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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

The Potential of Place Governance in American Cities

Across the United States, many institutions, private businesses, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and citizens have come together to create and govern public and private spaces. Some of these efforts – such as the Central Park Conservancy and the Times Square Alliance in New York City – are large and well-known. But a host of smaller “place governance” collaborations can also be found in major cities throughout North America.

Such public-private partnerships are not, as I once thought, a late-twentieth-century innovation. Rather, such arrangements have a long history in North America’s cities and towns – a history that I review in “Improvising and Innovating: A History of Place Governance in North America,” a chapter in Hyperlocal: Place Governance in a Fragmented World, recently published by the Brookings Institution Press.

It was mind-boggling, for example, to learn that the famous New Haven Green is managed by a centuries-old public-private partnership that brings together the city and the New Haven Proprietors, a committee descended from the city’s seventeenth century founders that still owns the site. This is not an anomaly. From the colonial period, leaders of American cities often collaborated with local “elites” – wealthy individuals and powerful institutions – to accomplish goals from improving port facilities to building markets and gathering places, such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall, or even creating luxury housing.

In the nineteenth century, officials in many cities allowed wealthy property owners to create private parks, such as New York’s Bowling Green and Boston’s Louisburg Square, out of green spaces in the center of residential developments. In the 1850s the governments of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts went further, authorizing a board of prominent individuals, including a leading lawyer and a rich merchant, to develop the Back Bay tidal flats into a luxurious residential district.

In the twentieth century, powerful public authorities, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (1921) and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (1927), continued the tradition of elite governance. Using tax-exempt bonds for financing, such entities constructed ports, bridges, armories, hospitals, administration buildings, convention centers, and sports stadiums. Though public, these authorities functioned outside the democratic process. Their boards, appointed by elected officials, consisted largely of leading businessmen who, in turn, hired executive directors who wielded extensive powers.

Spurred by New Deal federal grants and loans, state governments also began to establish public authorities that focused on social goals. Starting in the 1930s, they created public housing authorities with the power to clear “slums” and build and manage housing projects for low-income people. Despite their social mandate, these were also top-down organizations, comprised mostly of white business executives, real estate developers, and social workers, and a few African American and labor leaders. These authorities frequently demolished working-class housing and stores with little regard for the communities they served or their residents, who rarely met the domestic and financial requirements to live in the new housing units.

In the postwar era, urban renewal authorities took over the job of razing and rebuilding dilapidated districts. Starting in the 1940s, many state legislatures gave such authorities the power of eminent domain to acquire areas deemed “blighted,” to clear the sites, and, in a return to public-private arrangements, sell them to private entities at below market-rate prices. After the Housing Act of 1949 injected federal funds into the process, urban renewal authorities multiplied, developing public and private housing, office buildings, industrial facilities, sports stadiums, and even parking lots. Yet the business and political elites on the authorities destroyed African American and working-class communities so regularly that critics termed urban renewal “Negro Removal,” a protest that helped bring the program to an end in the early 1970s.

A long history of informal "democratic” governance carried out by less powerful individuals exists alongside this “elite” tradition of formal place governance. Working- and middle-class city dwellers have briefly seized control of the streets and commercial activity through food riots, such as those that roiled colonial Boston and early-twentieth-century New York City and Philadelphia. Later in the twentieth century, immigrants, African Americans, and bohemians created vibrant mixed-income communities whose leaders – both those elected and those recognized by common consent – often negotiated with government over the use of space. In Chicago, for example, the popular Bud Billiken parade, an annual event begun in 1929 to celebrate pride and unity among Black children, was conceived and run by representatives of the Chicago Defender, the preeminent African American newspaper, the president of the National Negro Council, and a City of Chicago park superintendent.

Beginning in the 1960s, this democratic tradition generated new forms of urban place making and governance. In response to the threats of urban renewal and highway projects, activists in working-class neighborhoods organized thousands of community development corporations (CDCs) that operated businesses, provided social services, and developed and managed housing. In the 1980s, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative successfully fought to become the planning agency for a low-income, largely Black community in Boston. In the 1960s and early 1970s, artists and gallery owners in neighborhoods such as New York’s SoHo fought off threats of displacement by forming artists’ associations that successfully lobbied the city to allow artists to inhabit industrial buildings and form a historic preservation district to prevent building demolitions.

In recent years, these elite and democratic traditions have merged to create hybrid forms of urban placemaking and governance. Some are enormous top-down public-private developments, like Mission Bay, a 303-acre site in San Francisco that once served as the city’s rail yards but now contains 6,400 units of housing, 6.5 million square feet of commercial-office and biotech lab space, retail space, and a hotel, as well as parks, a public library, a police station, and other community facilities. In the District of Columbia, by contrast, a plan to build a new bridge across the Anacostia River and riverfront parklands inspired intense grassroots organizing that resulted in a community land trust for affordable housing, community gardens, art installations, and festivals celebrating African American culture. Other hybrids can be found in the hundreds of “business improvement districts” (BIDs), which tax local property owners to maintain commercial areas, and in the many citizens’ groups formed to support public institutions like parks and libraries.

The history of place governance reveals that both elite and ordinary citizens have used diverse forms of public-­private collaborations to develop and manage open spaces, business districts, main streets, commercial areas, and residential neighborhoods. It also reveals relative advantages and weaknesses of both elite and democratic modes of place governance. At their best, elite modes brought financial resources and professional skills to the problems of making and running places to benefit the city at large. At their worst, they became insular and exacerbated inequities. Because they were more rooted in communities, democratic forms of place governance often identified local needs and celebrated local culture. Yet many represented only specific segments of communities or lacked stable structures that could sustain places over time. The continuing challenge we face today is to ensure that new hybrid approaches to place governance can contribute to the common good, rather than benefiting only limited elements of society.