Published on Sustainable Cities

Cities don’t shutdown

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ImageWelcome to the first US government shutdown in 17 years. Yes, we have experienced this before, but it is still shocking. Over 800,000 workers have been furloughed. The Lincoln Memorial, Smithsonian museums, along with over 400 federal parks and monuments are closed, forcing people to alter their holidays. Most of our space program has been put on hold, and the long-term socio-economic costs have yet to be calculated (partially because the people who could collect that data are out of commission). One thing is clear, the longer the shutdown continues, the bigger the impact becomes.

Most of the global community views the US shutdown with a “mixture of bewilderment and growing nervousness”.  Some are amazed in a positive way. Chinese netizens are in awe that the entire country is not paralyzed in anarchic chaos.  However, what the Chinese haven’t accounted for is the strength and importance of the local government.

The truth is, at least for the short term, the shutdown has minimal impact on the daily lives of most Americans. Americans may ask themselves:

  • Is your trash and recycling still being picked up?
  • Do you have electricity and running water?
  • Are your local parks and libraries opened?
  • Can you still contact your police station?
  • Are your streets swept?

The answer for most people is yes. Even Washington, DC, forever beholden to the federal government, took emergency measures to stay open and keep its municipal workers on the job. Unfortunately, there are important federally funded programs located in many cities and towns that are affected, such as Head Start and domestic violence programs. But local governments get relatively little federal funding, and the services that most people rely on are local.

Cities cannot shut down. Shortly after the shutdown, the US Conference of Mayors issued a press release stating, “[r]egardless of what happens in Washington, the nation's mayors will continue to lead, balancing budgets and solving problems. We do not have the luxury of turning our backs on our residents.” The very survival of cities depends on their providing services and goods to their residents, most importantly maintaining a high quality of life. The federal government certainly helps, but at the end of the day it is the city that is accountable

There has been a growing awareness of the rise and importance of cities in the past several years from companies targeting their business at cities to the rise of supermayors whose names are recognized at the national and international level, like Boris Johnson of London or Michael Bloomberg of New York. Benjamin Barber recently speculated about it in his book, If Mayors Ruled the World. But much of the cities discussion focuses on first tier or mega cities. The US government shutdown, however, proves that cities at all levels and scales are working. And not only are cities working, but local communities and businesses have shown their support. Furloughed workers around the Washington, DC metro area were offered free lunch, coffee, admission to private museums, Pilates lessons, and even professional development credits from Georgetown University. Even those outside the government get some benefit with free online data access from Oxford University Press.

When the government shutdown will end is anybody’s guess; the last one took three weeks. But you can rest assured that at least your local government and community remains intact and working.

Photo source:  Flickr Creative Commons, Tommy Ironic


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