The Danger Zone: Charter Cities, Citizenship, and Social Justice
Urbanisation has radically
transformed the way that people live, but a corresponding legal and political
shift has not taken place. In North America and most of Europe, the power of
cities is derived from the sovereignty of the state. Many cities do not have
access to the revenue needed to provide for the social welfare and infrastructure
requirements of residents. In Toronto, a city of 2.6 million people with only
two subway lines, the mayor proposed to finance the expansion of public transit
by levying a modest toll on two city roads, but the Province vetoed the idea.
Two years later, Provincial Premier Doug Ford decided to punish political
opponents by restructuring the city government during the middle of an election
campaign. Torontonians were outraged, but there was nothing they could
do. In response, proponents of local democracy have called for a constitutional
amendment to create “Charter Cities” with more power.
The debate over Charter
Cities provides a lens for thinking about cities and citizenship. Rainer Bauböck asks whether urbanisation requires
a restructuring of political institutions, transforming cities into the
dominant arenas of politics, democracy and citizenship. He admits some
ambivalence, and I share this ambivalence. Like Gargiulo and Piccoli, I focus on distinctive concerns
about the difficulty of realising social justice at the local level. In my
response, I draw on the record of home rule in the United States, particularly
California, where Charter Cities are protected in the state constitution.
Cities have long exercised
power over land use and zoning, and they have frequently used this power to
exclude needy outsiders (Davis and Morrow 2006). They do this by passing local
ordinances that prevent the construction of public and low-income housing.
Home-voters fear that the presence of low-income residents will diminish their
quality of life and increase the crime rate (Fischel 2009). Home-voters are
motivated by their economic interest in low tax rates, and they use the power
of local government to exclude poorer people with costly needs. Local autonomy
(“home-rule”) can create an inverted version of the tragedy of the commons.
Instead of over-exploitation of the commons, zoning laws ensure that land is
under-utilised, keeping home prices high and poor residents out. We see this
most vividly in Silicon Valley, where some towns have added ten new jobs for
every new housing unit built in the last twenty years. The result is
homelessness, brutal commutes, and a crisis of affordability. Other social
problems are exacerbated by a mismatch between the needs of people segregated
in low-income communities and the untapped resources of wealthy ones.
When cities embrace the
logic of “not-in-my-backyard” at the municipal level, decentralisation makes it
more difficult to address structural problems such as affordable housing. Of
course, not all cities use their authority to promote the economic interests of
homeowners and business interests. In European cities with flourishing public
housing and effective regulation of the rental market, the home-voter is less
significant in local politics. Indeed, from Red Vienna in the 1920s to Berlin’s
decision to freeze rents last year, cities have been at the vanguard of
movements to decommodify housing.
When activists in places
like Toronto propose a constitutional amendment to enable the creation of
Charter Cities, the goal is to become more like Vienna and Berlin. Right now,
Toronto is not able to pass rent control legislation, even though it is the
epicentre of the housing crisis in Canada. The constitutional amendment is
largely backed by progressive forces that think the city needs the power to
levy new progressive taxes in order to invest in public infrastructure,
including public housing. A Charter would recognise a city’s authority
over a list of traditional municipal responsibilities, but it would also grant
the power to determine the city’s governance structures. Furthermore, it would
give cities control over the revenues and resources they need to meet their
Sovereigntist, communitarian and liberal ideals
Is this a good idea?
Charter Cities exist around the world and take many different forms. The
Charter of the City of London dates back to 1075 when William the Conqueror
granted residents of London specific rights and powers. Today, the City of
London is viewed as an anomaly because it is governed by a corporate charter
that enfranchises business interests as well as residents of the central city
(see Bauböck). The debate about London, however,
is not simply a historical curiosity. Indeed, it helps us see the tension
between two political ideals, the sovereigntist and the communitarian.
In 1682 Charles II
challenged the autonomy granted to the city of London through its Charter (Frug
2001). The King insisted that centralised control was necessary to prevent
social conflict. The logic of the argument is familiar from Thomas Hobbes.
Cities like London and trading companies like the East India Company should not
become “commonwealths by themselves” that were independent of, and potentially
in defiance of, the Crown (Frug 2001). The political order imagined by Charles
II was a sovereigntist one composed of individuals and the state.
The opposing view
emphasised the primacy of natural rights and the need for a balance of forces
to prevent centralised authority from becoming tyrannical. The opposition was
communitarian because it encompassed pre-existing, self-governing societies
such as cities, guilds and universities, but it also included trading companies
organised to promote private gain. Under the influence of liberal theory, the
distinction between quasi-public and private corporations hardened, and the
former were incorporated into the state while the later gained greater autonomy.
In the United States, this shift happened in a partial and piecemeal fashion,
but, as Maarten Prak demonstrates, the French Revolution
and its aftermath not only destroyed feudal privileges, it also replaced
communitarian forms of local self-government with national citizenship.
City-zenship and Social Justice
The Charter City movement
in Toronto, like the sanctuary city movement in the United States, is part of a
war of position against right-wing populist power. Cities tend to be more
progressive and social democratic than the surrounding suburbs and countryside.
When the provincial or national government governs from the right, then it makes
sense strategically for the left to claim greater powers at the local level.
Decentralisation can work the way that the opponents of Charles II hoped it
would, by counter-balancing the power of the central state.
At the same time, it is
important to remember the dark side of local autonomy, as Gargiulo and Piccoli
do. In the United States, especially in places in the south such as Birmingham
and Little Rock, local control was a way of implementing segregation and white
supremacy, by undermining constitutional principles of equal protection. More
frequently, however, structural injustice is produced by local codes and
choices that are not directly intended to exclude or subordinate. California,
which has 121 Charter Cities, provides a striking illustration of these
unintended consequences. The anti-growth movement was most successful in
progressive cities such as Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Environmentalists
allied with anti-corporate activists and groups that wanted to protect the
“use-value” of their neighbourhoods. This electoral coalition successfully
replaced the ruling downtown business regime and secured strict limitations on
real estate development (Gendron 2018).
These zoning laws,
supported by economic interests, norms, and the existing built environment,
proved very resistant to change, even as it became apparent that the NIMBY
ethos of local politics made it difficult to deal with housing and regional
transit. The state legislature recently passed a series of laws that prevent
localities from outlawing accessory dwelling units and fine communities that
fail to approve housing construction that is consistent with its existing
land-use plan. These measures were necessary because of a toxic interaction
between market mechanisms and local control. Local regulations transformed land
into a monopoly and the market allocated access to this scarce good based on
the ability to pay. This benefitted owners, displaced low-income renters and
excluded outsiders who desired access to jobs and amenities.
There is nothing
necessarily exclusionary or elitist about the devolution of power to city
governments. I support the Charter City movement and also the move towards
enfranchising residents who do not have national citizenship. I agree with Avner de-Shalit and Warren Magnusson that the interdependence of daily
life in a particular place is a practice that is itself a kind of citizenship,
one the justifies political rights. At the same time, however, I also think we
need to be very wary about conflating local power with social justice.
If the city is to become a site of social citizenship and social justice, we must defend local normative orders that are inclusive and solidaristic. The city should be imagined as both a particular site of shared value and also a nodal point in broader, cosmopolitan networks of exchange and obligation. The right to the city should not be construed as something akin to shareholder value in corporate law. This means that city-zens should not use local institutions exclusively to promote the interests of current residents, and local decisions should be reviewed by constitutional courts or supranational human rights courts for consistency with principles of rights and equity.
Davis, Mike, and Robert Morrow. 2006. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London ; New York: Verso.
Fischel, William A. 2009. Homevoter Hypothesis: How Home Values Influence Local Government Taxation, School Finance, and Land-Use Policies. Harvard University Press.
Frug, Gerald E. 2001. City Making: Building Communities without Building Walls. Princeton University Press.
Gendron, Richard. 2018. The Leftmost City : Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz. Routledge.
Kohn, Margaret: The Danger Zone: Charter Cities, Citizenship, and Social Justice, VerfBlog, 2020/1/26, https://verfassungsblog.de/the-danger-zone-charter-cities-citizenship-and-social-justice/, DOI: 10.17176/20200126-230034-0.