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The Just Metropolis

2011 March 17
by Japhet Koteen

< Image by the author >

Metropolitan areas with strong systems of regional governance are more equitable than those without. The basic premise is that in fragmented regions, where little or no sharing of tax revenue occurs, municipal corporations compete with each other to avoid negative spillover effects, and to reap the benefits of positive ones. The classic example is a newly incorporated suburb next to an established urban center with plentiful amenities and employment. The residents of the new suburb don’t have to pay the cost for maintaining infrastructure and urban amenities that make city vibrant, attractive and successful, yet they can still access them. It’s a bit like living next to a golf course and slipping on to play the back nine without paying greens fees. The tax base of the city shrinks as people with means relocate to the suburb with lower property taxes. The core city enters a spiral of decline, and citizens experience savage inequalities in education, opportunity, and health.

Reality is more complicated than my example, but the lesson rings true: systemic injustices result when legislative and taxation boundaries don’t match functional boundaries. Those who can’t afford to move to take advantage of the positive external benefits, end up on the losing side. If fairness is something we value as a society, then we should embrace a regional approach to funding and managing the amenities that we all enjoy and the vital infrastructure our success depends on.


Japhet koteen is a planning and development consultant in Seattle. He specializes in regionalism, energy systems, placemaking and cheese.

One Response leave one →
  1. Matthew 'Anc' Johnson permalink
    March 18, 2011

    I agree in principle Japhet, but where do we go from here? What city/county/region type of government do you suggest for us, and what are the steps necessary to get it implemented? Also, considering the growth pattern of most of the last half century, how do you structure it so that the suburbs don’t dominate the central city? For example when Seattle Transit and Metropolitan Transit Corporation were merged giving us KC Metro, we eventually ended up with 40/40/20 due to the political weight of the suburbs (New service was to be allocated 40% to East King, 40% to South King, and only 20% to North King [Seattle], even though North King makes up 35% of the population AND is the area most suitable to transit (dense grids work better than sparse cul-de-sacs). If Seattle were to divulge more power to the region in other areas, what is to ensure this kind of abuse doesn’t happen there?

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