Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pros and cons of chartered cities

Illustration by Pesky Kid

I've been reading Debika Ray's article "Chartered territory" with high interest, as I've lived in different neighborhoods, in my country and in USA. It's been long years by now since we've decided to stay in a charter city in Southern CA, Orange County, because it's clean, safe, it's pretty much different from Los Angeles, and of course, there are lots of rules. I remember a school kids' fight in a corner was dissolved in minutes with the police's helicopter (one of them).
But everything has been developed as a matter of culture and habits, I don't imagine such rules in Buenos Aires, for example (Sorry, it became Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, former Capital Federal). And it must be very difficult to apply law and order in a huge city.
This happens when the City is originated as a small town, where everybody knows each other, or this is what I feel.
From I reproduce a definition and an example of abuse in a charter city:

charter city is a city in which the governing system is defined by the city's own charter document rather than by state, provincial, regional or national laws. In locations where city charters are allowed by law, a city can adopt or modify its organizing charter by decision of its administration by the way established in the charter. These cities may be administered predominantly by citizens or through a third-party management structure, because a charter gives a city the flexibility to choose novel types of government structure. Charter cities are similar in administrative structure to special administrative regions.
For example, in California, cities which have not adopted a charter are organized by state law. Such a city is called a General Law City, which will be managed by a 5-member city council. A city organized under a charter may choose different systems, including the "strong mayor" or "city manager" forms of government. One example of abuse of the charter system was in Bell, California. The charter was created after a lit­tle-no­ticed spe­cial elec­tion, where few voters understood what becoming a charter city meant. After a charter was approved, state laws limiting city salary no longer applied and City Manager Robert Rizzo gave himself a salary of $1.5 million for managing a city of about 36,000 people. As of June 2008, 112 of California's 478 cities are charter cities. A few examples include Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, and Irvine.
However, charter cities that are subordinate to the rules of larger institutions (such as provinces or nations) have limited flexibility to adopt new governance structures. Historical examples cover a broad range of charter cities, from virtually independent city-states to smaller municipalities which have limited administrative freedom.

(As a margin note, Bell is a city with a higher rate of poverty, mostly composed by Latino immigrants, it is in Los Angeles County. Irvine is a business city, very prosperous. Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, smaller coastal cities, what we call "white cities" , mostly composed by white-Americans). The last three examples belong to Orange County.

Can we imagine a charter city in Honduras? Which would be the consequences? Who would be the first inhabitants? Well, they would be low skilled workers to be displaced by the new wealthy citizens. 
Debika explains the situation very well, here I'm sharing an excerpt, the link is above:

" Honduran president Porfirio Lobo passed the amendment in February 2011 to allow a special development region to be established within the central American republic. The autonomous zone would be modelled on successful cities in developed countries and run by an appointed governor, with an international panel of individuals keeping him in check until elections are considered appropriate. Lobo’s inspiration was the “charter city”: the brainchild of US economist Paul Romer, who hopes to solve the problems of global poverty, accelerated urbanisation and international migration all at once. The idea is simple. All you need is a piece of land and a list of rules. Those who live in the city built on this land abide by this “charter” of rules, which is enforced by an independent party – perhaps a foreign government – and if they don’t like it, they can leave.(....) 
The “rules” are central to Romer’s theory. He argues that countries like the US are wealthy because they have “good” rules, while poor nations in Africa and Asia have bad ones. Establishing a city guided by the rules of prosperous nations, he believes, would provide aspiring migrants with the option to move to a place that has the same basis for success as western countries, while diverting the flow of incomers away from those that don’t want them. A place like this, he says, could provide all residents with homes, jobs, safety, freedom and opportunity. The charter cities idea reflects an existing – if contested – mainstream “good governance” theory that has dominated the international development agenda since the late 1990s. The argument is that strong institutions differentiate successful states from failing ones. These encompass everything from the rule of law, transparency, accountability, efficient markets and property rights, to social norms and culture. Everything else – planning, design, what the city produces – is secondary.(....) 
While Romer has given little thought to design so far, some aspects of his vision are clear. A charter city should span about 1,000km2 and have a population of up to 10 million. Ideally, it should be on the coast, to allow for a port, and have room for an airport. Masterplanning, he says, would occur however each city sees fit, but Fuller suggests the authorities could provide the basics: “They could design a system of large arterial roads, about a kilometre apart. The space in between could be left to private developers.” Fuller admits that the lifestyles of migrants, many of whom would be low-skilled, may be humble at first. “The types of jobs available will be in factory assembly lines, and apartments will be small and amenity-free,” he says. He adds that formal housing and work are better options than the informal slums in which many urban low-waged families in developing countries live and the precarious work they do – and the city would get richer over time.(....)
 However, as soon as you think about the idea in spatial terms, you encounter difficulties. Romer’s idea is deeply embedded in the language of free-market capitalism. For him, good rules are those that open up markets, enable private competition and make it easier to establish businesses – this usually means low taxes, light regulation, few employment laws and a restrained state. 
Romer’s growth plan relies heavily on attracting private foreign investment. The kind of city he envisages is therefore likely to be shaped by the demands of global capital – especially in the absence of an elected government or a physical and social plan. Dubai is built on these principles – and it’s an unsustainable blend of corporate towers, luxury housing and extravagant leisure facilities; a “cultural ghetto in the desert, with European and American packaging”, in the words of Henning Rasmuss, an architect who is working on the reconstruction of war-torn provincial capitals in Angola. 
“Dubai is connected to nothing but money,” he says. “It is an entirely invented marketing apparition.” A charter city might resemble this. And its infrastructure would probably follow suit. Dubai has little provision for pedestrians outside the downtown area. In many cities that experience a rapid inflow of foreign capital, public transport is neglected in favour of highways and airports. Such a city may even be what US management academic, John Kasarda, describes as an “aerotropolis” – an area designed entirely around an airport, in the way successful cities of the past were around ports.(....) 
And, like Dubai, such a city is likely to be the object of speculation. “If you had this kind of thing in Haiti or Sudan it would attract so much capital that people would start rapidly building apartment blocks, which would then sit empty,” says architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout. “Property prices would go through the roof, and affordable housing would be pushed outwards to the least attractive areas, defeating its very purpose.” The fact is that such cities rarely provide a better life for the poor. 
Earlier this month, there were mass protests in Hong Kong over inequality and the lack of democracy; Dubai is notorious for its labour camps; Shenzhen, China’s first and most famous special economic zone, has nets around factories to prevent suicides. “The cities that have arisen in China chew up the world’s resources with slave-like labour conditions, to make products that are then dumped on to functioning markets,” Rasmuss says. While Romer emphasises ease of business, he says nothing of minimum wages, unionisation or social protection to safeguard employees. He also envisages that water, electricity and housing will be privately supplied, but this strategy has consistently failed to provide adequate, affordable facilities for the world’s poor. There is no reason residential areas in a charter city would be different from present-day slums: expensive, dark, crowded and filthy. Informal housing exists in developing countries because it is functional. In Mumbai, as property prices have risen, there have been efforts to remove slums by building homes on the outskirts for their residents. “But this always fails,” Cross says. “They rent out their properties and move back to the city where the work is.” 
Informal settlements are, however, unlikely to be allowed in Romer’s city. “I don’t think there will be any real public space in a charter city,” Vanstiphout says, pointing to London as an example where protesters and street performers are increasingly excluded from central areas because of a proliferation of privately managed space. Controlling and restricting access to space like this would be the key to achieving safety – one of the central promises of charter cities. Romer hopes to achieve this by “setting” social norms. But crime is arguably a product of poverty and repression, and exists in spite of such rules. Security in a charter city would, therefore, rely on strict enforcement – perhaps cameras, curfews and networks of informants. Elena Pascolo, a designer at Urban Projects Bureau, worries about the “totalitarian implications” of controlling space in this manner; the expression of political dissent would be near impossible. “Romer’s model implies the management of conflict and dissolution of dissent – the cornerstone of what drives city formation,” she says.(...)

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