

Zooming out to our metropolitan area (aka the “tri-state area,” “NYMetA,” etc.) and things get even more messy: a population of 23 million people spread over 25 counties and four states, with over 12 million living outside New York City and over 4 million living outside New York State. This creates lots of problems: people earning money in New York City and New York State can easily escape its taxes. It makes coordinating regional level solutions to housing and transit much more difficult. It means the municipalities and counties in our metro region can’t build the political clout needed to get things done at the state level because so many of us live in different states!

And what are the results? Our metro region’s tax dollars fund massive corruption. New York is, by some counts, the most corrupt state in the country. We also have the largest amount of debt per resident. New Jersey isn’t far behind when it comes to corruption or debt. Connecticut is, in the words of The Daily Beast, “collapsing.”

Many people blame badly drawn borders for the continued persistence of corrupt, authoritarian governments in the Middle East. (Tragically, misguided U.S. foreign policy hasn’t helped.) We can and should blame outdated political borders for our failing state and local politics here as well.

While that might seem depressing, it’s worth reminding that, over time, borders change, and so does their importance. New trade agreements, political institutions, forms of transit, financial systems, and political alliances have shifted the meaning of borders throughout history. We’re not stuck — but we do need to think outside our borders and build institutions that reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of regional collaboration. This type of activity is more important than ever because many policy-makers, business leaders, and futurists are predicting that, during the 21st century, networks of cities — not nation-states — will become the primary entities coordinating global political and economic activities. Some people are calling this new political philosophy “municipalism.”

If New Yorkers want to benefit from these new geopolitical trends, we need to build regional, democratic institutions that can represent the interests of all the residents of our metropolitan area.

Yes, we have the Regional Planning Association, the Port Authority, and dozens of other “regional” coordinating entities, but none of them have democratic representation of the public as their core mission: and that’s precisely what we need.

There are many questions to answer: who would New York Metropolitan Area (NYMetA) represent, and how does that representation work? Where and how could it derive economic, cultural, and political legitimacy? Where does it fit in a nation of towns, counties, and states? Could it become its own government layer with its own tax base? Or maybe it could live within civil society: as a political party, a social movement, or maybe a cooperatively run government public policy think tank?

While the idea of a legitimate NYMetA government might seem ridiculous and way off in the distance, the mere idea can be used to challenge the political status quo, which has fortified itself within the existing political borders and relies on our lack of political imagination to retain power.

Discussing and developing a plan for NYMetA enables us to imagine ways outside our antiquated political system that can’t seem to perform simple tasks like keeping the trains running, much less have them running on time.

If New York can’t do it, NYMetA can!

***
Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Photo: Department of City Planning

What is “Municipalism”?

Originally posted at municipalist.org

The definition of “municipalism” is still up for grabs. If you Google the word you’ll be given a snippet from Wikipedia about “libertarian municipalism”,  a compelling but very specific utopian political philosophy of Murray Bookchin. Surely “municipalism” can and should mean something more.

Over the last fifty years, the percentage of people around the globe living in urban areas has increased from 30% to over 50%, but cities have not seen a corresponding increase in political power. Instead, nation-states and transnational institutions that network them have become the centers of power relations. Many people predict this dynamic will change: and it is. Efforts like UN Habitat III created space for cities to represent themselves at the UN for the first time in that organization’s history. The C40 Initiative has brought cities together to fight climate change by making significantly more aggressive emission reduction pledges than nation-states did at the Paris Summit. The Global Parliament of Mayors is provides a venue for municipalities to share knowledge and make collective decisions. You can find more entities in our directory.

Over the last two thousands years, cities have frequently been more politically powerful than the nations and empires in which they’ve been located. Cities, municipalities and regional governments have performed many nation-state like functions such as building trade networks, engaging in foreign relations, waging war, completing massive public infrastructure projects and protecting their residents from state violence.

Municipalism should refer to the idea that cities and regions should have more autonomy from the nation-states in which they’re located, while also being active participants in a global network of peer municipalities that upholds human rights and humanitarian standards.

It should be an idea that incorporates old and new concepts from all over the social, political and economic landscape, including urbanism, bioregionalism, paradiplomacycommunity-based economics,  civic technology, participatory democracy, social ecology and more.

It should help mobilize residents to participate deeply in local problem solving and inspire municipal governments to share solutions with cities around the world.

Most of all, municipalism should provide a positive alternative to the failure of the nation-state and an affirmation that we can recenter political control at the local level while advancing human rights and humanitarian standards globally.

What does “municipalism” mean to you now? What do you think it should mean in the future? Let us know below.

Cryptocurrency Can Shift the Balance of Power Between Cities, States and Nations

Originally posted at municipalist.org

One of the most powerful tools of a modern nation is its central bank’s ability to create money “out of thin air.” Nations can use this new money to purchase their own nation’s debt in the form of treasury bills, bonds and notes, allowing it to spend more than it earns in taxes and other income. If a nation prints too much money, however, it can create inflation, which reduces the value of their currency. In some instances, central banks can lose control of their currency’s inflation rate, destroying the value of the nation’s currency, collapsing its economy and leaving it at the mercy of predatory financial interests. Fear of inflation keeps nation’s from printing infinite amounts of money.

The US dollar is a bit different than other currencies because it isn’t simply the “reserve currency” for the United States, but also functions as the world’s reserve currency. Ever nation in the world uses US dollars because it is the easiest, and sometimes only, currency that can be used  to purchase large quantities of commodities in international markets. The most important of these commodities is oil. Some commentators call this monetary arrangement the “petrodollar system” and view it as the successor to the Brenton Woods system, which still relied on nations to maintain gold reserves. The Petrodollar system was established through a series of arrangements between the US and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

Since the 1970s, we’ve seen the development of other transnational monetary systems such as the Euro and the development of giant commercial “money center” banks, which have further consolidated the monopoly on monetary production in the hands of fewer and fewer institutions. If you asked an economist a decade ago about the future of global monetary production, they’d have predicted more consolidation. The Euro in Europe would be complemented by the Amero is North America, and slowly but surely, the world would integrate into a single market with a single currency.

The financial collapse of 2008 helped undermine the vision of a global currency, but it was the invention of Bitcoin and the blockchain technology behind it that has given people a viable alternative to global monetary consolidation. Blockchain is a new type of database that is extremely good at producing “digital cash” and executing financial transactions. It’s open source, so there are no limitations or restrictions on who and how this technology can be used. Currently, blockchains are making it possible for people to create secure, digital money systems for extremely low costs. It’s being used by big banks to speed up their SWIFT international fund transfer systems, it’s being used by countries to create new national digital currency systems, and it’s being used by entrepreneurs and online communities to create their own currency systems outside the purview of the nation-state. It’s only a matter of time, it seems, before sub-national governments and municipalities create their own currency systems and begin to challenge the nation-state’s monopoly on the production of money.

Under normal political conditions, the idea that cities and states would risk disrupting the current monetary order by creating their own currency systems would be outrageous. US city and state governments benefit greatly from the US government’s petrodollar system. Not only does the federal government give cities and states significant amounts of money in the form of grants, they also allow people to deduct income from municipal bonds from their federal taxes. The makes it possible for cities and states to access tremendous amounts of capital at a rate much cheaper than corporations or individuals. These municipal bonds are used to fund everything from a local government’s general operations to specific infrastructure projects. But with the Trump administration and sub-national governments around the US on a collision course over immigration and other policies, it’s possible that federal governments will start trying to squeeze the finances of “sanctuary” cities and states. In fact, Trump declared he’ll do precisely that by threatening to cut off federal funding to cities and states that don’t implement his widely unpopular immigration policies. Eliminating the federal tax deduction on municipal bonds would be an even more aggressive move that he could try to use to coerce cities and states to follow his policies.

In the past, the only institutions that cities and states could look to for financial assistance were the federal governments and large commercial banks. But that is changing. The blockchain makes it possible for sub-national governments to create their own financial systems and begin to insulate themselves from federal monetary policy and budgeting decisions. Cities and states could do many things with their own cryptocurrency networks. They could create cryptographically secured paper monies, credit and debit cards and online transaction systems that enable their residents to more easily engage in local commerce, create international remittance systems allowing residents to transmit money around the world, and create new types of financial contracts that aren’t mediated by the commercial banks or federal entities. These monetary systems could be “backed” by valuable assets owned by cities and states such as real estate, taxes and other revenue streams. The technology to implement these types of systems is new, but its developing rapidly. Financial institutions invested nearly $2 billion in blockchain-based technologies in 2016. And the commercial banks are investing billions of dollars a year to continue to improve these alternative systems.

By developing autonomous, networked, blockchain-based financial systems for themselves, cities and states can create deep and direct financial ties with each other and challenge the US government’s monopoly on the production of money. This challenge, if delivered in a credible way, could threaten the US government’s capacity to pay its debts and seriously impact the federal government’s financial health.

I want to be clear: I’m not advocating for a financial war between US cities and states, and the federal government. Rather, I’m recognizing that blockchain-based technologies could enable sub-national governments to build a new type of power that they currently don’t have: the ability to compete with the nation-state-based monetary systems. This threat could be an extremely powerful tool for cities and states when they negotiate with the Trump administration. If the federal government is going to threaten to undermine the financial health of cities and states, then cities and states should find ways to credibly threaten the federal government right back.

If you’d like to read more about how the blockchain technology fits into a broader history of DIY finance, check out my essay Finance without Force.

Cities Can Prepare for Trump by Establishing Digital Service Organizations and Mobilizing Civic Tech Communities

Originally posted at municipalist.org

Within a few weeks of Trump’s victory, mayors of big “sanctuary cities” throughout America, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles declared that they wouldn’t collaborate with a Trump administration order to deport peaceful, law-abiding resident. Trump is now threatening that he will deny these cities federal funding unless they comply. The amount of money that cities could be denied by the Trump administration isn’t entirely clear, but Mother Jones estimates that Washington DC could potentially lose up to 25% of its budget, New York and San Francisco could lose 10% and Los Angeles could lose 2%.

If cities want to have a leg to stand on during their negotiations with the Trump administration, they must prepare to operate without federal funding. If there is one message US cities need to convey to Trump, it’s that they can turn Trump’s belligerence into the political will they need to make municipal government more  efficient, transparent and participatory than the Federal government; and in the process restructure the relationship between municipalities and nations. Trump and his supporters must realize that the more pressure the Federal government puts on cities, the more cities will unite together, and the faster an emergent, post-nation-state paradigm will emerge. If In short, if Trump doesn’t play his cards right, he could very well become the president that undermines the role of the nation-state in global affairs and kicks off a new version of the “devolution revolution“, but this time based in cities and inspired by progressive values.

Municipal governments will not be able to fend off the federal government if their bureaucracies are inefficient and unpopular with the public. Most municipal bureaucracies were designed in an era of switchboards and memos and need a significant upgrade. Is there really any doubt that new systems designed around smart phones and open source software couldn’t out perform the many-decades-old legacy systems most cities currently use by significant margins? The factor limiting the upgrading of municipal bureaucracies are political, not technological. Changing how government works involves shifting the balance of power within agencies, department and groups. These types of changes require tremendous amounts of buy-in from members of the bureaucracy and the public in general. This buy-in is hard to get, but with the nightmare of Trump using federal funds as leverage to coerce cities to adopt policies their residents abhor, it will become much easier to make the case that municipalities must engage in serious internal reform.

The choice for city residents should be clear: adopt 21st century technologies and organizational forms, or submitting to federal coercion. If current city leaders can’t or won’t execute the reforms needed to wean their cities off federal funds, then new leaders need to be brought in who will. Instead of talking about it — let’s build it. For our cities. And now. As if the lives of our neighbors depends on it. Because it might.

Existing models show us how we can systematically transforming government agencies through the adoption and use of inexpensive open source tools and techniques. One group that performs this type of activity is 18F, a unit within the Federal Government’s General Services Administration. 18F helps federal agencies figure out how to improve their operations using open source technology and iterative development processes. They’ve been extremely successful, to the point where government contractors lodged an official complaint that 18F was hurting their businesses because they were saving the Federal government too much money.  18F’s is small group in a massive federal government so their impact is limited, but their model is spreading. The Pentagon’s Defense Digital Services and the White Houses US Digital Service both model themselves off of 18F. City governments could and should create similar types of Digital Service Organizations (DSOs) as a means of increasing their ability to not only do more with less, but also as a means of challenging the Trump administration’s competence.

One of the innovative features of DSOs is their commitments to clear documentation of business processes and utilization of open source software. This allows them to share the innovations they develop for one agency with other agencies within that government (and ideally with other governments around the world.) This eliminates complex procurement processes, reduces costs and even creates an opportunity for highly skilled developers outside government to contribute to their effort. Since the solutions DSOs create are often open source, they can (and do) set up bounty systems that allow software developers to submit code that solve problems identified by the DSO. Allowing highly skilled urban residents to contribute code to a project that improves a city’s effectiveness if precisely the type of deep contribution city residents should be able to make to defend their cities from federal coercion.

There are existing “civic tech” volunteer groups in cities all around the country filled with people passionate about finding ways to help city governments run faster, better and cheaper. A great example is NYC’s BetaNYC group. These groups present fantastic venues for sourcing and organizing volunteers that can amplify and support the work of DSOs to help make cities more resilient to federal coercion. But technology is just one area. Cities will need to build many more mechanisms that can convert their resident’s anger at Federal policies into surges of local volunteer-ship that increase the capability of city governments and reduce their need for federal aid.

If cities can find more effective ways to mobilize their massive human resources, then the era of Trump will be a catalyst pushing cities to be more efficient, autonomous and globally networked than ever before. This might sound like overkill, or too much work, but we have to be prepared if we want to defend ourselves and our neighbors from destructive federal actions. And if it turns out we overreacted and mistakenly volunteered to improve our cities, so it goes.