Tech Insurrection

Tech Insurrection

Smart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

Read More

Sprawl’s Hidden Subsidies

Sprawl's Hidden Subsidies

The answer to sprawl isn't more regulation, says Pamela Blais, it's fixing the endemic biases embedded in taxes, utility fees, municipal services and mortgages.

Read More

Reinventing the Formal Garden

Reinventing the Formal Garden

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is branching out to stream reclamation and indigenous plants.

Read More

A Distracting Doctrine

A Distracting Doctrine

Instead of fixating on the United Nation’s Agenda 21 as a threat to American liberties, conservatives should articulate fiscally responsible, market-driven policies to address the very real challenges facing local governments in the United States.

Read More

The Zimmerman Telegram

The Zimmerman Telegram

Chris Zimmerman's message upon leaving the Arlington County Board for Smart Growth America: Smart Growth is good for economic development, and other localities can benefit by Arlington's example.

Read More

The Political Economy of Sprawl

sprawl by James A. Bacon

I spend a lot of time agonizing over questions that nobody else does. That’s largely because I’m one of the world’s few conservatives who supports the broader vision of the Smart Growth movement.* I have articulated a vision of Smart Growth that is based upon the principles of fiscal conservatism, limited government and free markets. But not many people are buying it.

The reason, I think, can be traced to the political economy of sprawl. Republicans, the party that nominally stands for fiscal conservatism and free markets but rarely governs that way, comprise the party of sprawl. (By “sprawl” I mean the scattered, low-density, autocentric pattern of development that prevailed during the post-World War II era.) Republican voters tend to live in communities born of sprawl, benefit from the subsidies and cross-subsidies that perpetuate sprawl, don’t want to change the way they live and don’t want to give up the subsidies.

Urban geographer Richard Florida drove home that political reality in a recent post on the Atlantic Cities blog. He started with the new data set created by Smart Growth America (See “Measuring Sprawl“) that measured major metropolitan regions on the basis of density, definable activity clusters, mixed uses, walkability and jobs/housing balance. His people then correlated the sprawl index with voting patterns. He wrote:

The connection between sprawl and conservatism comes through loud and clear in our analysis of more than 200 of America’s metro areas. Our correlations suggest that sprawled America is Red America, while Blue America takes on a much more compact geography. The Sprawl Index was negatively associated with the share of voters in a metro who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 (with a correlation of -.44); and it was positively associated with the percentage who voted for Barack Obama (.43). These were among the strongest correlations in our analysis.

Other researchers have identified a tipping point — roughly 800 inhabitants per square mile — at which voting patterns tend to shift from red to blue.

While Republicans and conservatives have an eagle eye for certain types of subsidies — industrial policy for green tech (Solyndra), say, or a tax code riddled with special perks for special interests, or the massive welfare state that subsidizes poverty-perpetuating behavior — they turn a blind eye to the subsidies that benefit their own constituents. Thus Republicans support the mortgage-interest deduction that favors suburban home ownership. Republicans look askance at subsidies for mass transit (which their constituents are less likely to use) yet they are perfectly willing to subsidize new highways (which their constituents are more likely to use). They decry liberal social engineering when it comes to urban policy but happily support exclusionary zoning that keeps the poor “over there” — even if such zoning violates the property rights of developers who would freely and willingly build low-income housing.

The bottom line is that Republican and conservative politicians apply their free-market, fiscal-conservative principles selectively — when it gores their political foes — and ignore their principles when necessary to protect the interests of their constituents.

Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who knows me knows that I hold Democrats and liberals in even greater disregard. Their hypocrisy is boundless. White, upper-income Dems paint Republicans as racist even as they live in congressional districts with the greatest income disparity and attend the most segregated schools. (See here and here.) The latest case in point comes from Greater Greater Washington: “A new report says Montgomery County (Md.) schools are becoming segregated by income, race, and ethnicity and that ‘white flight’ is occurring in the lowest-performing schools. But officials deny that it’s even happening.” Montgomery County’s 2012 presidential vote: 71% for Barack Obama.

But the cause of truth, justice and the American way compels me to skewer not only my ideological foes but my erstwhile friends and allies when they veer from the path. And the Republican/conservative support for the sprawl-perpetuating policies veers far from the path.

I guess I’ll be a lonely voice for a long time.

* There are a few other voices. Check out the Smart Growth for Conservatives blog.

Blaming the Innocent and Exonerating the Guilty

Scuzzy girls' locker room in   Armstrong High. Who's responsible for inadequate maintenance?

Scuzzy girls’ locker room in Armstrong High. Who’s responsible for inadequate maintenance? (Photo credit: Style Weekly.)

by James A. Bacon

In the previous post, PeterG questioned the priority of “Richmond’s elite” of building a new baseball stadium for the Flying Squirrels over patching the city’s scandalously decrepit public schools. I share his skepticism that what the city really needs right now is a new stadium. However, I disagree with a core premise of his post, that “Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools.”

In FY 2009 the City of Richmond schools spent $13,601 per pupil. Henrico County spent $9,369. Chesterfield and Hanover spent slightly more per capita. In other words, “Richmond’s elite” spent 45% more per pupil on Richmond city students than on students in “affluent” Henrico County. (I rely upon outdated statistics because I simply did not have time this morning to search for more recent ones. The per-pupil spending gap has not changed significantly since then.)

A better question is why “Richmond’s elite” tolerates suburban schools receiving so few tax dollars compared to their city counterparts.

An unspoken assumption embedded in PeterG’s commentary is that the problem in Richmond schools is insufficient funds as opposed to a misallocation or mismanagement of  funds. Is the failure to budget sufficiently for basic maintenance in a school system that spent $13,600 per pupil in 2009 (and more today) the fault of “Richmond’s elite”… or the school administration?

One last thing: PeterG fails to take into account the considerable resources raised by Richmond-area philanthropists to supplement public dollars spent in the schools. The Communities in Schools program, for instance, locates resources from city social services and non-profit programs to help students coping with the dysfunctions of poverty — lining up  food, clothing, tutors, mental health counselors, health care, transportation, and occasionally even furniture for children’s homes. “Richmond’s elite” is actually very involved in helping poor, inner-city minority kids.

I’m not persuaded that gallivanting off to Tampa in search of the great Tiki bar will help Richmond junketeers discover anything terribly useful for Richmond — I do agree with Peter on that. The Chamber of Commerce’s annual visits seem to lack focus and rarely come back with insights that can be applied locally. Instead of visiting Tampa, perhaps the group should have traveled to New York City to see what difference the charter schools movement there is making for minority kids and assess the applicability of charter schools to Richmond. That’s the kind of bold, non-incremental thinking the city needs.

The region’s political and civic leaders probably do need a cattle prod to think more creatively about the region’s challenges. But blaming them for the sorry condition of city schools is really too much.

“Where Is the Closest Tiki Bar?”

tiki_barBy Peter Galuszka

Often times, blog commenters really hit the nail on the head. This is the case with “Virginiagal2” who responded to my blog post earlier this week that Richmond’s schools are decrepit and crumbling, as Style Weekly detailed in a recent cover story.

They note that Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools while chasing higher-profile and extraneous projects such as a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins and a new baseball stadium for the Minor League AA Flying Squirrels.

Schools? What schools?

Blog posts also note that NFL football star Russell Wilson, a Richmonder, stayed at private Collegiate school after his father saw academics as more important than sports and blunted maneuvers by Richmond public schools to recruit Wilson during his school years.

Part of the problem, as Virginiagal2 notes, is that Richmond’s select and self-appointed “leadership” ignores the city’s serious problems while they embark another pointless road trip to another city, typically in the sunny South, to gather ideas on how they should proceed with their (how to describe?) “leadership.”

Just a week or so ago, about 160 of Richmond’s “leaders” were bopping around Tampa, sampling its eateries and noting the watery views. The biggest cheerleader for these junkets is The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is very much a propaganda organ of the area’s chamber of commerce. Its publisher Thomas A. Silvestri was chamber chair a few years back yet few commented on the potential conflict of interest. On the Tampa trip, the editor of the editorial pages wrote a supposedly cute series of reports in a “postcard” (ha-ha) style about the Tampa trip. Here’s one tidbit:

“About 160 Richmonders will spend three days sipping from Tampa’s version of youth’s fabled fountain. Where oh where is the closest tiki bar?”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. Next, I’d like to copy what Virginiagal2 had to say in response to my blog. She absolutely nails it:

“The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

‘nuf said.

Bacon Bits: More Random Notes from a Fevered Mind

Before and after. Image credit: Richmond BizSense.

Before and after. Image credit: Richmond BizSense.

From beast to beauty. I have issues with Virginia Commonwealth University’s exploitation of its student population but I will say this: The university has done wonders for downtown Richmond. The latest case-in-point is the restoration of the old Broad Street trolley station from its hideous previous incarnation as the Richmond Glass Shop into space for the university’s renowned art department. Not only will the $7 million project house gallery space to showcase student artwork, a soundstage and a 6,000-square-foot research lab with prototype building machines, including laser scanners and plasma cutters, it will transform an eyesore into a thing of beauty. The transformation of downtown Richmond continues apace. Richmond BizSense has the story here.

Investing in public safety. The great recession battered city and county budgets, including spending on police, fire and rescue. Nerdwallet set out to find which cities did the best job of preserving spending on public safety. No surprise, Washington, D.C., the imperial city waxing fat on population growth and economic growth, led the country. Improved public safety no doubt helps explain the perception that the city is worth investing and living in. D.C. has 4,332 police staff per 100,000 residents, or one per 68.5 residents. Also ranked was Richmond with 940 police staff, or one per 45.24 residents. Nerdwallet did not consider the possibility that Washington, Richmond and other cities maintain large police departments because they need them more.

Transparent… but could be better. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) has released a report ranking states by the transparency of their public spending based on criteria such as user-friendly websites, searchable databases and downloadable reports, and the availability of information on state contracts and economic development studies. Indiana won the top score, and seven others rated A-. Virginia rated a B+. Frankly, I’m surprised it did that well. The open-data movement is making inroads across North America and Europe but I never hear it discussed here. Virginians need to hop on the bandwagon — opening up government data to the public will inspire all matter of creative applications that governments themselves could never imagine.

Boomergeddon, anyone? Bridgewater Associates, a Connecticut hedge fund, has warned that public pensions are likely to generate investment returns of only 4% annually on their assets in future years — not the 7% to 8% widely assumed. Public pensions have only $3 trillion in assets to cover retirement liabilities of $10 trillion; annual returns averaging 9% are needed to make up the difference without massive infusions of tax dollars. Bridgewater set up a sophisticated model to simulate many of the possible market environments to see how they would affect public pension resources. “In 20% of those scenarios, public pensions run out of money in 20 years. And in 80% of the scenarios, public pensions run out of money within 50 years,” reports America’s Markets.

If Bridgewater is even close to being right, state and local governments will be fiscally stressed for decades.


Can Virginia Reverse the Stroadification of Rt. 1?

The Rt. 1 area under study. Click for larger image.

The Rt. 1 area under study. Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

People living along the U.S. Route 1 corridor in Northern Virginia seemingly desire contradictory things. They want better pedestrian and bicycle safety, they want mass transit. … and they want automobile traffic to flow faster. Alas, designing the corridor to move automobiles faster makes roads less safe, and it discourages the kind of development that would invite the higher-density, mixed-use development that would support mass transit.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, explores the dilemma in a thoughtful two-part series (Part 1 and Part 2on the challenge of re-developing Route 1. His solution, at the risk of over-simplifying, is to switch the perspective from designing the corridor for cars to designing it for people. Planners are scheduled to submit specific recommendations for the corridor by July. If they focus on creating walkable, transit-oriented communities, Schwartz contends and I concur, automobile traffic flow will improve as well.

A few years back, the Virginia Department of Transportation proposed reducing posted speeds from 45 m.p.h. but an uproar ensued. Apparently, too many people depended upon U.S. 1 as a commuter route and imagined that lower posted speeds would translate into lower actual speeds and longer commuter time. But lowering the speed is critical to achieving the goal of walkability, walkability is required to make mass transit economically viable, and viable mass transit is required to reduce the volume of cars on the highway.

The problem is that U.S. 1 fits the classic definition of a stroad, a street-road hybrid. The route started as one of America’s first national highways. But Virginia state and local governments neglected to control access to the highway, with the result that it became cluttered with haphazard development, cut-throughs, curb-cuts and stoplights. Functionally, in Northern Virginia, Fredericksburg, Ashland, Richmond and Petersburg, the highway became a main street. Yet it failed to fulfill the functions of either highway or main street properly. The lanes were too wide and the speeds too intermittently high to create walkability or the higher-end development that is drawn to walkable places. At the same time, Rt. 1 became so congested with local traffic that it failed as a highway.

At some point, the people of Alexandria and Fairfax County must decide whether they want Rt. 1 fulfill its destiny as a highway or a street. It cannot do both.

Rt. 1 should be easier to salvage in Northern Virginia than in points south. There is so much demand in the region for walkable, transit-oriented communities that private investors should be able to re-develop the low-value development that exists now at higher densities fairly quickly. Proffers and/or impact fees, sweetened by higher density allowances, should be available to pay for streetscape improvements to make the corridor more hospitable to pedestrians. Further, there is such a large volume of traffic that the corridor should be able to support mass transit.

Transportation planners could help by reallocating right of way, in effect converting the former in-name-only highway from a stroad to a street. Reducing lane widths from 12 to 10 feet would free space for bicycle lanes and make the “highway” easier for pedestrians to cross. Yes, narrower lanes would slow the peak travel speed of thousands of commuters to Fort Belvoir. But if the narrower lanes were accompanied by less automobile traffic, lower posted speeds could be offset by shorter waits at traffic lights, less stop-and-go.

All urban Virginians should follow the Rt. 1 experiment with great interest. If Northern Virginia can find a workable solution for the old Jefferson Davis Highway, there is hope for the rest of us.

More Virginia Families Choosing Cities, City Schools

by James A. Bacon

It has been the traditional pattern in Virginia, as elsewhere, for young people to move to core urban areas to live as singles and then migrate to the quieter, safer burbs with better schools when they marry and have children. That dynamic still is working but it is weaker than before. More young families are staying put in urban jurisdictions to raise their kids and enroll them in local schools, feeding the strongest population growth that many Virginia cities have experienced since the 1950s.

And that, notes Hamilton Lombard on the StatChat blog, is forcing many cities and counties to re-work their school enrollment projections and their capital spending plans.

Lombard displays the data in a way I have never seen presented before. The chart below (modified slightly for purposes of clarity) compares the number of births in a jurisdiction to the number of children who went on six years later to enter the school system in 2005. Jurisdictions to the left of the line, mostly urban city jurisdictions, saw a marked loss of school-age children. Localities to the right of the line, mostly suburban counties, had far more children enroll in their schools than were born there previously. The chart show the dominant post-World War II pattern of young families moving from the city to the burbs.

That was 2005. Now look at 2013 below. What’s different? Well, around 2006, per capita Vehicle Miles Driven peaked — people began driving less. Smart Growth advocates suggest that the younger generation is less infatuated with cars and prefers to live in walkable communities with access to mass transit. Then in 2007-2008 came the real estate crash and the Great Recession. As Lombard observes, mortgage rules tightened and it is harder now for families to buy a house in the ‘burbs. People are staying put. Only one-third as many homes were sold in Virginia in 2012 as in 2005. The number of Virginia families with children living in rented residences has increased 15%.

The shift in school enrollments is marked: Urban core jurisdictions are exporting fewer families with children, and counties are importing fewer.


Lombard sums up the impact on school systems:

Elementary schools have been among the first to feel the impact of the change in growth trends. Most rural and suburban elementary schools have too much classroom space because fewer families have moved to their divisions. At the same time, many urban school divisions, after decades of shuttering schools, are reassessing their capital improvement plans so they have enough space for the increases in enrollment.

Bacon’s bottom line: There are several points to be made.

First, this data refutes the commonly held notion that most young families with the means to do so all will desert core cities and move to the suburbs when their children reach school age. Clearly, some young families are still making the move but more are staying. Whether this trend represents a fundamental shift in lifestyle preferences, a temporary effect of economic hard times or a little of both is hard to say. But the fact is undeniable: An increasing number of young city dwellers is growing, which is driving population growth in urban cores.

Second, it is good to see that analysts at the Weldon Cooper Center’s demographics research group, which publishes StatChat, are beginning to document this seismic demographic shift. If these insights get incorporated into the state’s official population projections, it will impact how dollars are spent in many areas, not the least of which is transportation. Kudos to Lombard for work well done.

Third, once middle- and professional-class families begin enrolling their children in urban-core jurisdictions in larger numbers, it could have a profound effect on how those schools are perceived. If the perception of inner city schools improves from dismal to not-so-bad, even more families might be willing to forego the suburban relocation. It’s way too early to say that that city schools have reached a tipping point but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Is Blackwater Successor in Ukraine?

blackwaterBy Peter Galuszka

A private security company with ties to Virginia and northeastern North Carolina has been linked to rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia that some fear could turn into war.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement April 8 saying that a security firm named “Greystone” that is tied historically to the defunct and controversial Blackwater special security operations company has sent “about 150” mercenaries to Ukraine disguised as a military unit called “Falcon.”

A spokeswoman for Greystone denied to ABC news that the firm was involved with Ukraine while other news outlets were told the firm had no comment.

Greystone is registered in Bermuda, according to ABC. It was at one time linked to Blackwater although its ties to Xe Services and Academi which succeeded Blackwater after its demise are unclear.

Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, in Moyock, N.C., near the Virginia border.  It hired former special forces military and used a swampy tract for training. The Moyock operations is close to a Navy facility at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach which is the base for the SEALs’ Team Six that tracked down and killed terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Blackwater was hired by the Bush Administration to handle security for officials and other duties in Iraq. Employees of the Blackwater firm were involved in the shooting of 17 people in Baghdad in 2007 and the firm was later banned from U.S. government work after a slew of problems in Iraq, Sudan and other countries.. During the controversy, it changed its name to Xe Services and then again to Academi, which has its headquarters in McLean. Prince has left the company.

Greystone, ABC reports, was formed as a sister company of Blackwater to handle security matters for foreign clients while Blackwater concentrated on U.S. government contracts.

The Russian government started accusing both Blackwater and Greystone of being involved in Ukraine last month although U.S. officials have denied it. Tensions have risen after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was ousted and Russia seized Crimea. Russia has thousands of troops massed on the Ukrainian border.

Another footnote in this strange tale: a director of Academi is retired Navy admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who is a former head of the National Security Agency, a deputy director of the CIA and a former head of naval intelligence. Inman also had been a director of as the last board chairman of then-Richmond-based Massey Energy, which was forced to be sold to Alpha Natural Resources after a deadly explosion at a West Virginia coal mine.

I’m not making this up.

Richmond’s Huge and Hidden Problem

The Seahawk's Wilson

The Seahawk’s Wilson

 By Peter Galuszka

There’s been plenty of image-building on this blog site in favor of what is perceived to be a “new” Richmond.

In this view, the former Capital of the Confederacy famous for its gentile white elite and, unfortunately, race politics, is being transformed to a major draw for talented young people and active retirees with plenty of diversity. Some evidence bears this out, such as the wealth of arts and culture and increasing upscale apartment rentals in the city.

The image is being pushed along by Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones who wants to anchor his downtown drive by placing a controversial baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. There is plenty of angst about his idea given that the city has other, more pressing concerns. They include its 26 percent poverty rate and the fact that the mostly white suburban counties seem to be moving farther from the Richmond sphere of influence.

There’s yet another big and unaddressed problem that may spell the ultimate fate of the city. Its school system is decrepit, as two recent stories in Style Weekly to which I contribute, point out.

One is a deeply reported cover story this week by Tom Nash that takes readers on a horrifying tour of several Richmond schools. Thompson Middle School has ceiling that ooze gunk. Diluted tar falls in classrooms. Fairfield Court Elementary needs a new roof. A tile fell on a student but the fix is $90,000 or one fifth of the district’s school budget for the year. Tom reveals more problems at Carver Elementary and Armstrong High, among others.

Most of Richmond’s school buildings are more than 60 years old. Dana Bedden, the system’s new superintendent, says school buildings are the worst he’s ever seen and that includes a stint in the District of Columbia. Reports say that $26 million is needed just this year to make a corrective dent in the problem.

Another Style story of note is an opinion piece by Carol A.O. Wolf, a former journalist and school board member. It was published in February, just after the Seattle Seahawks crushed the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. The star was Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson who grew up in Richmond.

Wilson’s dad placed him at Collegiate, a highly regarded private school in the West End. The Sporting News reported that when Wilson was a ninth grader at Collegiate, Richmond public schools started angling to recruit him to play ball for them. Dad said no. According to him, “I didn’t put Russell in Collegiate for sports, I put Russell in Collegiate to get the best education he could get.”

So much for Richmond’s public schools. It’s really too bad, as well, that the public school system is so neglected and that the mayor and other opinion makers are ignoring huge municipal problems in favor of top-down development like the new baseball stadium of questionable value.

VCU Meets Supply-and-Demand


President’s House at VCU.

Surely Virginia Commonwealth University has an economics department. Surely, there is someone at the state’s largest institution of higher learning who is conversant with the law of supply and demand. But, then, maybe not…

The VCU Board of Visitors will be asked to increase tuition 3.5% next academic year and pay a new $50 library charge, according to the Times-Dispatch. The cost of room, board and parking will increase as well. The proposal, notes Karin Kapsedelis, comes “amid concerns over loss of revenue from declining enrollment.” The university expects to see enrollment drop from 31,288 students this year to 30,962 — about 1,000 fewer than had been projected.

University administrators proffered a number of explanations for the decline in enrollment, but none of them involved price. Let me help: One big reason enrollment is dropping is that you charge too much! Jacking up tuition again will not help.

Like other state universities, VCU has ratcheted up tuition, fees and other charges by two to three percentage points faster than the inflation rate for many, many years, even as most Virginians’ incomes remain flat. Over time, those charges add up. It doesn’t help that the population of college-age students is peaking after years of growth, nor that distance learning is becoming an increasingly viable alternative to traditional classroom education, nor that an increasing number of Americans are questioning whether the cost of attending college is worth the pay-off.

While a 3.5% increase doesn’t sound like much, it exceeds inflation, which has been running somewhere between 1.0% and 2.0% over the past year, and it comes on top of an aggressive tuition restructuring that jacked up in-state charges by 4.2% on average and out-of-state charges by 2.14%.

While VCU does have undisputed centers of excellence, and while it has undeniably made a tremendous contribution to the revitalization of downtown Richmond, it is still a middle-of-the-pack state university. It is in serious danger of pricing itself out of the market.


Tech Insurrection

AnthonyTownsendSmart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

By James A. Bacon

Anthony M. Townsend, a research scientist at New York University, has made a big splash with his book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” in which he makes the case for a bottom-up, technology-driven transformation of the world’s cities.  But he’s not satisfied with preaching from his academic perch on how a grassroots movement of civic hackers is rewriting the social contract between citizens and government. He is taking active part.

As audacious as it may sound, Townsend hopes to build a peoples’ wireless telecommunications system on the New Jersey coast in place of the ATT and Verizon networks that failed during Hurricane Sandy. He is one of a group of citizen volunteers in the Hoboken area who are patching together a distributed wireless network at very little cost. Paralleling the municipal Wi-Fi movement of a decade ago, each participant contributes a piece of the network. The trick is to tie all the pieces together.

“For $60 we can configure a radio that someone can take to their house and point to our rooftop tower,” he explains. The devices discover one another and, in the fashion of a bucket brigade, pass packets of information from one to another. “We’re putting a network together with our bare hands and spare change.”

The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane. Elevating the network to a level of performance on a par with the incumbent providers will be a challenge, Townsend admits.  There will be gaps in their system. But the plug-and-play, distributed nature of their system will cost a tiny fraction of what the telecoms spend on cell towers, infrastructure and other overhead. “It’s very cheap and easy to build,” he says. “We’ll be a lab to test it in the real world.”

Imagine the same kind of technological disruption applied to the electric grid, mass transit, paid transport services, parking, municipal lighting, water and sewer, education and other municipal systems. Then imagine technology applications that no one in municipal government or the Fortune 500 companies are even thinking about – like citizens collaborating to monitor the environment. Municipal government could become unrecognizable. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, if Townsend’s vision pans out, institutions for providing utilities and local government services will be reinvented on a scale not seen since the early 1900s.

The agents of disruption likely will not be municipal governments themselves, nor even the big technology companies and management consulting firms peddling efficiency and productivity solutions to local governments, says Townsend. The innovators will be tech-savvy citizens – civic hackers – who exploit the rapidly declining cost of sensors, microchips, wireless connectivity and networking technologies to conduct lots of experiments, learn rapidly and disseminate best practices around the globe. Already, he says, “The really transformative things are built by hackers, artists and entrepreneurs that are very end-user focused.”

Needless to say, there is some very smart money – with very deep pockets – that says Townsend is wrong. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM see local government, utilities and infrastructure as an emerging multitrillion-dollar market. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco CEO John Chambers forecast cumulative revenue and productivity gains for the government sector globally to reach $4.6 trillion by 2020. Big Tech promises the ability to monitor things that have never been monitored, collect unprecedented volumes of data and crunch the numbers to identify patterns and anomalies that municipal managers had not noticed. By reducing leakage from water pipes, improving police response times, coordinating traffic signals and reducing power usage by street lights, technology companies promise billions of dollars in savings. Equally ambitious, IBM markets a “decision support system” that accesses vaults of under-utilized municipal data to analyze the interaction between everything from building permits to high school drop-out rates, housing vacancies to commuting times, to help managers and elected officials understand how investing money in one government sector will reverberate through the system to impact other sectors.

In a recent online debate with Townsend organized by the Economist magazine, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a VP emeritus with IBM, argued against the proposition that “smart cities are empty hype,” insisting that top-down governance could work. “Digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” wrote the IBM executive. “These are highly complex projects, requiring considerable research and experimentation. As is generally the case with disruptive technologies, it is all likely to take longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be deeper and more transformative than we imagine.” Not surprisingly, Wladesky-Berger sees the big corporations playing a major role.

Taking the position that smart cities are hype, Townsend raised the specter of tech companies creating proprietary “urban operating systems” and ecosystems of software vendors that extract royalties for “shuttling our money and data around smart cities.”  Worse, he said, “once ensconced, these firms will be nearly impossible to dislodge.” Read more.

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)