When the United States became its own nation, it was chiefly an agrarian one, dominated by farmers and designed to appease their pastoral mindsets. Just one in 20 citizens lived in cities. In today’s America, the demographics of the Constitutional Era have entirely shifted. The emergence of the industrial and post-industrial American economies has spawned an enormous change, culminating today in cities housing 80% of the population. However, the structure of the nation has not changed to reflect this shift, so our cities remain a legal afterthought in the American system. This has led to countless urban crises, and unless the Constitution is amended to protect cities and give them autonomy, they will continue to suffer.
Because cities are not referenced once in the Constitution, a patchwork of state and federal statutes has grown up over the centuries to govern their administration, infrastructure and rights in the legal system. Notable among these is Dillon’s Rule, a common descriptor for the legal principle that the nation’s cities are subservient to their states and have only as much power as their states give them. This means cities can have extraordinarily limited authorities, and that municipal actions that provoke their states can lead to devastating consequences.
One of the most infamous municipal crises in American history, the Flint water crisis, was born of this dilemma. In 2011, Flint, Michigan, struggled through the Great Recession and failed to balance its budget, leading the state to step in and strip the city of its power. The state removed the city government structure, absolved the mayor’s office of the majority of its power and established a state-appointed city manager. This manager, embracing the state’s fiscally conservative agenda, was charged with fixing Flint’s budget and ultimately developed a solution that replaced the city’s water infrastructure with a cheaper alternative, leading to the poisoning of thousands. Had Flint been allowed to go it alone, it may have escaped the Great Recession without giving thousands of children permanent learning disabilities.
Even when the consequences are less dire, subordinate cities suffer petty political squabbles which still have major consequences. One such example can be found in New York City, where for nearly a decade, a personal conflict between the Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo led to countless projects being delayed or outright canceled because the governor simply did not like the mayor. Since the city did not have autonomy in most matters, de Blasio often had no choice but to endure Cuomo’s barrages. For example, a proposal by de Blasio to provide more than 11,000 units of affordable housing was vetoed by Cuomo because the latter felt slighted at not having been notified of the project far enough in advance. In another incident, when de Blasio wanted to provide universal pre-kindergarten in the city, he intended to pay for it by increasing taxes on millionaires. Cuomo rejected this proposal, instead pioneering his own funding scheme, which also dumped millions into charter schools over the objections of de Blasio.
Control over municipal operations should be the city’s alone — mayors should not have to kiss their governors’ rings to be given the authority to work within their own borders. Cities should have the right to raise taxes on their residents and provide transformational services, while being free from the unreasonable and chauvinistic oversight of their states.
Ultimately, the governing structure of our states is stuck in the past, when the nation’s biggest cities were not more than 35,000 people. When cities played a lesser role in the country, there was no need to have major legal recognition of them, but this is no longer the case. It is clear that cities suffer from the antiquated governing structure with which states rule them. If the Constitution seeks at all to provide some proportional power based on population, then it must provide specific protections and powers to the nation’s cities.
Under federalism, the balance in America of state and federal powers, states are guaranteed independence from federal meddling, the power to draft budgets as they see fit and the ability to pursue social policy as long as it is not in violation of the Constitution. Cities ought to have the same rights states do: A state should ultimately exist to provide funding for certain city projects, set the constitutional limits for city action and be a body to which the city must defer. But it should not attack, meddle or interfere with regular urban governance. All powers not granted explicitly to the states could be granted to the cities, letting the constitutional principle of local administration shrine through.
The effect this would have on city development would be nothing short of revolutionary. With this newfound freedom, a city’s action would only be limited by the desires of its voters and its budget to provide for them. Without undue constraints, de Blasio could have built his 11,000 units of affordable housing without the concern that they’d be rejected for political reasons. Flint could have found locally preferred measures to balance its budget rather than poisoning its children. Cities across the country could react swiftly and consistently in response to their voters’ needs without concern that the state government would intercede in their efforts.
Constitutional originalists will be quick to point out that the Constitution was designed to place checks on the control of overbearing majorities. But this fear reflects a different political reality. New York City, multiple times larger in population than 39 states, does not control its own budget. The lack of local control in cities is downright immoral.
In today’s America, cities are the most important political unit. They possess within their borders the vast majority of America’s population and are the centers for political thought, economic development and cultural production. However, the governing structure of America’s cities does not reflect their political importance. They are greatly limited by the restrictions their states place upon them and suffer for it. Providing constitutional protections for cities would allow them to be far more prosperous and responsive than they ever have been.
Gabe Sender ’25 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabe Sender is a Staff Columnist at The Brown Daily Herald with a particular focus on campus issues and development challenges in Providence. He is currently pursuing an independent concentration in urban environmentality.