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Chapter Summary

Frug, Gerald E. and David Barron. 2008. City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ Press.(Chapter 2)

Frug and Barrons second chapter argues against a firm conception of local autonomy. Revisiting a central concept of Frugs City Making, our authors assert that autonomy is traditionally marked by intercity competition, which hurts central cities and benefits prosperous suburbs. Frug and Barron argue that gaining more power from the state will not empower, but rather create further racial and class stratification in the current framework, because localism affirms private values rather than public ones. Rather than being hindered by the state, cities theoretically rely on the state to remedy intra-jurisdictional competition.

Our authors admit that this model of weak central cities and wealthy suburbs is too simplistic. Assuming high levels of autonomy and competition between central cities and suburbs disregards home rule limits, lack of local control for infrastructure, and the preemption of state law. Further, any autonomy gained through devolution was accompanied by increased restrictions from higher levels of governments, nearby local governments, and private decision-makers. The autonomous local government becomes one of many actors in the exercise of power. In particular, actions taken at all levels of government interrelate and make completely independent decision-making at any level of government theoretically impossible. Thus, the concept of autonomy should be reframed by acknowledging that no local governments are granted autonomy; instead, they are granted local powers with commensurate restrictions.

This reconsideration presents a series of questions surrounding the assimilation of the proper levels of government, and the degrees of autonomy in the countless decision-making processes of governing. Surely, more local autonomy fits certain scenarios and is ill-suited for others. Frug and Barron attempt to clarify this theoretical ambivalence by turning to the concepts of federalism and subsidiarity, which are concerned with assigning specific tasks to specific levels of government. Yet, our authors find that both theories actually seek to protect the national and state powers in favor of local ones because of the inherent overlap between the spheres of government. Even distributing powers between regional and local levels of government creates complications because every traditional city function-- police, education, housing, transportation, parks, sanitation-- is simultaneously a matter of local concern and regional concern. In this light, there is no unique position served by local government.

With all of these disagreements about the appropriate place for power, Frug and Barron argue for decentralization. Local governments are valuable to the experience of participatory democracy and civic culture in the United States. Further, cities can act as laboratories of urban policy and, through interaction, can learn from each other. Finally, it is most important to recognize that the question of local power is not about autonomy; instead, the question should revolve around the type of substantive legal reform that would enable cities to better control their respective futures.