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  • Michael Mehaffy

The vital importance of a "subsidiary urbanism"

Updated: Mar 6

The little-known concept of subsidiarity may actually address the core of our urban challenges. Here's why.



EDITOR'S NOTE: This post is part of a series on topics we will discuss at the 60th IMCL conference, "Making Cities Livable: Research Into Communication, and ACTION," April 26-28 in Newport, RI (https://www.imcl.online/2024-newport). We hope you'll join us!



NEWPORT - Among the many challenges for our cities, towns and suburbs – perhaps at their very heart – is the growing problem of governance. Too often, “NIMBY” debates divide old allies, and paralyze needed reforms. Private interests “race to the bottom,” navigating byzantine and expensive regulatory processes that satisfy no one. Old destructive ways of doing things are perpetuated by “lock-in” – institutional and professional inertia, and worse, just plain turf protection.


A feature that is common to all these problems is that decisions are being made by people who are not best placed to make them. In some cases, the decisions are too “top-down” – by authorities with more interest in sustaining their institutional prerogatives than understanding and adapting to real local conditions and needs. In other cases, the decisions are too “bottom-up” – the rule of the mob, or the self-selected loudest voices with the greatest self-interests.


This is not a new kind of problem – nor is the potential solution new. In the governance world, the optimum balance between these two extremes is achieved by a principle known as “subsidiarity” – an idea that has been embraced by institutions as diverse as the Catholic Church, the United Nations, and the Congress for the New Urbanism. (1)


Jane Jacobs, in her landmark The Death and Life of Great American Cities, also focused on this concept (though not by name) in her chapter on “Governing Districts.” As she noted,


Here is an interesting thing about coordination both of information and of action in cities, and it is the crux of the matter: The principal coordination needed comes down to coordination among different services within localized places. This is at once the most difficult kind of coordination, and the most necessary… The invention required is not a device for coordination at the generalized top, but rather an invention to make coordination possible where the need is most acute—in specific and unique localities.


The solution, she said was to organize a series of governing districts of smaller size, appropriate to the needs of neighborhoods and their districts.


A similar concept has been implemented in Portland, Oregon, that city’s neighborhood and district association system – but that system was never a truly empowered subsidiary institution. Rather sadly and predictably, the system has become little more than a support group for angry, frustrated citizens. (And yes, sometimes they are obstructionist citizens – for they have power to do little else.)


Importantly, the principle of subsidiarity does not mean that larger scales “delegate power” to smaller ones. Rather, it is the reverse: the larger scales are subsidiary unions of the smaller ones. The United States is a subsidiary union of the people, and of their states.

But this is no "States’ Rights" doctrine. For the power to act on constitutional issues has already been vested irrevocably by the people and their states in the federal government and its courts – not the states. Crucially, the power to act derives upwardly from “the consent of the governed” – but it is a consent not to weigh in on any and every decision, but to enter into a binding commitment to a union, or a series of overlapping unions, with appropriate governance and representation structures – in this case, structures of subsidiary, “polycentric” (and far from autonomous) institutions.


The idea of “polycentric” governance is not unlike “polycentric urbanism:” there are many centers with many overlaps. The concept was promoted most memorably by Nobel Prize-winning political economist Elinor Ostrom. The governance is not only formal govern-ment, but informal gover-nance institutions too -- including civil society, the professions, universities, neighborhood businesses, and even families. We are in big trouble when those institutions are eroded -- as Jacobs warned we are indeed, in her last, disquieting book, Dark Age Ahead.


Refreshingly, the principle of subsidiarity, and the pragmatic local action it advocates, is not a “left” or “right” ideological issue. In fact, many people of very different ideologies can come to agreement and practical collaboration when it comes to the quality and livability of their own neighborhoods – a hopeful observation in a time of divisive politics. I myself, like many who work with local jurisdictions, have witnessed this collaborative unity. It does require a healthy framework of subsidiary governance, and a willingness to overcome barriers, to find a path to optimum “win-wins”.


One of the big problems of our time is surely the breakdown of this balance of subsidiarity, in favor of large disempowering bureaucracies, whether public or private. The history of the 20th century (well into our 21st) has been a history of institutional gigantism, and that has played out in cities too. This is the “too big to fail” syndrome -- and as we saw in 2008, it carries enormous dangers for the stability of the institutions on which we all depend. This is not to mention the routine degradations of local quality of life, planetary health, and the creaking unsustainability of our critical systems.


This dynamic is surely a major driver of the rise of populism in the US and internationally, as anger and frustration grow at the sense of disempowerment and disrespect of local perspectives, prerogatives and needs. It then becomes too tempting to blame scapegoats, to be swayed by demagogues, and not to identify the bigger and more intractable problem (and the nonpartisan one) -- that of balanced, healthy governance scale.


Into this vacuum, between the gigantism of institutions and the gridlock of an understandable if misdirected populism, come rushing the expert private interests who know how to game the system. In particular, they know how to exploit the financialization of everything in sight, and to expertly squeeze out every drop of value for themselves and their shareholders. It is not surprising, then, that real estate values are soaring, along with displacement, gentrification, homelessness, desperation, and a host of other social ills.


It is also not surprising that the quality of our built environment continues to erode, as we calibrate the price of everything, and the value of nothing. We measure and value every square inch of “heated and cooled space,” while essential outdoor spaces, and the essential transition structures that frame them, are discounted, and then (of course) stripped bare. We measure the “functionalism” of a “modernist” building, stripping away all the decorative delights that serve as essential “connective tissue” to the urban and pedestrian realm – and then we are surprised that cheap suburban tract houses crudely copy our minimalist tricks, with dispiritingly shoddy results. (And yet they still soar in price, as the experts expertly financialize every square inch.) We measure the economic throughput of automobiles, miles of roadway, and miles of unwalkable suburbia -- but not the soaring “externality costs” of air pollution, social isolation, and other impacts on human and planetary health.


This is an unsustainable situation, in every sense of the word.


Addressing it will require, firstly, a recognition of the problem of governance and scale, embodied in the principle of subsidiarity. That will surely take the form of better local governance (e.g. neighborhood quality of life issues, vandalism, safety, and other basics of good governance), as well as reforms to obsolete and exclusionary zoning codes, and better forms of funding for housing and affordability. These are tangible and pragmatic first steps (and the “day jobs” for myself and many others who work with municipalities in this area).


More broadly, this situation may require a re-conception of the mechanisms of valuation for different forms of capital, understanding that land and natural resources are fundamentally different – and fundamentally more limited in supply – than forms of human capital and cultural wealth. This idea was expressed most famously by the 19th Century American economist Henry George, whose work was once celebrated across the political spectrum. This idea has since taken root as a “land value tax,” a “carbon tax,” and related economic concepts aimed at “valuing externalities,” or public goods and costs that are outside of (that is, "external" to) normal transaction pricing.


This idea was also one that Jane Jacobs was known to be working on toward the end of her life, in a book she had provisionally titled “the Age of Human Capital.” In contrast to her previous work, Dark Age Ahead – raising a necessary alarm about the challenges we faced from the breakdown of critical human institutions – the new book was to focus on a much more hopeful future. We do have choices, she would suggest – and perhaps even, the choice of a new golden age for human settlements. But meanwhile, there is much work to do.



(1) The New Urban Agenda, the outcome document of the 2015 Habitat III conference, was adopted by acclamation by all 193 countries of the United Nations, and among its provisions is the following: “We will develop and implement housing policies at all levels, incorporating participatory planning and applying the principle of subsidiarity, as appropriate, in order to ensure coherence among national, subnational and local development strategies, land policies and housing supply” (Para. 105). I am also indebted to Andrés Duany, co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, who has promoted the concept of subsidiarity as it relates to urbanism.

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