ILR School

Chartering an Inclusive, Sustainable, Democratic City

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This article advances an opportunity for the City of Buffalo, NY – or any home rule municipality — to deepen and expand participatory governance and community self-determination, by replacing its current corporate charter with one that is firmly grounded in community and human rights. The case for a rights-based charter is developed through selected engagements with and syntheses of (1) instructive work from organizers, scholars, and attorneys in the community rights movement, and (2) New York State and local laws related to municipal charter revision. Among the core arguments in favor of a rights-based charter is that communities are rarely active and authentic participants in the matters that collectively affect them. Instead, ordinary people experience life as relatively disempowered subjects left to adjust to and embrace the world that developers, corporations, and other powerholders create for and around them. When they do not embrace that world, and instead organize and mobilize challenges against it, communities typically find themselves outmatched by resource-rich opponents with access to power. Communities that draw on legal “allowable remedies” (e.g., lawsuits or appeals to regulatory agencies) to resist unwanted development projects are invariably outspent by their opponents, who work tirelessly to maintain and uphold a system of laws and norms that prioritizes individualized private property rights over collective community rights. These dynamics make it nearly impossible for people to work together to create equitable, inclusive, sustainable, and democratic communities. Remedying this reality is not a matter of reforming existing inequitable development rules, but of re-forming the governance structure in which development decisions get made. One potential mechanism for catalyzing this re-formative process is a rights-based charter that formally empowers communities of everyday people to, collectively and democratically, make decisions about the matters that affect their shared social and spatial environments.

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Cornell University, ILR Buffalo Co-Lab


community rights; participatory governance; equitable development; democratic decision-making


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