Teaching Cities in "The City"

Inspired by Nick and David’s posts on law school classes with local government themes, I thought I would mention a seminar that I co-taught last year at NYU with economist Paul Romer. The seminar had the simple title of “Cities”. As readers of this blog are well aware, the study of urban areas is inherently interdisciplinary. One cannot understand cities today, or the law that restricts or enables them, without understanding more than a bit of urban history, urban sociology, and urban economics, among other disciplines. Since I can’t claim mastery of any of those areas, it made sense to join forces with someone from a related discipline to see what we could learn from each other and give students an opportunity to discover the interdisciplinary nature of any investigation into urban life. Paul Romer has been studying what makes cities different from other entities and the mechanisms by which cities grow and become productive for a few decades, so a jointly taught seminar seemed like a great opportunity for me, and for our law students, to see how legal principles either complemented or conflicted with economic ones.

Here’s the objective of the seminar as we explained it to our students in the syllabus:

Why study cities? Cities have the potential to be important (if not the) centers of efficient economic production, of intellectual exchange and practical and creative innovations, and of personal and social growth. The central feature of cities that ensures their comparative advantage on each dimension are the benefits of proximity, what economists call agglomeration economies. The benefits of cities, however, do not follow automatically from being an area of high population or density, the typical metrics that distinguish cities from other governmental units. For cities to succeed they must be safe, clean, attractive, and well-governed. Achieving those objectives is often frustrated by the same characteristics that make cities productive – density facilitates congestion and crime as well as productive interactions. Diversity means difficulty in discerning majority preferences and needs as well as new uses of existing resources. Accentuating the positive aspects of cities while minimizing the negative aspects requires rules and their enforcement.

That means designing institutions of government. Institutional design defines the agenda for our seminar. We begin with an overview of the role of cities in contemporary societies and the possibilities that law can either facilitate, expand, or frustrate that role and the development of a perspective by which to evaluate a city’s achievement of that role. This requires an understanding of when cities are the best producers and providers of goods and services in a federal system and in an economy that, as a general matter, relies heavily on markets. We then turn to applications of this general perspective to specific city functions, both on the revenue side and the expenditure side. We next examine distressed cities to determine why they have failed and what can be done to prevent such failures? We conclude the course with an exploration of how novel forms of local governance might (or might not) advance the potential of cities. Ultimately, the objective of the seminar is to provide students with an understanding of the objectives of city governance, the legal and economic obstacles to achieving those objectives, and concrete recommendations for the reduction of those obstacles and the enhancement of city potential within its proper domain.

I must say that, notwithstanding the Zoom format, this seminar was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of my four decades in the local government law area. As anyone familiar with NYU would understand, the students represented a wide range of ideological views from limited-government libertarians to progressives who viewed cities as necessary providers of an expanded safety net. Nevertheless, the students had no difficulty engaging in civil disagreement with each other or with their professors. The result was lots of changed minds (including mine) over the course of the semester on various aspects of cities. Topics included zoning and agglomeration, public sector unions, the structure of municipal governance, policing, municipal finance, the role of race and class in the provision of municipal services, local redistribution, local economic development, housing, participatory budgeting, and subdividing local government (BIDs, NIDs, community land trusts). COVID consistently raised its ugly head as a counter to the benefits of density and to optimistic predictions of the future of urbanity. Readings included cases and law review articles, but also empirical studies of issues such as crime control, the effects of gentrification, and the use of tax incentives. (The syllabus was a work in progress throughout the semester, but for anyone interested in a semi-final version, feel free to write me offline.)

One interesting challenge was to discuss data-driven economics literature with law students, few of whom had significant background in economics and all of whom were used to law review articles that carry a normative punch. Many students had a tendency to equate economist-authors’ findings with the authors’ political or ideological commitments rather than as fodder for conversation and debate about how to mitigate the implications of those results. Of course, in undertaking the latter task it is helpful to have the assistance of a skilled economist who can be skeptical of his own profession and who is expert at critiquing empirical methodologies. In that regard, perhaps my greatest contribution to the success of the seminar was my selection of a co-teacher.