A Brief History of City Charters

Anthony Townsend
Oct 4, 2016 · 4 min read

As I wrote over the summer and continued last week, I’m spending some time thinking about how the various threads of urban innovation might start adding up to a real reform movement for local government. The last piece basically ended up asking the question of whether the smart city movement is, in the end, really about transforming local government. Boyd Cohen laid this out quite well in a 2015 post, describing three successive waves of smart city development:

  • Smart Cities 1.0 — led by technology providers
  • Smart Cities 2.0 — technology enabled, but led by cities
  • Smart Cities 3.0 — “citizen co-creation” of smart cities, where “projects have a different feel” and are “grounded more in issues of equity and social inclusion”.
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Back in 1895 refomers wrote books. (Courtesy: The Internet Archive)

Cohen cites the case of Medellin, where it could be argued, we do see many of the urban innovation threads coming together with and informing more broad-based, deep-rooted urban social and political reform movements. (The kind of Radical Cities that Justin McGuirk describes in his compelling 2014 book of the same name.)

It’s pretty clear that Smart Cities 1.0 was always going to take cities in a bad direction — and its why I wrote my book. Cities have clearly responded, and the city-led Smart Cities 2.0 model is clearly ascendant — most clearly reflected in the proliferation of smart city campaigns, visions and digital master plans (see my 2015 paper with Stephen Lorimer, who now is on Smart London team at the Greater London Authority, where we compare the content, planning process, and implementation approach of 8 cities’ digital plans: “Digital Master Planning: Am Emerging Strategic Practice in Global Cities”)

But if a third wave is in the works, it heralds a maturation that will finally require some structural change. Most cities, as Cohen points out, are comfortable staying — nay, even consolidating the 2.0 status quo. He holds out Singapore as an example. On the contrary, Vienna, Barcelona, Medellin, and Vancouver seems to be playing with a greater appetite for genuine co-creation.

Still, most of what’s going on seems to be playing at the edges. There isn’t much evidence that the capabilities of smart city technology are being leveraged to truly re-think what local government is for, and create a new legal framework for governing. If we want power in government to flow in different directions, we need to re-do the plumbing.

The Reforms of the Late 19th Century

Holman open his book with “a clear idea of the functions of the municipality”, which still ring true today and in fact have changed little since ancient times:

  1. The Disciplinary and the Regulative (read: policing)
  2. The Sanitary (read: housing, public health, food safety’... “the inspection of breadstuffs”)
  3. The Recreative (read: parks)
  4. The Educational (read: schools, museums, libraries)
  5. The Functional (read: transport, land use, utilities)
  6. The Curative (read: hospitals, and prisons — back then they still believed prisons could heal!)

(Tolman, 1895: 27–28)

Prior to the reform movements of the late 19th century, few American municipalities performed all of these functions, and not many could be said to do it effectively. Graft and corruption were the norm, and most public servants were political appointees rewarded with jobs for service to party organizations. Accountability and transparency simply did not exist in the modern sense of the term.

As Tolman’s book describes in excruciating detail, dozens of municipal leagues and civic leagues (if not more) were formed in cities throughout the country (and long forgotten now is the central role that religious organizations played in the movement’s formation). Their goals and motivations were based on moral, non-partisan, ethical grounds, and a visceral “hatred of bosses”. The masses, it seems, could whipped into an almost erotic frenzy by reform zealots:

Before… the moral blood of the body politic flowed sluggishly; but Dr. Parkhurst injected fresh blood and stiffened the civic system by a vigorous tonic; then the veins pulsated to throbbing, and the new life-giving energy manifested itself in the arms, legs, and brains of the voters who deposited their ballots at the polls.”

One could hardly imagine a description more opposite than the general election that Americans now face in 2016.

Next week… the National Civic League’s model municipal charter…

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