From Ferguson to Medellin, 2014 has been a year of tumult and promise for cities. The World Urban Forum showcased the many ways the former drug capital in Colombia was making life better for poor residents, with gondolas, libraries, and parks. Meanwhile, racial divisions and inequality in St. Louis and other Legacy Cities had a basis in planning decisions and infrastructure investments going back decades. The concept of shared equity housing gained ground, some zombie subdivisions began to make a comeback, and New York City and Connecticut tested the waters with a land value tax. We asked the experts of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy to reflect on what they considered the top stories of the year, and here’s what they said:
-- The Detroit bankruptcy was at center stage for municipal fiscal health and tax policy, says Joan Youngman, chair of the Department of Valuation and Taxation. Earlier this month, federal judge Steven Rhodes approved a restructuring plan to allow the city to emerge from its Chapter 9 filing, cutting $7 bllion in unsecured liabilities and calling for $1.4 billion in reinvestments over 10 years in public services and blight removal. Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr plans to resign before the end of the year. But the city’s property tax environment faces daunting challenges, as property values remain far below pre-crisis conditions. Although the city has embarked on a three year citywide reassessment process, tax payments are currently based on inflated and inaccurate assessments. Perhaps even more troubling, property tax delinquency is now at 54%, and Wayne County has begun proceedings on 62,000 new tax foreclosures. Unfortunately, about 80% of tax foreclosed properties sold at auction are again delinquent within two years. The controversy over mass water service termination by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department received global attention. Public officials recognize that water services are essential to households and businesses, but face the challenge of collecting the cost of service. Bankruptcy is helping to rectify Detroit’s fiscal condition, but the city will be grappling with these difficult fiscal issues for the foreseeable future.
-- The top story of 2014 from China was that the country started a difficult structural reform while the economic growth shifted gear to the “New Normal,” a new conservative growth target no more than 7% a year, says Zhi Liu, director of the China program. Among the comprehensive reform directions are a few directly related to urban governance and finance. These included gradual removal of the long-standing Hukou restriction for farmers to move to the cities, land reform that would give farmers development rights, improvement of the local tax system, and acceleration of property tax legislation. These were designed to correct various policy distortions in the urbanization process and build a new governance system for a more urbanized China. While the reform directions were set, the detailed reform roadmaps and actions were yet to be worked out. The key question is whether these reforms get implemented and how soon. The structural changes may slow down the economy in the short-run before paying handsome dividend. By all indication, the reform program was really a major challenge for the country, and there will be a lot to be seen and expected in the next few years.
-- The big story of the year could well turn out to be the big story of the first half of this century, says Armando Carbonell, chair of the Department of Planning and Urban Form: the expected increase in global urban population by about 2.5 billion. Citing the work of former visiting fellow Shlomo “Solly” Angel (Planet of Cities, Atlas of Urban Expansion), The Economist notes how "cities are bound to grow, but they need planning to be liveable." As an alternative to creating new slums, this means anticipating growth and providing infrastructure and serviced land in the right locations, with good access to jobs. And, because global urbanization will collide with the other big disrupter of the century, climate change, these cities will also need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare to adapt to the impacts of extreme weather. And although most of the planet's new urbanization will occur in developing countries, the United States will buck the trend in most developed countries, growing by as many as 100 million new city dwellers by mid-century. There are many positive trends in contemporary U.S. urbanization to build on, including increasing vitality in core cities, but challenges remain, including regenerating Legacy Cities like Detroit, and finding solutions to deal with housing affordability and chronic homelessness.
-- This was the year that value capture gained increasing acceptance as a tool for financing urban development, says Martim Smolka, director of the Latin America program, and author of Implementing Value Capture in Latin America. In value capture, cities seek to harness the big increases in property value that are the direct result of government actions and public investment, and finance affordable housing, parks, and infrastructure in urban development. The municipality of São Paulo took the concept to a new level by reducing all building rights to a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 1; building anything higher requires the purchase of these rights from the city. Also in place are Certificates of Additional Construction Potential bonds (known in Brazil by the name Certificados de Potencial Adicional de Construção or CEPACs), that are auctioned in the stock market. Revenues are being used for social housing and improvements, having arguably the greatest impact in advance of urban development, in the fast-growing city of 10 million.