168th Commencement: Watch Live
Professor Ray Brescia’s prodigious output is only made more impressive by the fact that, for the past three years, he has served as director of the dynamic
Government Law Center at Albany Law School — all while teaching several courses.
This spring, the Routledge publishing group released
HOW CITIES WILL SAVE THE WORLD: URBAN INNOVATION IN THE FACE OF POPULATION FLOWS, CLIMATE CHANGE, AND ECONOMIC INEQUALITY, a co-edited effort by Prof. Brescia — who also penned two chapters and co-authored the
introduction — and Professor John Travis Marshall of Georgia State University College of Law.
Prof. Brescia has
articles forthcoming this year in at least four different law journals. He also continues to
write for the Huffington Post and his own blog,
the Future of Change.
Prof. Brescia took a short break recently to discuss his new book, research interests, and accomplishments with the Government Law Center as he prepares to hand over the helm to a new director.
Tell us about the book.
HOW CITIES WILL SAVE THE WORLD
HOW CITIES WILL SAVE THE WORLD is a compilation of essays about a range of key issues that face the human race, for lack of a better term. Climate change, shifts in populations throughout the world, and economic inequality — these are three of the biggest challenges that face the planet right now. Our perspective in the book is that these issues are really playing out in cities. And from cities, the solutions will come.
Take economic inequality, for example. Most of our economic activity comes from urban centers, where populations are stratified. That’s where the jobs are. There’s a paralysis certainly at the federal government level. Strategies for addressing economic inequality are hard to get through the federal government and the state legislatures, but local governments sometimes have an easier way of doing that.
We’re starting to see things like the minimum wage — there have been increases in the minimum wage at the state level in California and New York recently, but they were really pushed by local governments that don’t always have the power to set their own minimum wage. In both states, I think the state legislatures and their executive branches really felt pushed by the cities.
That’s the pattern that we see in these essays. Cities can be real leaders. They can be real laboratories for change. And that change filters up from local governments to state governments and to the federal government. Just looking at, again, the example of the minimum wage, that’s how things progressed in the early part of the 20th century with local governments and state governments experimenting, and then ultimately we got a change at the federal level with a federal minimum wage.
We see population flows. We see cities shrinking; we see cities growing. Cities are at the forefront of the impacts of climate change. Cities tend to be near the water, they tend to generate lots of CO2 emissions. But they are also places where, because of economies of scale, you can have functioning mass transit systems and you can improve buildings, which are often a main driver of CO2 because they are so large and generate so much activity, to make dramatic changes in the emissions they generate.
We think that at the intersection of these critical issues you see cities both producing some of the problems but also being engines of change. Cities can bring about change at scale more rapidly and easily, and politics don’t seem to get in the way at the local level the way they do at the state and certainly at the federal government level.
This was a big and ambitious project. How did it come about?
My co-editor John Travis Marshall is someone whose path has crossed with mine in a number of settings, including the Emerging Scholars Conference the law school has hosted several times in the last few years. We started talking about looking at these issues, then we thought about all the people who could contribute, and it grew into a book proposal. He did a lot of work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. My work is informed by my time in New York City, working in Harlem, working in Washington Heights around housing inequality. Those were the building blocks for the broader essays.
Of course, we didn’t write everything. We got a collection of experts to talk about issues like immigration reform, participatory budgeting, land-use planning, and the need to ban lawns because of the environmental impacts. So it’s a range of very interesting topics.
How have your experiences — both as a public interest attorney and associate director of the Urban Justice Center in NYC — affected your views on these issues and the solutions to them?
Well, I think that I saw firsthand some of the impacts of mostly economic inequality but also environmental degradation in places like the south Bronx, central Brooklyn, and upper Manhattan, where one in four children in some communities have asthma because of the poor air quality and poor housing stock. But I didn’t just see problems — I also sought solutions, whether it was bringing impact litigation to try and bring about change, or doing policy and legislative advocacy to change the laws. Seeing social change in action to address real-world problems — that’s what informs all of my scholarship, but also certainly informed this book project.
You have numerous articles forthcoming, three of which deal with either technology or the “sharing economy.” What are your thoughts on the peer-to-peer model?
I really come at the research on this issue from the perspective of looking for ways that the peer-to-peer or the platform model can improve access to justice — the availability of legal services for everyone regardless of their ability to pay. I explore in some of this research: are there ways to get the benefits from the sharing economy in the delivery of legal services and not have so many of the same pitfalls?
The pitfalls in the sharing economy, from a worker’s perspective, from a consumer’s perspective, might be inadequate pay, no oversight, or no legal recourse if you are harmed in the peer-to-peer economy. But if you delivered legal services through a sharing economy model, you would have the protections that lawyers must offer their clients. So the downsides of the sharing economy — the same problems of ride-sharing or home-sharing services — are sort of negated because of those protections that are in place in the legal industry. For example, the barriers to entry, the requirement that the services are competent, or the recourse if someone commits malpractice.
I think that there are some providers that have sharing-economy components to deliver legal services. Sometimes they do it well, and sometimes questions are raised about the quality of the services. I think that those are legitimate concerns, and that’s something we need to explore further.
You are transitioning out of your role as director of the Government Law Center. What are your proudest accomplishments with the GLC — and what’s next?
I think the director of the GLC is a steward for this institution and works in collaboration with the staff of the GLC, the GLC advisory board, faculty, students, and community partners. Anything that we have accomplished in the last three years is a product of that collaborative effort, which I feel pretty good about.
Some of the things that I’m proud of — at the suggestion of Dean Ouellette we instituted the GLC Fellowship program. This is the inaugural year of the GLC Fellows program. We have 15 students who, from the first day they walked on campus as first-years, have been engaged with the GLC. They have been involved in our programming, they have written materials for some of our events, and they developed relationships with our advisory board members and with other community partners. So the GLC Fellows program has really taken off and has been a huge benefit to our students. I’m proud to say that we’re going to continue it moving forward.
The No. 1 ranking in government from
preLaw magazine that we got this year is a testament to the hard work of everybody on the team both within the GLC and all of our community partners. That’s something that I hope we can build on and retain moving forward.
I’m going to return to my faculty position and dedicate my time to teaching, scholarship, and service as a faculty member, though I’ll still stay involved with the GLC in an advisory capacity to the new director and to the staff and our community partners.
And I have a couple of book projects on the way. More to come.