The Public and Private Sectors’ Roles in Effective City Building

According to Alex Marshall (2000), the government’s role in city building is to construct a cohesive infrastructure so that its citizens can make independent decisions and generate wealth. However, effective city building only occurs when the government exercises its power and closely manages the private sector. Until the early twentieth century, the government was the sole driver in the creation of places and economics. Big-government projects characterized this era, and these high risk, high reward ventures shaped early American cities. For example, New York City emerged as a national economic power when the state legislature financed the construction of the Erie Canal to make the city a major transportation hub.

In the mid-twentieth century the government relinquished much of its power to the private sector because both parties misunderstood city building and economics. Individual developers became city builders, and they built sprawling cities such as Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles. These places lacked collective foresight, and they are characterized by gentrification, urban decay, and fragmentation.

In order to return to the practice of effective city building Alex Marshall believes that federal, state, and local governments must resume their roles as the primary architects of cities. Moreover, private citizens must understand that politics determine economics and the government is the only authority capable of wielding such power.

Amy Goldstein and Michael Grunwald’s articles about Boston’s Big Dig demonstrate the inefficiencies that arise when private entities act as city builders. The Big Dig’s goals were to unite and invigorate Boston by relocating the Central Artery underground and using its leftover space for urban parkways. The venture was conceived by the state and local governments, but a majority of the project’s responsibilities were granted to private contractors. Consequently, the Big Dig was marred by escalating costs, negligence, political corruption, and mismanagement. The Big Dig serves as an example of a successful partnership between the government and the private sector; however, the project would have been more efficient if the government had more authority over its operations.

Kayo Tajima’s case study is a quantitative assessment of the benefits of Boston’s Big Dig, and it illustrates how government subsidizes private sector profits. The results indicate that property values in Boston will increase because the project’s alterations will provide accessibility to open urban space and reduce proximity to highways. Furthermore, the study acknowledges that the Big Dig will increase personal wealth through the creation of a more cohesive transportation system, new jobs, cultural amenities, and recreational opportunities. Tajima’s social science research exemplifies the idea that politics creates economics.

The issue concerning the public and private sectors’ roles in city building is relevant to urban planners because planners work in both sectors. Urban planners can help each sector rediscover its role by acting as an intermediary. Planners can clear up the public’s misconceptions about government through education and an open dialogue. Additionally, planners can help the government understand the needs and desires of the public when it creates policies and invests in infrastructure. A planner’s primary duty is to serve the public interest, and it is in the best interest of the public that the government resumes its role as the primary architect of places and economics because a free market economy is dependent on the government’s infrastructure, legal framework, and oversight.


Goldstein, Amy. 2006. “Since Start, 33 Reports Flagged Big Dig’s Flaws” The Washington Post. July 23:A3.

Grunwald, Michael. 2006. “Dig the Big Dig” Washington Post. August 6:B2.

Marshall, Alex. 2000. “The Master Hand: The Role of Government in Building Cities” pp 133-155 in How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Tajima, Kayo. 2003. “New estimates of the demand for urban green space: Implications for valuing environmental benefits of Boston’s Big Dig project” Journal of Urban Affairs 25:5 (641-655).


  1. Thanh

    I haven’t read your blog in a while and now I’m telling myself that I have to come back to read it more often.

    Anyway, I wanted to say that I hope that you consider coming back to Harrisonburg/ Rockingham County as a planner. You appear to have a lot of respect and understanding towards designing and maintaining a healthy community.

    I think that there are opportunities for change and area could definately use people like you.

  2. Corbin

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve tried to update my blog on a regular basis, but the holiday break has limited my “blogging” time.

    I have thought about coming back to the Rockingham County to work as a planner. More specifically, I’ve thought about helping JMU develop into an excellent academic institute and community participant.

  3. Thanh

    I’m interested to hear more sometime about your vision to help “JMU develop into an excellent academic institute and community participant.” JMU has a lot of great resources and a lot of great faculty, students, and staff. Unfortunately, when I was a student there, and now a resident of Harrisonburg who is fairly involved in the community, I have recently come to find that many of these great resources and people at JMU focus more on more broad and/or global issues. I am very interested to encourage JMU to be a more local community participant in Harrisonburg, Rockingham, the Valley, and Virginia. To help shape a vision I guess or be more active in positively shaping the community.

    Perhaps you can post some of your thoughts when there’s some time to spare.

  4. Thanh

    Another thought – If you don’t come back to Rockingham County to be a planner (working in government), regardless of what you do here or anywhere else, I hope you consider being (or continuing to be, if you already are), a vocal citizen and share ideas and/or make some demands.

    Too often “silence implies agreement” and then its too late, or harder. :o)

  5. Thanh

    … harder to make work. I’m refering to infrastructure. For example, its difficult to retrofit an existing road with sidewalks and bicycle facilities; its easier to put them in with intiail road or subdivision construction. Same with stormwater facilities and low impact development; its easier to design them into a site then it is to retrofit a site later. Ah, but how do we get others to look at these projects holistically and through its entire life cycle (after the initial developers or designers are gone)?

    The other option is not to depend on them and to become one of them and “make it happen.”

    I hope this rant doesn’t sound too crazy. Thanks. :oP

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