Imagining Cityscapes

The Politics of Urban Development
Ann O'M. Bowman and Michael A. Pagano, March 1, 1996

Imagine two communities in the Rocky Mountain region in the late 1860s. One is located along the transcontinental railroad, the other is 100 miles to the south. Which community would come to dominate the region by the turn of the century? Counterintuitively, the latter community did. There, aggressive entrepreneurs and community leaders orchestrated the completion of a spur linking the town to the railroad and then commenced a promotional campaign on the community’s behalf. Over time, that town, Denver, flourished, while the other, Cheyenne, did not. Denver leaders did not rely on chance. Instead they mobilized public resources to pursue their vision of Denver as a major city.

As product cycles ebb and flow, populations and firms migrate, natural resources peter out and consumer tastes change, cities either adapt to their changing environments or succumb to the invisible hand of the marketplace. Local elected and appointed officials can shape their cities by deciding whether or not to implement nonmarket, city-sponsored development.

Politics is important because these city officials either respond to a tax-services imbalance or they pursue an image or vision of their city’s future, its cityscape. Although city-sponsored development might lower business costs and spur economic growth, such development is not an automatic response to changing economic circumstances. Rather, public economic development is the result of a purposive political decision and is undertaken selectively.

Mobilizing Public Capital

City governments search for an equilibrium in their relations with the external environment. Governments operate within fixed territorial jurisdictions, but capital is not similarly constrained. To avoid driving business elsewhere, officials must try to maximize services while minimizing taxes. Two factors are important to our argument: (1) efforts to restore the tax-services equilibrium are rooted in a city’s development function, and (2) the decision to mobilize a development tool has to do with the tax-services disequilibrium and is unrelated to employment and income issues.

Threats to a city’s revenue stream disrupt the tax-services balance and most assuredly trigger the search for an appropriate development policy to redress the imbalance. But for some city officials, a perceptual concern motivates their actions. They may want their city to move into a higher orbit or plane within its “system of cities,” the spatial and market area within which cities compete to provide goods and services. These city leaders hope to expand their city’s influence beyond the immediate region rather than cast its fate to the workings of the marketplace. They actively intervene in hopes their city will catapult to a higher level or regain lost status within its relevant system.

City Types

A city government’s orientation reflects both its leaders’ aspirations and its tax-services balance. We have defined four city types based on levels of economic stress and political activism to promote development. In “survivalist cities” development decisions are triggered by a tax-services imbalance. These cities experience economic and fiscal stress and employ a greater-than-average number of development tools. In “market cities” that also suffer economic and fiscal stress, officials do not implement many economic development tools but instead leave the city’s economic fortunes to the private marketplace. “Expansionist cities” are in fairly healthy economic shape, but they mobilize more economic development tools than the average city out of the desire to become a higher order city. “Maintenance cities” also enjoy economic and fiscal health, but city officials refrain from mobilizing many economic development tools because they want to control or manage growth.

Duluth, Minnesota, is an example of a “survivalist city.” It was mired in economic and social malaise after the mid-1970s shutdown of U.S. Steel and many subsequent plant closings. Unemployment was well above the national average, emigration decreased the population by nearly 16 percent in a decade’s time (1970-1982), and general fund revenues declined in constant dollars. By the early 1980s, insufficient revenues and the prospect of lower services triggered Duluth’s response to become exceptionally active in promoting itself as a business location. Development projects ranged from sprucing up the downtown business district through a storefront renovation program to involvement in constructing a several hundred million dollar paper mill.

Since the 1970s, declining manufacturing employment in the industrial belt hit Springfield, Ohio, a “market city,” particularly hard. However, city officials there have been hesitant to invest in public development because of fiscal realities and the dominant political culture, which favors limited government involvement. They clearly understand that by not risking city resources in the development process, it is possible that Springfield will “ratchet down” the hierarchy in its relevant system of cities.

In Huntsville, Alabama, an “expansionist city,” there are no reservations about using the public sector to prime the economic development pump. But unlike in Duluth, Huntsville officials are not responding to economic decline. Instead, their motivation is a vision of Huntsville as the major high-tech, regional city of the new South. To pursue that vision, the city has constructed an economic development program around extant defense installations and the aerospace industry. Huntsville markets itself as a limitless place, as a community reaching for the stars.

Santa Barbara, California, is a “maintenance city” guided by its vision as a Refuge from the Commonplace. It does not offer money or underwrite programs for commercial rehabilitations. It provides no low-interest subsidies for business. It offers no tax abatements. It has no marketing program for economic development. It conducts no industrial recruitment. There is no program in Santa Barbara to leverage private investment, nor is there a public/private partnership. City assistance or involvement in development often is nothing more than approval of a proposed project. The city’s dominant policy instrument is the comprehensive plan. Zoning variances, manipulation of the parking supply, and the imposition of fees are additional tools. The city does not promote development the way other cities do; instead, Santa Barbara molds it.

Politics Matters

The envisioned city of tomorrow is not static; it evolves in response to shifting economies and political coalitions. A city’s underlying economic base, its governing coalition, and the vision of its leaders are in constant tension with other conflicting opportunities, possibilities and visions. A change in city leadership and the governing elite, the closing or downsizing of a large firm, or a substantial change in state aid or in unfunded mandates will, among other factors, influence the vision of the city’s leaders and affect the underlying economy. These changes in vision and market adjustments, then, profoundly affect a city’s approach to economic development. The mobilization of public capital as a mechanism for achieving the vision may change as well.

When voters replaced the leadership of Boise, Idaho, with more proactive officials in the mid-1980s, for example, a new vision was one of the most obvious results. The new mayoral-led coalition talked about regional prominence, and boldly marshaled public capital in support of development projects. The city used development tools and sponsored projects that were vastly different from those of the previous regime. In effect, Boise was transformed from a “maintenance city” to an “expansionist city.”

Thus, politics plays an important role in explaining the path and direction a city chooses. Local officials may perceive a relevant orbit and then try to mobilize public capital in order to keep their city in (or move it to) that orbit. Or, they may choose to allow the workings of the marketplace to determine the city’s orbit. In either case, market forces, a city’s comparative advantage, the relative factor prices of land, labor, and capital—in short, the underlying local economy—influence these perceptions and the city’s approach to development policy.

Political leaders’ images of the good society and their perceptions of their city’s relevant orbit are the foundations for a city’s economic development functions and for the political decision to mobilize public capital. City investment in, and regulation of, development projects is the most effective means by which a city controls and molds its growth in pursuit of its future cityscape.


Ann O’M. Bowman is professor in the Department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Michael A. Pagano is professor of political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. This article is excerpted in part from their book Cityscapes and Capital: The Politics of Urban Development (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).