Federalism and Municipal Innovation: Lessons from the Fight Against Vacant Properties

bentonBy Benton Martin

Cities maintain a vital role in serving as laboratories for novel government initiatives. The prevailing view of city authority, however, is that they have only those powers granted by the state. Additionally, in seeking to be innovative, cities risk running afoul of legal doctrines that reserve certain policy areas for regulation only by the federal government.

Two examples of property regulation in legacy cities serve as important reminders to city officials about federalism in the United States.

First, consider land banking. Facing rampant blight, Genesee County in Michigan developed a creative solution involving a local government entity (the land bank) acquiring, and seeking to repurpose, vacant properties. The County faced opposition, however, from limitations imposed by state law. Taking the challenges head on, local leaders persuaded the state legislature to adopt groundbreaking legislation enabling land banking. The ensuing success prompted many other municipalities to adopt this approach.… Read More

New Exhibition on Great Lakes & St. Lawrence River Region

Fellow urbanists in Midwestern legacy cities might enjoy a new exhibit in Chicago on the Great Lakes Basin, part of a long-term effort to build a geographic coalition to protect the integrity of the world’s largest fresh water resource. The St. Lawrence River connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic through the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada.

Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin engages the public with the vastness and vulnerability of the earth’s largest surface freshwater resource, which spans from Duluth, Minnesota to the Atlantic Ocean. The exhibition depicts the Great Basin as one region defined by the watershed rather than political boundaries and illustrates a vision for the region as an international park that encompasses culturally-rich urban and rural areas. The exhibition also highlights initiatives around the region that Basin cities can learn from to enhance quality of life.

The exhibit was organized by Chicago Architecture Foundation, SOM, and International Secretariat for Water.… Read More

Intercity High-Speed Rail and Urban Suburbs

samhershBy Sam Hersh

I am certainly not the first to point out the ability of a high-speed-rail line to bring small cities into the metropolitan area as “semi-urban suburbs.” In fact, the idea is trumpeted about so often, (especially in England where high-speed rail emanating from the south has extended the London megalopolis ever northward) that I fear we in America have started to see high-speed rail as a silver bullet for many struggling legacy cities.

Instead, we should look to such high-speed rail suburbs as a possible asset for metropolitan areas in need. We should not aim to pour the money necessary for a high-speed rail line into any city that seems close enough to benefit. To justify the cost of building a high-speed rail line to a legacy city with the hope of creating an urban suburb, two questions must be asked that challenge the usefulness of the line, not just to the development of the legacy city but to the metropolitan region.… Read More