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Smaller & Taller: Place-Based Governance in Chicago

As published in the Chicago Contrarian, January 12, 2022


Good governance is simple:

1.) Self-directed people freely interact.

2.) Repetitive interactions form social norms, or an evolving civility.

3.) Collectives of people use civility to increase social and economic welfare.


The difficulty comes in practice, especially when human beings are spread instantaneously through digital space. The 19th-century era of utopian “New World” cults not only embodied un-woke colonialism but is undeniably impossible in today’s landscape, where some entity owns all land on the planet. Alternatively, attempting to seize assets for 20th-century Communism is not as progressive as it once appeared. Meanwhile an Extinction Rebellion, 21st-century’s unnatural digital dystopia, is only opposite the old physical, utopia.

It is provably true that a smaller gap between rich and poor, a kind of civility, is in everyone’s best interest. And yet today, Western culture is rapidly increasing the gap between rich and poor, diminishing the chance for understanding each other. Evidence is that Chicago’s streets are more recognizable to gun-toting seekers and less so to citizens and fellow residents. This points to a failure of governance. Blaming the Mayor is a literal reaction, yet today's phenomena accrued over decades.


Chicago had a unique system of working back in the middle of the 20th-century. A limited range of corruption greased the wheels and smoothed construction of a world-class city. Labor by many different people, from places around the world, made a “single-party” machine work.


Since then pluralism has been eliminated and a power-lusting governance framework increased centralization making good governance near impossible. Today Chicago’s singular dictatorship centralizes power mismatching local residents needs with those of a singular leader. It’s not just the CTU, statewide, Illinois politicians are interfering in the playful lives of children. Such mismatching of geography, organization, people, and needs, obstructs the formation of healthy social norms at different levels in the metropolis.


emergence of social norms in a geographic place

Chicago, the city of big shoulders, is a unique and distinctive place. Undoubtedly the severely dry and cold winters combined with monsoon-like humidity and hot sticky summers change who we are as a collective of people. If your ethnicity is Senegalese, the snow storms might be an odd sensation. If your background is from Scandinavia, baking in the summer heat might make you do strange things. And from this emerges the necessary dexterity to get along with different people, each slightly odd, because of the weird climate in Chicago.


Chicago character emerged from the interactions between people and place. The brutal climate, and the uniquely diverse collection of people choosing to live in the heartland, away from the coasts, all contributed to the linguistic “Chicago accent.” As people built this city, social norms evolved, and continue changing from many contributing factors. And so how do we Chicagoans make sense of our city, today, as it follows Detroit into bankruptcy?


Consider social norms as the fitness landscape that governance co-evolves within. Chicago can’t change its position relative to American democracy or global climate on this fitness landscape. However, Chicago can change the way governance matches our places: Chicago’s Neighborhoods, Districts, and Urban Villages. Gerrymandering political fiefdoms on contorted a physical map is not conducive to constructing social norms, especially healthy community security. Also let’s stop pretending: suburban retail strip-malls bucolically themed as “Village Centers,” lacking any public governance, is not innovative. One way to avoid such nonsense is to establish different scaled, mixed-use activity centers in communities where transportation access and governance are permanently located. At the smallest scale, Japan has permanently located governance in the form of “Police Boxes" similar to the security provided by a doorman in a high-rise building.

Social norms continuously emerge through repetitive interactions of people. Self-directed people going about their life, begin to find cooperation in a community. Generating civility happens at distinct places where compact activity centers at Neighborhood, District, and Urban Village levels encourage repetitive interactions. Saturated with amenities and transportation access, such multi-scaled, nested and networked activity centers can become essential threads in a new Chicago urban fabric.


At each level, innovative governance manages local infrastructure based on the collective and local social norms of citizens, businesses, and residents that use each specific place. And lastly, networked together in a multi-scaled polycentric manner, city-wide governance can return to focusing on city-scaled issues which, then can rebuild a worldly Chicago presence in the 21st-century.

place-based governance creates new civilities

Public policy formation has focused on forcing predetermined behaviors since 1990. The operative tool instituted incentive-based laws intending to modify behavior. This began as a reaction to the collapse of 20th-century communism and the public sector embracing private-sector, free-market innovation and competition. Such policies assumed incentives would be rationally chosen by diverse beings and bring about societal behaviors chosen by the system-operator in a predetermined, micromanaged, closed-system. Instead, and intuitively sensible in an open society, research on social preferences and public economics points out that “incentives that appeal to self-interest may reduce the salience of motivation, reciprocity, and other civic motives.” Worse still, these laws sometimes eliminate civic motivations, even after incentive-based policies are repealed.

Physical place-based governance units, such as “Police Boxes” at the Urban Village Level, or a fixed publicly owned Alderperson’s Office/Grade School/Meeting Room at the Neighborhood Level, and a hypothetical Public Library/High School/Office at the District Level, provide a framework for social norms to become recognizably emergent. Rather than a panopticon predetermining people's behavior as rational automatons, place-based governance units support the emergent behaviors of people spontaneously thriving in multi-scaled communities. This framework goes beyond creating distinctive neighborhoods using ethnic identities of 20th-century American immigrants. Place-based governance creates socially-based, open and distinctive communities in the 21st-century.


Governance responsibility is distributed. Each place-based governance unit creates and maintains local infrastructure, not too big or small for each Neighborhood, District, or Urban Village. Today’s digital tools enable networking, making polycentric governance more effective than Chicago’s currently ineffective centralized system. New digital governance tools such as quadratic voting and partial common-ownership ensure that people using spaces in a community can share the responsibility, financial equity, and participative efforts needed in healthy communities.

Chicago can learn from Detroit’s shrinkage rather than pretend it is growing like Boston. When a government provides hand-outs, let’s make those investments produce long-term community benefits, whether abstract civility, literal education, or economic profits reinvested into the community. And responsible local governance would robustly and humanely, narrow the gap between rich and poor, not regulate life with closed system “incentives” that strangle human ingenuity.

We need to innovate governance itself taking advantage of new technologies, markets, and security situations. We don’t need a revolution. Collectively we a distributed governance that rather than forcing a top-down behavior, is capable of working with a plurality of viewpoints to form distinctive communities. Given the detrimental effects of Facebook on adolescents, it is refreshing to hear someone discuss data as a public good, even if only a semi-public good:

Readers who still remember their economics basics may recognize that being both non-rivalrous and partially excludable makes data a form of a semi-public good. This means that if a provision is left public in the private domain, without the absence of government intervention, these goods' benefits to society may be unrealized. With government intervention and the provision of a data market, the thinking goes, it could generate an increased net benefit for a society similar to subsidized public universities.

Society is on the brink of our blue skies being emblazoned with Amazon drone logos and flying taxi services, which are expensive in both money and energy. The sky holds an undeniable common value; that’s why pollution was such a problem (and olde fashioned Zoning Ordinances regulated building height). The government’s role is to manage our jointly held and changing public commons. If Chicago’s government cannot handle the dynamically changing public commons, then yes, we need to build a better government.

For many years I heard stories about the “tragedy of the commons.” Then I read The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons and learned that an automaton’s rational choice is not a reliable substitute for human behavior. It is precisely our human social needs that generate distinctive communities, ones where people spontaneously enjoy sharing our lives. Since Ronald Reagan’s 1980s presidency, and accelerating after the competitive threat of Soviet Communism receded in the 1990s, it became commonplace to think that the US government can not and does not innovate. That convulsion in world affairs led us to believe that innovation exclusively happens in the private sector. The corollary was that innovation should be outsourced to the private sector when the public sector needed it. Innovation in governance has atrophied. Today we have Charter Schools, the privately operated military-industrial ‘boondoggle’ complex, even private equity firms running Chicago’s parking meter system and the Skyway. Soon it is planned to have private equity running Chicago’s water system. Instead, Chicago has the opportunity to initiate a place-based, multi-scaled, innovative governance. One that adds color to Chicago’s distinctiveness with socially emergent norms.


Chicago remains a great city, and we enjoy a plurality of viewpoints. The public Lakefront is unparalleled. Chicagoland has scientific laboratories and universities that are doing great work. Most important, the people are some of the most friendly in the country. Moving past machine politics, Chicago can innovate governance and show the world a new kind of continuously emergent, humanely distinctive, iterative governance.




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