How can cities self-finance environmental and social solutions?
By Luise Noring
Every week, more than three million people move into cities looking for places to work and live. This puts an enormous strain on cities’ finances and capacity to provide for their residents. We can no longer – if we ever could – assume that taxes will pay for growing urban populations with growing demands for public infrastructure, goods and services. We need to find new ways of delivering and financing good societies for the billions of people living and working in cities.
Therefore, the challenge is not only to find the best environmental and social solutions for cities, but also to address how these solutions can be delivered and financed. All too often, for example, brilliant climate solutions are presented, but nobody wants to take responsibility for delivering and financing them. All too often, we hear of good solutions for social preventive action and public health that are never put into action. The solutions are there. The challenge is that the business case and investment proposition are either weak or non-existent. As a result, the only one with the incentive to implement the solutions is the cash-strapped government itself.
Hopeful scholars demonstrate how investing taxpayers’ money today could prevent massive expenditure tomorrow. Yet today’s tax revenues are already accounted for to pay for schools, roads, housing, hospitals, etc. This leads me to my principal research question and mission in life:
All too often, the only financial solution on the table is to increase and spend tax revenue. But there is no financial innovation in increasing and spending taxes. This ‘solution’ just means that bonds are repaid with future taxes even though we know full well that, in the future, taxes will still be needed to finance schools, roads, housing, hospitals, etc. Spending future taxes today only jeopardizes future generations’ ability to finance their schools, roads, housing, hospitals, etc. The same applies to tax increment financing (TIF), which is a common practice in urban development and economic revitalisation used in the US and subsequently adapted across much of the world.
The idea behind TIF is that local governments issue bonds based on future tax revenue increases. TIF assumes that urban regeneration can be financed by bonds that are serviced and repaid by future tax revenue increases. The proceeds of the TIF bonds are thus used to stimulate economic development through investments in urban regeneration, infrastructure and other public goods. The bonds are repaid mainly through property taxes resulting from investments and development activities. What happens though when the public investments fail to increase tax revenue paid by private owners? In such cases, local governments remain obliged to repay the government- guaranteed bonds.
Conventionally, in the US, local property taxes fund elementary and secondly education, supplemented by federal and state contributions. However, when future property taxes are used to finance infrastructure, public investment capital is in effect flowing from elementary and secondly education to infrastructure and other development activities in order to secure projected tax increases.
Thus, while TIF creates new economic development opportunities in one area, such as derelict neighbourhoods, it hollows out potential future investments in other areas, such as education.
Finally, it is common in many US cities for governments to woo private investment by offering tax reductions or exemptions. This amounts to making investments today with the tax revenues of tomorrow. This is how cities acquire unfunded liabilities.
The above paints a bleak picture of future financing of good solutions for better societies. However, during my research, I have come across many sound finance mechanisms. For instance, land value capture (LVC), which is commonly used in Northern Europe. LVC bundles publicly owned land, such as former port and military areas, or areas over which the public can take ownership, such as derelict areas. Once the local government has secured land ownership, it rezones and repurposes the land.
For example, former industrial land can be repurposed for commercial and residential use. This increases land values, which enables the government to take out loans based on the increased value of the land. With renewed borrowed capital, local government can make infrastructure and other investments in the land. This again increases land values. Once the land has been properly matured, it is sold to private investors and developers, including institutional investors, such as pension funds. Revenues from land sales are used to service and repay the debts. You can read more about this model in my Copenhagen City & Port Development report.
Another solution is for local government to raise seed capital, for instance from philanthropies, pension funds and other large institutional investors that invest with long time horizons. This seed capital is used in projects as low-yield and high-risk investment capital that is capable of attracting other investments that are more high yield and low risk. Once projects have been realised, they are refinanced, and the seed capital is withdrawn and put into another project. This is a kind of project-by-project financing. You can read more about this model in my Cincinnati Development Corporation report.
This blog post has offered a snapshot of several research projects I have conducted over the years. All my works contain key enabling features for replication, which allow me to scale solutions to other cities. If you want to learn more, please visit this page or get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Luise Noring (2019) Public asset corporation: A new vehicle for urban regeneration and infrastructure finance. Cities.
Bruns-Berentelg, J., Noring, L., & Grydehøj, A. (2020). Developing urban growth and urban quality: Entrepreneurial governance and urban redevelopment projects in Copenhagen and Hamburg. Urban Studies.
About the Author
Dr. Luise Noring is an Assistant Professor at CBS, where she also attained her Ph.D. in supply chain partnerships. Noring challenges taken-for-granted and commonsense solutions – which are only ever taken-for-granted and commonsense within their specific contexts. Part of what makes her work innovative and has assured its impact in research and practice is precisely her insistence on reaching across national and sectoral contexts, drawing experiences from a great diversity of urban systems. This has allowed Noring to identify what kinds of city solutions work best in particular contexts and how certain kinds of institutional vehicles and finance mechanisms can be adapted to diverse cities and countries.