Empowering the City: London / New York

When we complain about urban services – like the rising costs of the subway system or inconsistent opportunities for streetside trash disposal – who do we wish would listen and act? The various branches of city government? City Hall? The Mayor himself? Our current mayor might control more than most – from our city’s public school system to financial news – but what is the city government that he heads actually empowered to do?

Five years ago, a collection of international urban experts convened in New York for the first conference of the Urban Age project, a worldwide investigation into the future of cities that has since visited Shanghai, London, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Mumbai and Istanbul. One of these experts is Harvard Law Professor Gerald Frug, who shares with Omnibus readers his 2005 speech comparing the structures and powers of city government in London and New York. Five years later, the topic is even more relevant, with Bloomberg in his third term, the inefficiencies of Albany (and Washington) exacerbated by the financial crisis, New York’s PlaNYC in full effect and London’s replacing the London Plan with a brand new one.

Each week, Urban Omnibus presents an idea that, in some way or another, could make New York City a little bit better. But we’ve never asked what New York City itself, as embodied by its city government, can really do. Asking this question – and looking comparatively at precedents from outside our city and our country – must underlie how we design, plan and organize for urban change. – C.S.


Left: New York City by Flickr user Caruba; Right: London by Flickr user Jess J.

All city governments are dysfunctional. But each is dysfunctional in its own way.

Some people treat the city governments of London and New York as being a lot alike. After all, each has an elected Mayor and a separately elected city council or assembly; each is city with roughly 7-8 million people in a metropolitan area of roughly 18-20 million. If you compare the cities with this kind of similarity in mind, New York seems way ahead of London in terms of the authority it exercises. To give just a few examples, New York has the largest municipal hospital system in the country – with 11 hospitals and more than 100 community health clinics. It educates over 1 million children in primary and secondary schools, provides housing to 420,000 city residents, runs 29 job centers, has 60,000 children in child care programs, provides over 200 shelters for the homeless, operates 1,700 parks, manages the city’s water supply, admits 110,000 individuals to its prison facilities every year, and has more than 2,000 trucks picking up 12,000 tons of waste every day.

London’s city government – the Greater London Authority – does none of these things. None. All of these kinds of services are provided either by the national government or by the 33 local governments within London – London’s 32 boroughs and its financial district, the City of London. New York City government is overwhelmingly a service government – it provides services of an incredible variety and scope to its residents. That’s not what London’s city-wide government is. New York City’s government in many ways is more comparable to London’s boroughs than it is to the Greater London Authority. In terms of service delivery, London’s city-wide government is very weak. From a service point of view, some people think that London should become more like New York.

I think that this is the wrong way to think about the comparison between the two cities. For our purposes, London’s city-wide government has a lot to teach New York. To think about issues such as work and home life, public space and private space, the neighborhoods and the region, cars and mass transit, immigrant businesses and high finance, policy making and urban design, the metropolitan region and the city block, New York and London both have to think about how and where they should grow. London has the capacity to do this, and New York City doesn’t.


Left: Cambridge Circus, by Marttj; Right: 11th Avenue, by David Menting

Left: Cambridge Circus by Flickr user marttj; Right: 11th Avenue by Flickr user DavidMenting.

New York City lacks a vital ability: it doesn’t have the power to plan for, let alone determine, its own future. In 2004, the Greater London Authority published a document called the London Plan. It lays out a vision of the city in terms of transportation, economic development, housing, public space – along with the environment, social exclusion, tourism, culture, design and many other ingredients. The London Plan envisions London as connected to those around it – to its own Southeast Region in the UK, to northern Europe and the European Union more generally, and, finally, to the world. The London Plan examines both London as a whole and specific sites on specific blocks within the city. It seeks to understand how the different kinds of urban questions fit together – and what to do about them. It’s important to emphasize that the Greater London Authority didn’t just decide to write this plan. It was legally required to do so by an Act of Parliament. To an American reader, it presents the very kind of regional thinking urbanists long for – regional thinking that covers, and organizes, the work of 33 constituent municipal governments. True, the document focus only on Greater London, which itself is only part of the UK’s Southeast Region. And London is also only one actor among many focusing on these problems. It has to deal with boroughs, the private sector, other local governments – and above all, the national government. Still, because it comes with force of a statutory mandate, the London Plan is designed to be taken seriously.

For this kind of undertaking, New York City is completely dysfunctional. There is no document such as the London Plan for the City of New York – and no organization now exists with the authority to write one. There is also no government agency that is thinking about the future of the City of New York in terms of its connection even with the narrowest definition of its region – one that would include the parts of New Jersey right across the Hudson River. It’s not that no one is thinking systematically about New York City and its region. The Regional Plan Association has done absolutely terrific work over many decades thinking about our kinds of issues. They have a problem, however. It’s not merely that they are a non-profit organization, rather than a government agency. It’s that there’s no one they can talk to – the government authority in this region is so fractured that it’s hard to get any of the pieces to begin to fit together. Their problem is our problem. When we discuss ideas of transportation, labor, public space, and housing, we should keep in mind a fundamental question: who could possibly implement any of our ideas?


Left: NYC bus, by Flickr user Aqualung1981; Right: London buses by Flickr user TCDavis.

Like London, New York City can only exercise the power delegated to it by a central government. The Greater London Authority can only do things authorized by Parliament. New York City’s power does not come from the national government; the federal government in the United States plays a relatively minor and mostly destructive role in determining local power. Here, New York State exercises the kind of authority over New York City that Parliament exercises over London.  Don’t be fooled by the phrase home rule. Home rule gives New York City somewhat more leeway when confronted with its centralized government than London has. For example, it gives New York City the power to pass local regulatory ordinances, which the Greater London Authority cannot do. Still, notwithstanding home rule, New York State ultimately remains in control over such critical urban issues as housing, transportation, economic development, and the city’s finances.

In setting up New York City, New York State has denied it control over many of the most important ingredients of urban life. New York State has fractured government authority in the region by giving power not to the city but to state-controlled public authorities (or quangos, as the British call them). Much of the important development in the city is controlled not by the city but by the Empire State Development Corporation – an agency, appointed by the Governor not the Mayor, that, directly or through subsidiaries, dominates major projects ranging from Ground Zero to Battery Park City to Times Square. The two most important actors on transportation issues are the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is appointed by New York State’s Governor, with only 4 of its 17 members recommended by the city; the Port Authority is appointed by two Governors, without any city input. Public space is divided up into more than 50 business improvement districts governed by property owners and not city residents. For example, the Union Square Partnership – the oldest business improvement district in New York – manages the streets on a day-to-day basis.  Given all this fragmentation, New York City lacks a vital ability: it doesn’t have the power to plan for, let alone determine, its own future.


Left: New York City subway by Flickr user Ed Coyle Photography; Right: London tube by Ana Travas & Sergej Skrjanec (Flickr user ComplementaryDuo).

Consider mobility and transport. The Greater London Authority has responsibility for transportation in London – largely through an organization called Transport for London, whose board is completely appointed by the Mayor. And transportation is very widely defined: it includes the buses and the underground, highways and car traffic, cabs and mini-cabs, walking and cycling. The Mayor and Transport for London have the statutory obligation to make sense of how cars and mass-transit, along with cabs and bicycles, create a city-wide transportation system. Sure, the Mayor of London doesn’t control everything – the railroads, the airports, and major highways are in the hands of the national government (or the private sector) and local streets in the hands of the boroughs. But if the Mayor is energetic and proactive, he can be the key guy on the issue.

New York State has given New York City a heart, but no brain. Parliament has given London a brain, but no muscle. New York is miles behind London in thinking about transportation. The state has divided authority over transport in a way that no one could conceivably defend. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority runs New York City’s subways and buses, along with the Long Island Railroad; the Port Authority runs the airports, PATH trains to New Jersey, and the Air Train at JFK; New Jersey Transit, appointed by New Jersey’s governor, runs its own trains and buses into New York. The Transportation Authority operates nine bridges and tunnels; the Port Authority controls other bridges and tunnels, including the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge; the New York City’s Department of Transportation controls still other bridges and tunnels, such as the 59th Street Bridge. The highways are run by the New York and New Jersey State Departments of Transportation. And the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission licenses the city’s taxis. Transportation, you should know, is the area for which the federal government is most insistent on metropolitan planning. The problem for New York is that there are many metropolitan transportation planning bodies in the area, not just one. One deals with New York City and a few nearby New York suburbs; another deals with New Jersey; yet another deals with Connecticut. No one, starting from scratch, would devise a transport and mobility structure like this one. To declare this set up a scandal would be a waste of time. Everyone knows it’s a scandal; it’s been a scandal for decades.


Left to Right: Brooklyn, Manhattan, Tower, Queensboro and Chelsea Bridges.

The basic difference between New York and London can be summarized very simply. New York State has given New York City a heart, but no brain. Parliament has given London a brain, but no muscle. And a brain is what a city needs at this moment on the kinds of issues we are addressing. By saying this I mean no disrespect whatsoever to the officials of either city – New York has many very smart people working on the city’s future and London has many who are physically strong. It’s the city government, not its employees, that I’m referring to here: it’s the New York City government that has been denied the ability to think about, let alone take control of, its own future.

London shows that this is not necessary. The State of New York could authorize the Mayor to work with others – public and private, regional and neighborhood – to prepare something like the London Plan. And it can give him the power to bring the multiple public authorities into compliance with his plan. If a more regional organization is thought better, the states of New York and New Jersey can together create a democratically accountable organization – democratically organized like the Greater London Authority – empowered to write such a plan. This could be done today if the political leadership took seriously the importance of nurturing New York as a global city. That’s the vision of London that animates the London Plan. Many people will call this idea utopian, but it’s only utopian because the state has set up the city – and the region – in a way that makes it so hard to do. Changing this requires the kind of political muscle that in 1986 abolished the London-wide government and that, now, has created a new one to help guide its future. We could use the exercise of that kind of muscle here in New York.


This text is adapted from a speech delivered at the Urban Age conference, February 2005.

Gerald Frug is the Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Educated at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard Law School, he worked as a Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in Washington, DC, and as Health Services Administrator of the City of New York. In 1974 he began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, before joining the Harvard law faculty in 1981. Jerry’s specialty is local government law. He has published dozens of articles on the topic and is the author, among other works, of City Making: Building Communities without Building Walls (1999), and City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation (with David Barron, 2008).

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Stephanie Houston February 18, 2010

Fantastic article.
The question you raise is imperative to the future progress of US cities and their resistance to ‘failing’. It also enlightens us on where our goals and interests must be focused for our city planning to take shape as a national plan. However, I believe your utopian claim for your argument to be small in scale and suggest that we view the issue through an even larger lens. I lived/worked over in the UK for 2.5 years, worked both as an architect and as an urban planner. If there was one thing I learned from Europe is that planning exists, it’s embedded in the system, it’s a verb, taken seriously where they do plan for their national future. This system is called Spatial Planning and I have been advocating for its adoption to the US system since my return to the US almost a year ago.
I believe our federal government is failing to see the big picture because we lack a plan, a VISION, a Spatial Plan, which is why I believe we need to Master Plan the US. England utilizes this spatial framework by first addressing the global issues of the country and providing a plan, a guide that addresses what the city will look like in 40 to 100 years. These guidelines then must be implemented into each Region, County and then District, a nested approach to planning, one based on SCALE. At the largest scale is the EU, where countries are now addressing planning in a truly global manner. The idea of Spatial Planning is now being ramped up to be called Territorial Cohesion and establishes an overarching plan for the EU, it’s Amazing!
So the US’s problem is SCALE. They are trying to tackle global issues at a city level, when what we need is a VISION for the entire US, and then a Master Plan of that Vision. One that transforms and molds itself into addressing social, economic and cultural issues and one that holds each State, region and city accountable for maintaining that VISION, that Master Plan through an in-depth planning processes.
Here in the US, we are States, with no connections. Europe is linked, it’s networked and the countries communicate to provide a unified system of networks. And in terms of scale maybe the US should consider this analogous relationship – US:Europe as States:European Countries. I remain amused at the fact that the EU can cross boarder’s daily linking languages and cultures within hours and in the US, where we speak the same language, we only connect in an insular fashion – the automobile, making it impossible to understand or know what someone in Idaho experiences; nor is there any real incentive as automobile travel takes days to cross our expansive nation. All this to say that we lack a global network, connectedness, or what some might call teamwork.
So as planners we need to start looking at the global context of the US, by first implementing and addressing these crucial issues at the federal level. I was excited to see that Obama created a department of Urban Policy. [I actually wrote him a letter asking to help in the collective undertaking – still waiting for my response. ] I have yet to hear any further development on what this Policy is or will be. But we must start to think BIG! Even bigger than this article attests to. Yes you are correct in saying that the governance is wrong in NY, but it’s not just wrong there, it’s wrong throughout all US cities. The fundamental change needs to be done federally. So again I say, we need a Plan, a MASTER PLAN of the US, where frameworks and guidelines are published annually and where the future of US cities are thought about in terms of what do we want our cities to look like in 40 years, in 100years and what does that mean economically, socially, culturally and environmentally. We need to PLAN our future.
I wrote a piece on my planning4change blog in September of last year briefly discussing the idea of Spatial Planning and invite anyone to read and add to the conversation. http://planning4change.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/what-is-spatial-planning/
Additionally, In 2007 I attended the traveling exhibit of Global Cities Exhibition at the Tate Modern depicting the studies conducted by Urban Age. It was a beautiful collaboration of models, empirical graphics that gave understanding to the complex issues underpinning the future of cities, maps showing the density of the cities now and in 20 years and videos grasping the inherent differences and difficulties represented in each city’s construct. I noticed the last city was Istanbul and I was wondering if anyone knew of their next steps for the project? I welcome the opportunity to get involved.

Leni Schwendinger February 18, 2010

The GLA was formed 14 years after the abolishment of a similar body by the Thatcher administration. Previously the Greater London Council (GLC)was in charge of London, but was “abolished” in 1986, with the reasoning that the local borough councils could take care of business on their own. So there wasn’t a Greater London presence for more than a decade!

So much has been accomplished by the GLA, as per Mr. Frug’s article, in a mere ten years.

My fascination with this history and wonderment at the NYC/GLA comparison was my experience as a squatter in London’s East End during the the halcyon days of GLC London in the 1970s.

Vishaan Chakrabarti February 18, 2010

This is an article of great importance. Having spent significant time working for the Bloomberg Administration as well as, years ago, the Port Authority, I couldn’t agree more that the design of our governance in New York requires reform. The City should have regional authority to enact laws such as London’s congestion pricing. The State legislature shouldn’t have the authority to meddle in the City’s major projects and land use decisions. Smaller local issues should be governed at the borough level, with more balanced authority given back to the Borough Presidents as opposed to the fractious nature of 51 Council members. As the RPA has pointed out, with over 70% of the national population now living in “mega-regions”, we need a governance structure that mirrors our new demographics. Why for instance should states that have experienced extraordinary population declines have the same number of senators? And why, in reality, do we need State governments at all? A Country of Cities could have a very different system, in which there is a Federal and a Regional/Municipal government, and for those areas that have little population, some form of County government.

Mayraj Fahim February 26, 2010

I have read Profesor Frug’s report on Boston for the Boston Foundation;and this is article is a variation of a theme in that light.

I should mention the special districts/authorities/quangos get in the way in any setting;and not just in NYC or UK. I have done an article for citymayors which discusses how it has affected the US system outside the cities. And as far away as India, the problem can be seen. Please read: http://www.financialexpress.com/news/too-many-cooks-in-each-others-way-for-the-urban-services-kitchen/121673/4

Furthermore, aside from what is mentioned in the article, both the NYC and London systems are flawed systems. More than the control fixation of the UK Government and NY state has produced this result. Although certainly it is an important factor, especially since control fixation has damaged London to such an extend that it performed poorly in a comparative study published in 2004 and financed by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Please see:http://www.citymayors.com/ business/eurocities_gdp.html

In the 1960s, the Govt then led by the Conservatives changed the LCC formula into the GLC formula where the systemic balance seems to be inspired by the RCM formula of Canada (also seen in Urban Community formula of France). This formula is meant for cities and their suburbs, not for a citywide system. In effect for London it lowered the integration level of the system. The GLC was dissolved during the 1980s by the Thatcher Govt. In the restored area wide body of the GLA established during the late 1990s, The Govt led by the Labour party further restricted the GLC formula base. In fact, a New York Times article of the period the discussed London’s plight. I think neither party did enough research to realize how they were harming London-and in the final result UK, as London is the main economic engine. Hence, there should be no surprise why London performed so abnormally low in that 2004 study when compared to European cities.

Miami-Dade county has an RCM like formula implemented prior to London’s change; and has not suffered London’s problems. How could that be? It gained in integration level, while London lost it. With London there was no compensation for loss of integration.

A question to ask is why London was given a system meant for the city and its suburbs. It seems both the Canadians and the French know that this formula is not meant for a citywide system. Compare Paris with London;or for that matter the new systems of Quebec’s largest cities. Quebec cities went from an RCM like formula to a decentralized system upon consolidation. I doubt in UK they have the political will to do that in London, so I would suggested a more painless approach, which would be what is the Norm in RCMs and Urban Communites. This is the sitting of lower level leaders on the areawide body. It won’t guarantee a great improvement as the formula is inadequate to begin with; but, it should improve it especially if the leaders are given some lessons in learning how to think horizontally.

New Yorkers should keep in mind that funding is a big issue in London and that London doesn’t have the Wall Street region and a big revenue source for NYC. That is the City of London, a separate system of government. In sum London is a crippled system. But, then how is it that with more than two times the area of New York, it still has more better parts in the city than New York? This is visible to any tourist.

Perhaps it is because London has decentralized government? In fact, this has been a major trend in Europe since the 1980s;and also in South East Asia.

Both NYC and London are also hamstrung by the fact that interlocal cooperation with neighboring units is a missing factor. This, on the other hand, is a rising factor in Europe. Governing magazine published an article on one example:the Stuttgart Region which has been in place since the 1990s;and is a robust system unlike the various toothless regional bodies in US. Governing also did an article on the Niagara region and highlighted the prosperity produced by the RCM on the Canadian side with the depresssed US NY side, which despite the incentive from across the border has failed to rouse itself to cooperate more robustly.

Mayraj Fahim February 26, 2010

Readers of this article might be interested in the comments of Ken Livingstone. He was of the view London needed a 3 tier system. He also comments on his view of NYC.

Please note: Birmingham, UK is trying to evolve a 3-tier system. It has a different model. Its leaders made public they had sought guidance from French sister city Lyon (which with pop of over 400,000 has a 9 borough system).

Ken Livingstone was the catalyst for the dissolution of the GLC and the first mayor elected when the GLA was established.

He doesn’t seem to realize what it means to have a RCM model for a city system. Perhaps it is because that is all his experience was with. The GLC was the first change of the London system into an RCM model type.

http://www.prospectmagazine. co.uk/2007/04/ interviewkenlivingstone/
Interview: Ken Livingstone

“T While we’re on politics, what about the London boroughs [London is organised into 32 separate boroughs, plus the City of London]? You’ve just reorganised the sub-regional partnerships into five slabs of cake, as opposed to the previous ones.

KL I think those should be the five London boroughs. No government will have the nerve to reorganise London government. It just makes sense to me in my internal planning. If a government gave me the power to reorganise boroughs, I’d amalgamate them into those five overnight. The five wedges have coherent transport links, and they all have wealth and poverty and a suburb. And also by creating these larger units in local government, they would attract the best officers, you could have perhaps 60 members in each, you might get some real talent.

TT So there’s not much talent in the existing boroughs?

KL At the moment, most London boroughs are lucky if they’ve got one good, effective political operator. I’ve had borough council leaders come in here and say thank you for meeting me, I’m going to ask our chief inspector to explain our position.

SP They’re not very natural democratic units, though.

KL Neither are the boroughs. What people would like is a neighbourhood council. If you take the 625 London wards, and you said each of these is a neighbourhood council, and local people could turn up once a month, and meet the local police team, discuss what’s happening in the local schools, discuss local planning applications, this would really empower people, people would have a real influence over their neighbourhood without being full-time politicians.

TT Are you encouraging the government’s urban parishes?

KL Absolutely. I’d like 625 of them in London, and you’d give them all a little budget of about £100,000 a year to spend on whatever they wanted.

TT And would a combination of little parishes and a strong City Hall be your desired long-term model?

KL Well, the parishes and City Hall plus but five strong boroughs that have sufficient wealth to tackle some of their own problems. Poor old Kensington & Chelsea can’t redevelop Sloane Square without my being involved—even the quite wealthy boroughs require me to lever support and planning. Five big wedge boroughs would have the power to do an awful lot without coming to City Hall. And they reflect travel to work patterns. When I grew up in Lambeth I had no friends over in Southwark because the boundary was like the Berlin wall—we all went west and did our vandalism in Battersea and Clapham. You would create a London wedge of Essex; west London is very coherent, almost the old Middlesex. The boroughs are too small to manage policing or health or really any economic regeneration, and they’re far too big to manage any personal services. But the change is not going to happen.

TT How far does the New York model appeal to you?

KL I think the mayor’s too strong and the boroughs are too weak.”

Mayraj Fahim February 26, 2010

The declining London powers are illustrated here:
“In 1957 Sir Edwin Herbert was appointed to head a Royal Commission on the matter, and in 1960 this reported in favour of an enlarged area of London where new London Boroughs were to be the primary institution of local government, and a Greater London Council having fewer powers than the LCC had. ”

Please see:

“Mr. Livingstone is a man of precious few powers. His direct control will extend only over a pounds 35 million (dollars 53.4 million) operating budget of the mayor’s office, a new 25-member Greater London Assembly and a staff of around 400.
The mayor will take over responsibility for London’s public transport system, the Metropolitan Police and London Fire Brigade, a new development agency and citywide planning, but he will have relatively little say over the pounds 3.6 billion budget for those services, most of which comes directly from the national Treasury. Mr. Blair’s home secretary, Jack Straw, will continue to appoint the London police commissioner.

The mayor will have even fewer powers over the 33 boroughs councils, which spend pounds 7.6 billion a year to deliver most of the services — from education and public housing to garbage collection — that most residents associate with local government. “This is to be the only mayor of any world class city with not a single tax at his disposal,” the columnist Simon Jenkins wrote in The Times newspaper. “Elected free, he will be everywhere in chains.”

Those constraints are no accident. For Mr. Blair’s Labour government, creating the mayoralty was as much about settling scores with Margaret Thatcher, who abolished the Greater London Council in 1986 to silence its radical leader, none other than Mr. Livingstone, as it was about creating effective local government. The government limited the mayor’s powers precisely to prevent any revival of Greater London Council-style extremism.”
Please see:
May 9, 2000
For Livingstone, Power Is Limited : Improving Life in London:Can Its New Mayor Deliver?

Matthew Quinn August 16, 2010

A great map produced by NLA – The centre for London’s built environment and the London Communications Agency, which beautifully details the matrix of relationships between public bodies currently (but for how long??) in control of London.


Stephane Kirkland January 20, 2012

An excellent IPPR article on the subject of London’s powers http://www.ippr.org/articles/56/8356/london-limited?megafilter=communities%2Cdevolution+and+localism%2Clocal+government%2Cregional+issues