Design Challenges for Human Rights Cities

40 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2018

See all articles by Martha F. Davis

Martha F. Davis

Northeastern University - School of Law

Date Written: 2018


Given the scope of their responsibilities, city leaders have tremendous opportunities to advance human rights. Among other things, cities must deliver water, sewage treatment, trash removal, road maintenance, public transportation, public safety, and education to their residents. For good or ill, whether or not they explicitly acknowledge it, cities and city leaders are addressing a wide range of human rights in their day-to-day operations, generally with minimal federal oversight and decreasing levels of direct financial support. Some U.S. cities have gone further to make their human rights commitments explicit, joining a host of international cities and regions in declaring themselves to be human rights cities that will take human rights norms into account in setting city policy. However vigorously and overtly city leaders take on the task of realizing their constituents’ human rights, there are structural challenges baked into the governance structure of the United States that may impede cities’ capacities to act. State pre-emption is one threat to city laws and policies in many substantive areas. City policies may face an additional threat from the courts. If courts deem the federal government to occupy a field in which a city is also developing policies, the prospect of federal pre-emption raises a separate set of challenges beyond state pre-emption. Because the federal government exercises authority over the nation’s foreign affairs, federal challenges may be particularly acute for cities that have formally incorporated international human rights norms into their local laws and policies. This Article does not suggest a new doctrinal theory for addressing this governance dilemma. Instead, in this Article, I work through the thought experiment of looking at cities’ structural governance relationships and the impacts of those arrangements through the lens of law and design. I posit that the project of tailoring city, state, and federal relationships to maximize human wellbeing can fruitfully be framed as a “design challenge.” Just as cities today view issues of transportation, water delivery, and recreation access as issues to be addressed through design processes, so might cities approach their structural human rights challenges as systems that can be re-designed or designed-around in order to support the human rights advancement of city residents and visitors. Further, to the extent that the design lens can bring a broader range of interested groups to the table -- notably the business interests that have often opposed local innovations, and perhaps state actors seeking to be national thought leaders -- it may help to break down the current clash of policy approaches.

Keywords: HRC, human rights cities, law & design, pre-emption

Suggested Citation

Davis, Martha F., Design Challenges for Human Rights Cities (2018). Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 27-66 (2018), Available at SSRN:

Martha F. Davis (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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