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Urban Policy

Last Updated: 2006

The term “urban policy” refers to the myriad of policy issues, problems, and solutions that are addressed by the government and other political actors in cities or metropolitan areas. Although it often reflects national policy issues and agenda setting, the urban environment presents unique policy challenges. Urban policy is constrained by the unique context of cities. Each city or urban area has its own policy issues, which differ from those of other cities in the same state as well as cities in other states. Every city has its own political, social, and economic history, which influences the development of specific institutional relations within the city as well as a particular political culture. Within this unique political, social, and economic context, urban policies are generated and implemented.

In developing urban policies, there are costs and benefits. As with policy making in general, conflicts are often over means and priorities—not necessarily over goals. Limited resources create that conflict. For example, although policy makers might agree that there is a need for more after-school programs, rehabilitation centers, and bus depots, the costs or means of providing these services cause disagreement. There might be disagreement over where to place the programs, clinics, and depots and how to pay for them. There is disagreement over what is the one best solution—and there often is not one best solution.


Despite their uniqueness, cities across the nation share certain challenges. Cities are home to concentrated poverty tracts and, as such, have disproportionate numbers of poor people living in their jurisdictions. Many cities have high crime rates and are plagued with gangs and drug-related activity. Cities are also burdened by an insufficient tax base, which means they have limited resources to address the needs of their residents. Consequences of this weak tax base are poorly functioning public school systems, housing shortages, and weak social service infrastructures in most cities across the nation. Mass transit systems, cars, local airports, and ports also generate high levels of pollution, traffic problems, and congestion in cities. Cities are also burdened by the legacy of racism. Segregated housing and the geographic, as well as economic and political, marginalization of different minority groups continues to be a problem in cities across the nation.

However, cities remain our nation’s cultural and economic centers. They are also significant tourist destinations, and a great deal of tourist revenue is generated in cities across the nation from both domestic and foreign tourists.


As with any policy area, there are different theoretical approaches to the study of urban policy. Urban policy can be studied from an analytical or a political perspective. When one begins to analyze urban policy making, there are many different points in decision making because there is a division of power in the policy-making process. There are also many different ways to influence decision makers in the urban policy-making process because the formal authority and power that are held by some are counterbalanced by the informal power or influence that are held by others. Furthermore, these holders of informal power are not always apparent in the policy-making process.

Examples of policies that evolve from formal authority include the ability of the Internal Revenue Service to collect income tax or the desegregation of schools by executive order. There are other sources of power as well. Persuasion is power; even if there is some disagreement over means, it is possible to persuade a political ally to your side if you have shared goals. Bargaining and reciprocation are also critical to power. By supporting one policy initiative, you gain an ally on another policy initiative. Finally, coercion is a form of power. The ability to fire, promote, reward, or penalize gives some actors more power than others.

There are many other ways to influence decision makers. The first is through information and ideas. Information comes in various forms and includes, but is not limited to, technical and political information. Time and energy are other ways of influencing the policy-making process. Money influences the policy-making process because it buys other peoples’ time and energy. The media also play an important role in transmitting information between elected officials and the public as well as among elected officials.

When analyzing urban policy initiatives, it is important to consider those issues that were not addressed directly in the policy process. In urban policy making, as with policy making broadly, those issues that are kept off of the agenda are as important as those that are put on the agenda. Both formal and informal power can be used to suppress policy questions as well as raise them. What makes different actors in the policymaking process powerful is their ability to influence some stage of the policy-making process. In short, politics matters in the study of urban policy.


There are many significant actors in urban policy. While urban policy making is different from federal and state policy making, intergovernmental relations are very important to urban policy. Other important actors include the mayor and city council, local community boards or planning boards, civil servants, the media, private elites, and interest groups, including parties, unions/municipal employees, ethnic and religious groups, neighborhood groups, business associations, and civic organizations. The most significant actors in urban policy are the federal government, the state government, the mayor and city council, and urban communities, each of which will be discussed below.


The role of the federal government in urban policy is very complex in the United States. A review of The Federalist Papers No. 51 provides an insight into this complex relationship. Policy makers at the different levels of government are in relatively unique positions as a result of the fragmentation of political authority in the United States. They are confronted with different and often contradictory mandates. The separation of powers and the federal system restrain policy making at the local level.

The relationship between the federal government and cities has varied throughout the twentieth century. The New Deal era in the 1930’s, under President ;Franklin Delano Roosevelt, represented a significant shift in the relationship between the state and society, with the federal government assuming a larger responsibility in caring for the needs of citizens. The Great Society in the 1960’s, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, reemphasized the themes established during the New Deal. During these periods, numerous federal programs were designed and developed to address the problems facing our nation’s cities. The federal government provided a great deal of money for urban renewal projects.

During the late 1970’s, federal grants to large cities were at their peak. However, by the 1980’s, the New Federalism espoused by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush resulted in the significant reduction of urban renewal and block grants. The reason used by the Reagan and Bush administrations for the shift in the federal-state-local relationship was that the federal government had usurped power from the states and localities. Furthermore, they argued that, with respect to local problems, local government was preferable and superior to a strong central government. This move to devolve, or return, responsibility from the federal government to state and local governments rejected the national government’s responsibility to balance out social and economic disparities and implied that it was the responsibility of local governments to do so. Under this New Federalism, Presidents Reagan and Bush cut a great percentage of urban aid programs, specifically those related to urban renewal and block grants. This intensified the fiscal crises that many cities were experiencing and contributed to an increase in concentrated, high-poverty, inner-city neighborhoods.

Under President Bill Clinton in the 1990’s, certain urban grants were revived and new ones developed, including the Empowerment Zones program and Americorps. A few other urban-friendly programs were implemented, including education tax credits, education programs, and federally funded public works projects with incentives to hire minorities. However, the Clinton administration shied away from an urban agenda as it was not politically feasible. Under the George W. Bush administration, few programs directed specifically toward cities were implemented. The devolution of responsibility from the federal government to local governments that began under the Reagan administration has continued into the twenty-first century.

Even though cities receive little support from the federal government, they are still responsible for upholding and implementing federal mandates. For example, federal laws regulating prison overcrowding, pollution emissions, and education standards must be adhered to whether or not the federal government provides funding for the mandated programs. The existence of unfunded mandates is a perennial problem for urban policy makers. Consequently, many wonder whether the U.S. federal system of government impedes or contributes to urban policy agenda setting and implementation. Although our Constitution gives considerable autonomy to states and localities in a variety of ways, it preserves a relatively strong central government that is able to constrain the functioning of local governments. Since cities are neither legally autonomous nor economically self-sufficient government units, the relationship between the city and the federal government is critical to urban policy making.


The role of the state government in urban policy is critical, especially in the contexts of the relationships between the federal and state governments and the federal and local governments. Since cities are not legally autonomous, they are mandated to enforce state penal codes and to support county courts. In some states there exist home rule cities, where the city has the right, without the state’s involvement, to make some important decisions. But in most states, the state government delegates all the city’s rights. Many cities cannot frame the city charter outside of the state legislature. The significance of this is that there is often a significant disconnection between legislators at the state and city levels. From political parties to constituencies to political agendas, the politics and policies of states and cities are different. Furthermore, many states are not traditionally helpful to cities. City populations are not represented equitably with regard to transportation budgets and school budgets, and some states limit the extent to which cities can collect income tax. Consequently, many states do not allow cities to tax those who work in the city but live outside of it via income tax or a commuter tax.

As the federal government continues to devolve more responsibility to states, the states in turn will transfer a great deal of this responsibility to cities and towns. Many argue that cities and localities should be more independent, and argue for the devolution of power from the states to localities. This situation has often had a negative effect on cities, as they cannot afford services for residents, commuters, and tourists with the limitations that are placed on them by the states. As a consequence, some city leaders have supported governors of the opposing political party because of their unique needs. For example, the former Republican mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, supported Democrat Governor Mario Cuomo’s reelection, much to the dismay of the Republican Party. From Giuliani’s perspective, Cuomo’s policies would be friendlier to New York City than those of George Pataki, Cuomo’s successful challenger.


The formal governmental structure of cities varies greatly. The primary differences in city governments are in the organ of control. Cities are usually organized under either the city manager system or the mayoral system. In many smaller cities, the mayor has no formal authority and the city council works with the city manager. In larger cities, the mayor and council work together and relative power differs from city to city. The city manager or council manager system is most widely used in municipalities with 25,000 to 250,000 residents. The city manager system gained support because it conceives of the city as a business, the council as the board, and the city manager as the president. One problem with this system is that unelected officials have more power than elected officials. The mayor–city council system is used in most large cities. Mayors are rarely given the opportunity to take a long-term cost-benefit approach to fiscal policy. Often, like many politicians, mayors pursue support for the next election and their attention focuses primarily on short-term problem solving.

The politics of large U.S. cities are often explained in terms of powerful individual personalities, such as Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and Mayors John Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani of New York. Nevertheless, the job of mayor of a large city has been traditionally a thankless and dead-end job. Since World War II, very few large city mayors have proceeded to higher offices. Mayors have different ways of being effective. For one thing, they can make high-quality appointments that assist them in their policy agenda. They can also reorganize agencies and, to some extent, control budgets. The biggest constraint to a mayor’s effectiveness in policy making is the fact that very little of the budget is discretionary—most of cities’ expenditures are predetermined or mandated.


A mayor’s budget decisions are influenced by many factors, including budgetary decisions of previous administrations, local party politics, the power of different interest groups, intergovernmental relations, and the organization of the city’s government. The policy choices of city governments are severely limited because they do not control many important financial decisions. Unlike the national government, most cities must have yearly balanced budgets. Many cities, as a result of economic crises in the 1970’s, are required to maintain a balanced budget if their administration is not to be taken over by the state.

Mayors often compete with other mayors in their state for tax revenues. A reduction in spending combined with business development is seen by many mayors as the only fiscal policy choice available to them. The threat of fiscal crisis often deflects attention from actual crisis in urban service delivery. However, these fiscal cutbacks have further eroded service delivery infrastructure, and mayors are forced to address the consequences of the fiscal cutbacks.

Mayors are faced with a fiscal policy-making model that limits their power to generate those resources necessary to provide adequate services, the perpetuation of unfunded mandates, and a reduction in assistance from the state and national levels. To alleviate the financial burdens that most cities face, several changes in the existing financial arrangement are needed. These include increasing the ability of mayors to expand the tax base, state and/or federal funding of all mandated programs, and state and/or federal responsibility for social welfare programs. These fiscal arrangements, along with more efficient bureaucracies, the emergence of competitive urban parties, and more successful lobbying on behalf of cities, would result in increased freedom for urban policy makers to generate more efficient and effective policies.


In the absence of sufficient federal, state, and local funding to address urban problems, a proliferation of community-based organizations and other nonprofit organizations in urban areas exist with the mission to improve urban living and ameliorate urban poverty. These new policy actors have been successful in complementing or replacing existing government services by developing programs that address substance abuse problems, promote education and literacy, increase job training and readiness, help develop parenting skills, provide after-school programs, reduce teen pregnancy, and promote microenterprise development and environmental justice.

Although many urban programs are supported with government funds, many others are sustained by the private sector. Community empowerment and community building are integral to urban development and renewal. The revival of the community in addressing certain urban ills does not relieve the responsibility for cities from the shoulders of the government and onto the shoulders of the community. The creation of thousands of nongovernment and community-based organizations does not negate the important role that the government can and should play. It does reaffirm, however, the need for the community to be an actor in urban policy making.

To combat the low productivity, mediocre services, poor employee morale, and bureaucratic inefficiency that exist in many city agencies, certain governments have also adopted a more customer-oriented philosophy to service delivery. Whether referred to as “total quality management” or “reinventing government,” more urban policies and initiatives are reflecting the need to view citizens or beneficiaries of government services and programs as active customers. While this philosophy has not penetrated the policy-making apparatus in all cities, many government organizations have employed an increased client orientation in policy areas as diverse as motor vehicle offices, welfare centers, and policing. Many official policy makers argue that to find the best solution to a given problem, city officials must work with the individuals and organizations that are closest to the problem. For example, many housing initiatives use community development corporations and tenant cooperatives to develop their programs. Police departments rely on community policing, and many police drug intervention programs utilize peer educators. There is also a related move toward the privatization of social services, with the recognition that the private sector might more efficiently and effectively deliver certain public services.

As the urban environment becomes more complex, urban policy and policy making will reflect that complexity, with new actors emerging, new issues addressed, and new financial resources and arrangements developed.

SEE ALSO: DevolutionIntergovernmental RelationsLocal GovernmentNew FederalismState-Local Relations


Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz, “Two Faces of Power,” American Political Science Review 57 (December 1962): 947–52; Ester Fuchs, Mayors and Money: Fiscal Policy in New York and Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); John W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, 2nd ed. (New York: Longmann, 1995); Charles E. Lindblom, “The Science of Muddling Through,” Public Administration Review(1959): 79–88; David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector (New York: Plume Books, 1993); Paul Peterson, The Price of Federalism (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1995); and Clarence N. Stone and Heywood Sanders, The Politics of Urban Development (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987).