August 15, 2018


Calls for a “new localism” abound these days.


In the aftermath of Trump’s election, many liberal and progressive commentators have been claiming that cities are the new “nodes of resistance”.  Richard Florida, influenced by Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World, has advocated a new urban agenda comprised of a “devolution” of power to the local level: “to turn back power to the states and the cities, to reduce the size and scale of the federal government, to allow you to live the kind of lives that you want to live.”  


Richard Florida is well known for extolling “the creative class” that pioneered the recent “back-to-the-city” movement, and downplaying the gentrification and displacement it sparked. In his recent book, The New Urban Crisis, Florida acknowledges how this movement has led to increasing inequality and segregation. He also recognizes the extent of inequality in metropolitan areas, including cities and suburbs, as Bruce Katz has done, for example, in his Reflections on Regionalism.


But are devolution and localism correct, or progressive, answers to the current urban crisis in the Trump-era US?


My answer is “no,” with a caveat: giving more power to local authorities without redistributing wealth increases inequalities.





Take, for instance, the average US metropolitan area, where wealth tends to be concentrated in the outer suburbs and exclusive gentrified urban areas. Reducing federal taxes, regulations and subsidies favors the wealthy, that is, those that pay more federal taxes; and cuts public assistance to the less wealthy, those which receive most grants. Traditionally, this was mostly a city/suburbs duality, which has however become more complex during the last few decades of “back to the city” and gentrification. Importantly, in a country where economic disparities tend to coexist and intersect with racial inequalities, a reduced federal government would probably bring about more racial injustice. What the US needs, as Paul Kantor has discussed, is more national government: more redistribution of wealth and a more just policy environment. To be sure, Kantor was writing before the election of Trump, when reform of this kind seemed more likely than it is today.


This seems to be one of the very reasons Florida is embracing devolution – “honestly, I think Washington DC, given the realities of the electoral map, is mainly lost to progressive causes,” he tweeted recently. I perfectly understand this concern – it is my concern too – but I still believe we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the one hand, associating localism per se with more progressive policies is fundamentally naïve. There are examples of the use of decentralization and devolution as ways to enforce austerity and increase inequalities – quintessentially in the UK, where localism has been the “agenda” of conservative governments for quite some time.





On the other hand, advocates of more localism for the US neglect to acknowledge that the US institutional system is already very decentralized, at every level, and has been decentralized for a long time. I am referring, to begin with, to the capacity of states to fight back against federal attempts at expanding the welfare state. The reliance of Obamacare on the will of single states to complement its funding is just one recent example. Moreover, for many decades the federal level has been downloading responsibilities toward states, cities and communities, as discussed throughout the literature on the neoliberal turn. It is evident, for instance, in the extremely localized responsibility for law enforcement, as we will discuss below. Finally, it is quite clear that for some time the consolidation of cities as central engines of capital investment and economic growth – and hence an increasing role of the local scale in the structure of the economic system – has not been accompanied by decreasing inequalities, as shown by neo-Marxist scholars such David Harvey and Neil Smith.


It is not clear to me how more devolution, which has long been associated with austerity, would bring more equality at the city, metropolitan and national level. In a way, the new calls for localism resonate squarely with old theories about the creative class and creative cities. Rather than striving for structural transformation at every level of government, their advocates keep insisting that cities should be on their own. This is quite surprising considering that, for instance, Florida’s arguments on devolution follow his own admission that creative city policies have deepened inequalities! My opinion is that more devolution cannot bring, per se, more equality or justice; and, in what follows, I will use the case of public safety to make my point.





The findings of my comparative research on public safety in Memphis (Tennessee) and Lisbon (Portugal) show how difficult it is to achieve meaningful, durable progress at the urban scale in the absence of reform at the national level and without the redistribution of wealth among cities, metropolitan areas and states.


In the last few decades, in many cities, including Memphis, local governments have invested more and more on policing and security but often failed to improve public safety. The reasons for the long-term growth of policing are mainly national and political. Since the 1970s, the US political consensus on public safety has moved away from prevention and dealing with the social roots of crime (poverty, mental health disorders and social exclusion, above all) and toward the repression of its symptoms, that is, toward law enforcement. This transformation was pushed by federal governments – both Democratic and Republican, as Elizabeth Hinton has recently shown – which progressively shifted the policy environment away from social policy and toward crime control. This was reinforced, in places like Memphis, by particularly powerful neoliberal trends, such as the cuts to welfare and social policies in favor of pro-growth policies.





This history is quite well-known; but I have found another reason for the weakening of social policies that might lead to crime prevention in cities like Memphis: the extremely localist nature of US federalism. It is important to note that, though my focus is mostly on institutional dynamics, I do not mean to deny the deeply racialized nature of US security policies/politics. Quite the opposite. My interest in this field has been centered on exploring how inequalities – mostly, but not only, racial ones – are deeply entrenched in the US form of federalism (see, for instance, an article recently published on ACME); and why deepening federalism will not lead to structural change.


This point is central to the discussion on devolution, because, in a very localist country like the US, devolution, more than a novelty, seems to me more of the same. Especially in states like Tennessee that are governed by Home Rule, local authorities are endowed with important responsibilities including public safety. In Memphis, however, formal autonomy does not bring about actual autonomy of policymaking. Crime is such a hot topic, and the public requests more police to cope with it, so local governments fear that cutting back on law enforcement to invest in social programs would mean strong opposition by political adversaries and the media. Add to this some decades of austerity pushed by two concurrent trends: on the one hand, recurrent rounds of cuts in transferences from state and federal governments; on the other hand, the way processes of suburbanization, together with the reliance of local governments on local taxes (above all, property taxes), has brought tax revenues away from big cities at the core of metropolitan areas. The structurally unequal arrangement of taxation and service delivery in the US metropolis has been object of much attention both in scholarly circles and political movements (for instance, Black Lives Matter).





A vicious circle is generated. Cuts to welfare reinforce the “problems” (including mental health challenges and poverty) that are acknowledged to be the root causes of crime. Local authorities, pressured by public opinion, tend to address these problems through what seems to them the most “obvious” way, that is, by shifting their budget towards law enforcement. As a result, despite decades of austerity, funding to police has grown almost constantly throughout the country. In Memphis it accounts for almost 40% of the city budget while every other area has been cut. Law enforcement does not help much with crime prevention, and this is particularly true for violent crime. There is rich evidence of this. Moreover, the progressive militarization of “high crime” areas, especially in black and brown communities, together with mass incarceration, has been itself part and parcel of the production of the very system of inequality (racial, but not only) that is at the roots of crime and violence itself. This is discussed in a vast literature, including the works by Angela Davis, Ruth Gilmore and Cathy Schneider. In this vicious circle, every peak of crime brings about new requests to fund the police; and so on and so forth.


Breaking up this vicious circle requires indeed defunding and rescaling the militarized and hyper-fragmented police system, and dismantling the prison industrial complex, as advocated by racial justice movements. Crucially, this endeavor also requires massively redistributing wealth among cities, metros and states. In very segregated urban and metropolitan fabrics, spatial redistribution is at the same time racial redistribution.


Would devolution help? I doubt it. High crime areas are also the least rich, that is, those transferring fewer taxes to state and federal governments; they would benefit the least from the devolution of resources. How would more devolution change the unequal nature of the currently localist system? In short, the case of public safety confirms Matt Reed’s idea that more devolution would not benefit middle-size and less wealthy cities and metros and would not help reduce racial disparities.





Can we imagine a different way forward? If devolution alone would end up increasing inequalities and we can’t expect reform at the federal level, are we stuck in a trap for some years to come? I don’t believe so, and let me offer an example of a different approach that was very successful in Italy during the 1990s. In those years, Italy decentralized much of its institutional system and, for a short period between 1996 and 2002, inequalities between the South and North dropped – while since the unification in 1861, inequalities between the South and North consistently grew. For a few years, Italy experienced a harmonious growth with the increasing role of local authorities. The few studies that tried to make sense of those events (like Alberto Tulumello and Roberto Foderà’s work on the dynamics of local development or my study of European Structural Funds in Palermo) showed a set of coexisting reasons for this harmonious growth. The devolution of power was coupled with regional cohesion policies. Despite several rounds of decentralization during the last few decades, Italy is still a much more centralized country than the US. However, the experience of the 1990s in Italy demonstrates two important lessons. First, that harmonious development can be facilitated by mixing devolution and redistribution.


Second, and possibly more importantly for the debate about current US cities, there was an important political dimension of the transformations in Italy. The 1990s were dubbed il decennio dei sindaci, the decade of mayors – something Barber, who once dismissed Italy as the place where the situation is worst for local autonomy, surprisingly never acknowledged. The reform of local election laws, with the direct election of the mayors, was followed by the growth of a generation of progressive mayors capable of creating political networks to advocate decentralization and redistribution.





Can such an approach be replicated in the US? I believe so, first of all because the extreme disaffection with local politics has restricted local elections to few citizens, mostly whites and the most affluent classes, who have the highest voting turnouts. Take again the case of Memphis, whose “tough-on-crime” mayor was elected in 2015 with 41% of votes cast. However, considering that the turnout was smaller than a third of the electorate, this means that the mayor was elected by the votes of less than 15% of the entire electorate. There is enormous space for developing radical and progressive political platforms to re-enfranchise people that have not voted for a long time.


Moreover, in the US urban elections are fragmented into many council districts, which encourages a hyper-localism.  Candidates for a city council run independently, with a program of interest to voters in their district. As a result, instead of representing a distribution of the city’s political ideas, the city council tends to represent the particular interests of city districts, hence of their socio-economic and racial/ethnic groups. The creation of local political platforms running collective candidacies, with representatives in every district, would mean that every candidate would work to win voters for both the council and the mayor. Such platforms would run on political programs of interest for the entire city. If they were able to elect the mayor and a majority of councilors, then the government of the city would be based on a cohesive program supported by the electorate, rather than on the bargaining over the local interests within each district.





My proposal, however, is not limited to the city level: my vision is the establishment of multi-city, ultimately nation-wide, coalitions to present local platforms in cities like Memphis, Baltimore, Saint Louis, Detroit, Oakland, and New Orleans, to name a few cities with similar challenges. Our Revolution, the movement that has taken inspiration from Bernie Sander’s run in the Democratic primaries of 2016, is working through the creation of local platforms – in Memphis, Our Revolution 901. Our Revolution shows that organizing locally in the framework of a national political program is possible; and it is happening. Imagine a coalition of platforms such as the one I sketched to win elections in a number of cities. Imagine the adoption of bottom-up redistributive policies, such as congestion charges for cars entering the municipal boundaries, in dozens of cities at the same time. Imagine a nationwide “strike” of cities jamming their infrastructure systems, which are needed to sustain the wealth of the entire nation (ports, airports, downtowns, convention centers, etc.). A single city adopting such policies would be crushed by city-city competition; nationwide coalitions of cities would have the critical mass so they could defend each other and “attack” state and national legislatures as they advocate for the necessary changes.


Even localists like Bruce Katz, who has envisioned a new party called the “Metropolitans”, have called for the construction of national coalitions among metropolitan leaders. However, there is a fundamental difference between this approach and the one I am advocating. Katz thinks that the Metropolitans should be non-partisan, in a way “non-political” – they should just advocate “for” cities and metros. This fails to acknowledge the fundamentally politicized nature of the vertical relations between the local and national level that I have discussed above; and the way these relations are organized as a way to “force” city/city competition – as with the recent competitive bids for hosting Amazon’s second headquarters. Only by shifting national politics toward progressive and radical politics can the structurally unjust US institutional system be redressed. This means, against Florida’s calls for devolution per se, that nationwide coalitions of cities – the polities that would suffer devolution without redistribution the most – should advocate for more state and federal policy, not less.


I am aware that the “plan” I have sketched here may look pretty speculative – and in part it is. The conditions for the establishment and success of multi-city, progressive/radical platforms are many. These include, for instance, the construction of solidarity networks capable of breaking with long-held divides, including class and racial ones – divides that have themselves made the progressive and radical field weaker in electoral struggles. Still, it seems to me that the focus on “pragmatic” politics is one of the core reasons for the growing disenfranchisement of many on the left; and that only by radically opening the political imagination, not by simplistic calls for letting cities live their life on their own, can the challenges of the age of Trumpism be faced.

Simone Tulumello is a post-doc research fellow at the University of Lisbon, Institute of Social Sciences. In 2016, he was Fulbright Research Scholar at the University of Memphis and afterwards Policy Fellow at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change.  He is grateful to Jessica Buttermore and Richard Florida for their feedback; and to Thomas Angotti at Progressive City for constructive editorial comments.

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