Frug and Barron’s City Bound sparks interdisciplinary debate

BY MATT HUTCHINS

(L-R)
Prof. Gerald Frug ’63

What are the most pressing issues that we would like our city government to address? Do cities have power they need to confront the challenges they face and provide for the needs of their citizens? In what ways does the existing legal architecture of city and state power constrain our ability to fulfill the promise of urban development? Students of local government law will immediately recognize these questions as central to the narrative of the Local Government Law casebook authored by Professors Gerald Frug ’63 and David Barron ’94 with Professor Richard Ford ’91 of Stanford.

In Frug and Barron’s new book, City Bound, these questions are posed in a form which is accessible to both the uninitiated law student and the interested lay audiences. On Monday, March 16, experts from outside the legal academy assembled at the Graduate School of Design to deliver their critique of the work and discuss how it fits into a larger vision of the city as a social, political, historical and physical force in our lives.

Professor Robert Sampson, Chair of the Harvard University Department of Sociology, argued that Frug and Barron have presented law as a serious force in the construction and sometimes destruction of urban social organization. “The argument of City Bound says that we should recognize law as an exogenous factor that affects social organization.” For sociologists, law is commonly seen as an endogenous element of the system which is changed to reflect the desires and needs of the population. According to Sampson, if Frug and Barron are right that cities are not empowered to pursue their own social organization, then law might need to be reconceptualized as a key factor in social organization which has the capacity to undermine social control and impede the realization of collective goods. Despite this potential for a paradigm shift in social sciences’ conception of law, it may be that local culture and political forces are historically interdependent with the law such that, as Sampson said, “Left to their own devices, cities will do what their own cultural and political history have prepared them for.” If this is true, then we might not have been better off with a more powerful state, as it would not accurately reflect the degree of dysfunction which is customary to a particular city.

Urban historian Sam Bass Warner expressed serious concerns about the failure of city governments to mobilize citizen awareness and skepticism that local empowerment could be successful in the current legal and political climate. The service-dominated economy and lack of regional consciousness create a shocking disparity between the rich and poor and their experience of a single metropolitan area. “The Genius of the Frug and Barron plan is that it is a bit-by-bit rather than an all-at-once project.” In City Bound, Frug and Barron explore the possibility of addressing inter-local conflict and regional public service needs through the creation of regional legislatures that would become progressively more powerful as cities joined together to collaborate. Warner said that this sort of plan would allow step-by-step involvement of cities in issues such as the creation of a water management district for an entire watershed. Such projects would enable the exploitation of economic efficiency in ways that fostered greater awareness of shared regional needs.

City Bound teaches us that legal structures are political products, not abstract reasoning aimed at efficient public administration, said Susan Fainstein, Professor of Urban Planning at the Graduate School of Design. “Each institutional structure . . . and each process by which decisions are made in cities is in fact biased in favor of some group and not in favor of others.” Indeed, a historical analysis reveals that the Progressive Era reforms which have largely determined the structure of local government today were enacted by elites who sought to protect their status from the threat of growing immigrant populations. She is skeptical of the ability of stronger home rule to alter the political reality in cities, even if such reforms did concentrate decision making in a more Democratic political demographic. In fact, she says, city managers are all too willing to cede power to state development authorities that are not accountable to local constituents, because in doing so they get real change enacted without being held responsible.

The panel also featured a visual presentation of the history and future of Boston’s Government Center by Tim Love, Principal at Utile, Inc. Love introduced, through the lens of architectural planning, the four future cities of City Bound, the Global City, the Tourist City, the Middle Class City, and the Regional City. As a colonial center of commerce, Boston was historically both a Middle Class City, which offered decent living to its residents, and a Global City that attracted a concentration of specialized industries. During the industrial era, Boston was a Regional City, bringing the wares produced throughout Massachusetts to the ports on the waterfront for distribution to the world. Now, with the city seeking to tear down city hall and create a “Battery Park” development in the heart of Boston, the future of the city may be that of a Global City, which houses a concentrated financial industry, or possibly something else. How the future of Boston is reimagined will in many ways depend on the governmental process used to create a vision for the future.

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