I enjoyed attending the book launch event for Finance and Governance of Capital Cities in Federal Systems, and chapter author / District CFO Natwar Gandhi at the Washington Economic Partnership this morning. Book co-editor Rupak Chattopadhyay remarked in his presentation about the unique need for Capital cities ‘to reflect a neutral space for politics and public policy to play out’, which is certainly one of the guides from the federal perspective on the constraints imposed on federal seats.

Gandhi joked that

‘D.C. is the only place where sound travels faster than light’

and I’m guessing that fact is a plague actually shared by many small capital cities… which is really the point of the book.

I appreciated hearing some DC-specific facts I had been unaware of:  30% of District property is exempt from taxes (because it’s federal land), and only 34 cents of ever dollar earned in the District is taxed in the District. Lydia DePillis did a solid recap of the event over on the City Paper’s Housing Complex blog, so I’ll jump now and quote her in summary:

“The book originated after a conference in the supremely complicated capital of Delhi, where the elected chief minister doesn’t even have control over the things residents care about most: Policing and land use. Exasperated, the minister asked how other capitals are organized. Enid Slack of the University of Toronto and Forum of Federations’ Rupak Chattopadhyay decided to conduct a survey, which resulted in 11 case studies, from Bonn to Abuja….

Their analysis identified three different ways in which capital cities are organized: Federal districts carved out of two neighboring jurisdictions (including D.C., Canberra, Mexico City, and Addis Ababa), city states (like Berlin and Brussels), and cities within a province or state (Ottawa, Bern, and Cape Town)…

Many cities have a disconnect between their political boundaries and the “economic region” (think D.C. versus the “Greater Washington Area”)–Brussels, for example, has 160,000 residents, and a million people who work there during the day.”

Some of the problems shared by this city are also shared by cities like New York where municipalities and suburban communities don’t share revenues. Lots of people live in New Jersey, pay taxes in New Jersey, but use the new york city subway, for instance. The phrase Good Fences Make Good Neighbors harkens to a time when the West was settled, and fenced in. If you protected your neighbor’s farmland by keeping your cattle off his property, you were a good neighbor. Capital cities do face some particular challenges, and the ability to pull off coordination seems like a key to efficiency (as we’ve seen with metro.) While good fences make good neighbors, it’s clear that cowboys (or people tagged as cowboys) can only do so much.

It was odd to be in the room for this presentation today with Harriet Tregoning (Director of Planning), Suzanne Peck (Chief Technology Officer) and others from the current administration (given that the mayor who appointed them just lost an election.) Will our new mayor keep this team? Will they want to stay? Every election brings turnover, and it’s important we harvest the lessons, and the wisdom, as we go along.