Urban issues are the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics: outside city government, they don’t get no respect.
In Ohio’s upcoming governor’s race, however, urban enthusiasts will finally have reason to rejoice.
Ed FitzGerald, the presumptive Democratic nominee, isn’t a big-city mayor, and if you don’t live in Ohio you’ve probably never heard of him.
A Region Rises from the Ashes
After a federal investigation revealed endemic corruption in Cuyahoga County, which comprises Cleveland and 50 or so surrounding towns, residents voted to abolish the old county-commissioner system in favor of a county executive. FitzGerald won election to the seat in 2010.
As Cuyahoga County executive, Fitzgerald led a reorganized county government tasked with rethinking what it means to live, work and do business in Cleveland.
The result was a plan for a stronger Greater Cleveland met with widespread success. In a country where the challenges facing cities are so rarely discussed at the state or national level, FitzGerald’s gubernatorial campaign might even spark a broader discussion of how good regional planning can begin to fix the metropolises we once left for dead.
What followed could have been the sort of laissez-faire approach most Americans are accustomed to when it comes to county government, the same kind Clevelanders have known for years.
But in his February 2012 “State of the County” address, FitzGerald spelled out the region’s problems with candidness:
“We are not on a trajectory to any serious form of shared services, strategies, or consolidated government. We just aren’t, and it’s time to stop pretending that we are…There is no place in the country which has our level of fragmentation, with home rule powers for cities, which has just spontaneously combined in any meaningful way.”
On paper, FitzGerald described issues particular to Cleveland. But he also touched on a problem endemic in American urban history: the basic inability of cities and suburbs to conceive of themselves as a single entity, dependent on one other for their future success.
This problem won’t be solved overnight. Still, FitzGerald has been remarkable successful thus far.
His means are ambitious but uncomplicated. For starters, he has introduced a $100 million economic development fund, raised via a bond issue and by reducing the number of county employees.
In an effort to reduce repetition, FitzGerald has called for the county to provide services like police, sewer maintenance and health insurance rather than leaving each individual town to do the work. With local governments eager to trim their budgets, the plan has proven popular.
Most remarkable, though, may be FitzGerald’s war against intra-county competition for tax revenue. Under his plan, every municipality has signed a “no-poach” agreement that forbids municipalities from trying to lure businesses away from neighboring town, putting to rest in Cuyahoga County a standard practice in urban politics elsewhere.
Toward a New American Regionalism
Urban planning scholars and professional city planners have long advocated for truly regional planning in the vein of FitzGerald’s policies.
On the whole, though, America’s metropolitan areas remain a patchwork of different governments, rules and services. And our metropolitan areas are suffering as a result.
Take bankrupt Detroit, for example, where one bus system exists for the city proper and a separate one for the suburbs, making it difficult for city residents to get to suburban employment centers.
Or New York, where Goldman Sachs cut a deal with the city for a new property tax-free headquarters as the company’s threat to move to its tower in Jersey City literally loomed on the horizon.
Or in Connecticut, which abolished county governments in 1960, meaning cities don’t receive any tax revenue paid by workers who live in the suburbs.
FitzGerald’s efforts in Cleveland are a concerted effort to move away from such bad practices. Given that his policies found success in one of America’s most economically depressed and racially divided cities, there may be broader national support for his ideas than previously thought.
Cleveland’s time as an industrial powerhouse has come and gone. In the years since, however, it has survived by transitioning to an economy based in education and the health professions.
If Cleveland finds more permanent prosperity, it will owe much of it to thinking regionally. If other postindustrial American cities are to survive alongside Cleveland, their leaders would be wise think regionally as well.