My aim in these postings is to help you, as a reporter or blogger, understand local government and avoid some of the problems I had as a city hall reporter. As I said in the introduction, I never truly “got” local government when I covered city hall. I kept looking for what I’d learned in college political science classes—that government decision making was about interests clashing over public policy. I was disappointed to find city councils focused instead on things that seemed smaller and less interesting: arbitrating zoning disputes, moving small amounts of money among city departments, listening to neighborhood complaints, voting on construction projects. Where were the interest groups, I wondered, the lobbyists, the committee hearings, the position papers, the public policies?
It wasn’t until much later that I understood local governments weren’t smaller versions of federal and state governments; they were focused on something different—not public policy but people and places, how these elements interact, and how they could be made to interact better. Land use, I learned, was the central concern of city and county governments, and it is local governments’ ability to place infrastructure and regulate land uses (not only on public streets and spaces but private property) that gives them power and importance.
A city council’s debate, then, about locating a civic center isn’t a boring discussion about another construction project—it’s a bet on where and how the city will grow. Guess right, and the area around it could be transformed. Guess wrong, and it could be a drain on government revenues and a huge missed opportunity.
And you can go down the list: Where transit stops are placed, sidewalks built, parks located, schools situated; whether to build a performing arts center, start a bike-sharing program, or help the local college expand; how to regulate food trucks and ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft; whether to give economic development incentives to businesses or help a small-business incubator get off the ground. These decisions don’t look like much close up, but collectively they add up to a vision of the city, with each a step toward that vision.
One of your most important jobs as city hall reporter, then, should be to figure out the vision. If your city has been through a full-scale planning process recently, this may be easy. Many will know the city’s intended destination and how it aims to get there. Your task is to put these things into words and explain what they mean, why they are important, and what alternative visions were considered.
If the city hasn’t been through a visioning process or comprehensive planning effort, the vision could be known only to a few. So your first task is to piece together the vision by interviewing those with a say in city decisions and comparing it with the decisions they’ve made and the plans that guide them. (Hint: Talk to the city planning director and the local chamber of commerce president before interviewing the mayor and council members.)
It’s possible, of course, that there is no broadly shared vision, that the city council is feeling its way through important decisions. But trust me on this: Having no direction doesn’t mean the city isn’t going somewhere. It just isn’t going there by design. In these cases, your job is to see where the drift is taking the city, tell your readers what that place is likely to be, and ask leaders if they’re comfortable with the destination.
All of this brings up some questions: What does a vision look like? How would you know if your city is achieving it? And if the city is just drifting along, how can you see where it’s headed?
Actually, it’s pretty simple. Look at the demographics.
Go back to the central issue for cities: People and places, how they interact, and how they can be made to interact better. The tools that a city has are the “places” part of that statement—how it develops public places, regulates private ones, and serves all with infrastructure. The results are the people and what they do with those places. Remember the famous Watergate adage, “follow the money”? If you want to know where your city is headed, follow the demographics.
A vision, then, is an effort to picture who will live in, work in, and visit your city in the future, what they will do for entertainment, how they will relate to one another and the city’s physical assets, how they will move around, and what impressions newcomers will form. And behind the vision should be a plan: In order to make this ideal future become a reality, here are the things we must do.
Describing the vision is important, but you need to know more. Is the vision obtainable? Can the city truly attract those it wants and needs in order to be successful? To answer this, you’ll have to take a deep dive into demographics, starting with where the city is today and how it is changing.
Here are some questions to begin with: Who lives in your city by age, income, educational attainment, and ethnicity? How are these numbers changing over, say, the last 10 years? How do these changes compare with cities of similar size and type? How do they compare with nearby jurisdictions, such as suburbs? (You can find these things from U.S. Census data but call your regional planning agency. It may have additional data and even projections.)
Now drill down a bit: Where in your city are the greatest changes taking place today? If the city is investing in some areas or services (such as transit), how is that affecting the demographics in those neighborhoods? (Again, look not just at population numbers in those tracts but age, income, and education.)
All of this will give you some idea of how realistic your city’s vision is. If the city is aging rapidly and wants to attract more young people and you can’t find a single neighborhood where young people are replacing older families, it’ll be a tough slog—and you can say so. If, though, there are several neighborhoods that millennials are moving to, then there’s your lede. Interview the newcomers, explain the neighborhood’s attraction, and give readers a glimpse of the future.
As you’re getting used to demographics, don’t forget that cities serve more than residents. They’re also centers for work, entertainment, and tourism. Employee demographics aren’t as easily obtained as residential demographics, but governments do track the types of jobs being created as well as the number. I suggest starting with a federal database called County Business Patterns. Be patient: You’ll have to immerse yourself in things like NAICS codes and learn some basic spreadsheet techniques, but pretty soon you’ll be able to figure out how employment is changing in your city. And the same guidelines apply: If your city wants to be a center of technology and can’t show any growth in that area, then you can be properly skeptical.
Tourism and entertainment statistics will be harder still to come by; they’re kept locally and some are sketchy. But it’s worth the effort to learn who comes to your city and for what purposes. You may, for instance, be able to track restaurant sales figures over time, which will tell you whether city efforts to build an entertainment economy are working. If your city has invested in a convention center, the statistics on its use should be revealing.
Armed with a little curiosity and a few spreadsheet skills, then, you’ll quickly master the changing demographics of your city and turn out some great stories. But remember: You’re a city hall reporter, so your aim isn’t just to report what’s happening but to compare the government’s intentions and actions to the results. If there’s a vision, is it obtainable? If the city is drifting, where is it headed? If the city is making investments, are they working? Demographics will give you the answers.
Three cautions about fairness. First, be aware of the lag effect. Depending on economic conditions, a city can wait years after opening a transit station before developers start building transit-oriented buildings, and even more time before it’s reflected in the population changes. Ask independent experts, like academics and consultants, how long the lag should be.
Be aware too that government census reports are backward looking. They can tell you what happened but not what’s happening right now or what is yet to come. That was a big reason so many were surprised by the great urban turnaround of the 1990s. It had been underway for years before the 2000 Census awoke us to it. So if the demographics don’t reflect what you’re seeing in the neighborhoods, it may be because no one has collected the statistics or run the numbers yet.
Second, luck and circumstance play bigger roles in cities than we sometimes acknowledge. Local governments can do all the right things and yet see little return. Or they can do only a little and see huge changes. Williston, North Dakota, for example, was a sleepy little prairie town for most of its history. Then oil was discovered, its population doubled, and rents soared to levels approaching those in Manhattan. How much credit does the city government deserve for Williston’s growth? Probably not much. In the opposite way, we ought to give some credit to cities like Cleveland that have worked mightily to make themselves more appealing. Despite progress (it was named the site of the 2016 Republican National Convention and some of its neighborhoods are reviving) Cleveland hasn’t stemmed its population losses yet. Is it fair, then, to compare Cleveland to fast-growing cities like Miami or Houston—or would it be fairer to compare it to other cities trying to reverse a growth spiral? I think the latter is fairer.
Third, be smart as well as fair with demographics on ethnicity and income. These are politically sensitive subjects—for good reason. All cities that are successful over the long haul are diverse ones. So don’t let your reporting be an excuse for excluding some, as the city seeks others.
This is one of a series of postings about better ways of understanding local government and writing about local politics. To read the introduction, please click here.
Photo by Corey Templeton licensed under Creative Commons.