Tomorrow's cities: more than fixing potholes

The verbal fireworks in congressional hearings this week regarding the Reagan admininstration's urban policy is not unexpected. The administration, after all, as noted in Mr. Reagan's newly released urban policy report, has already brought about far-reaching political and tax changes that directly affect the future well-being of most cities. Such changes include a streamlining of federal grant programs, elimination or modification of regulations pertaining to cities, tax credits for rehabilitation of older buildings, and, of course, the administration's push for new urban ''enterprise zones'' to bring firms eventually to inner-city areas.

Many mayors are hard pressed by a combination of high labor and capital costs to provide essential services and, in many cases, are facing a declining tax base resulting from recession and the movement of families to suburban areas. They insist that the administration has not done enough to aid the cities. The survey by the National League of Cities showing that some 43 US cities are in serious fiscal difficulty underscores the genuine problems existing in many communities.

Yet, while recognizing such difficulties, there is something to be said for the administration's contention that the quality of life in cities can be improved in the long run only by a genuine partnership that embraces not just federal aid but states and the local private sector.

What may be most lacking in the debate at this time is some of the creative spark and innovativeness that marked the urban scene in the first two decades of this century - and produced such ''reform'' mayors as Tom Johnson and Newton Baker of Cleveland and John P. Mitchel in New York. That innovation was partly political - obtaining home rule and smashing corrupt political machines. In some areas, such as Galveston, Houston, Dallas, the reform meant a dramatic switch from the mayoral to the commission form of government. But perhaps the most crucial change was a new focus on how cities should best provide public services. In Cleveland, for example, Mayor Johnson quickly concluded that public ownership of utilities and transport firms was the only way to end entrenched corruption.

Few planners today would advocate a further ''socialization'' of municipal services. The problem now is how to make the delivery of services more efficient. One question being asked in fact is whether city governments might not better change their basic role from that of providing services to helping foster economic development to ensure jobs. That would mean contracting out such services as trash collection and street repair to private industry. One contemporary planner argues that such a shift in the mission of city governments means not just the establishment of new offices for economic development - as now found in such communities as Boston and Chicago - but reorganizing the entire framework of city government to foster the tax, fiscal, zoning, and other steps needed to induce firms to locate in cities.

America's cities have traditionally responded to changing national economic and social conditions. There is no reason why they cannot once again tap that resiliency that led to such creativity for city government in the early days of this century.

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