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Government • Reform • Localism

Embracing the metropolitan revolution

Bruce Katz & Jennifer Bradley - 16 July 2013

Networks of metropolitan leaders, from elected officials to corporate and civic heads, are reshaping our economies and our politics

A revolution is stirring. In the face of supersized economic and social challenges, American cities and metros are stepping up and doing the hard work to grow jobs and make their economies more prosperous. With Washington and many states mired in partisan gridlock, networks of metropolitan heads – elected officials for sure but also corporate, civic and university leaders – are reaching across partisan and jurisdictional divisions to reshape their economies, remake their places and prepare their workers for a more competitive world.

Signs of the revolution can be witnessed all across the country. They can be found in grand, economy shaping gestures: an Applied Sciences District in NYC; an Infrastructure Trust in Chicago; large scale transit investments in Denver and Los Angeles; and the modernization of ports, airports and freight rail in Miami and Jacksonville and Dallas. However, they can also be discovered in smart structural interventions: an intermediary in North East Ohio that helps manufacturing firms retool their factories for new demand; a regional export strategy in Portland, Oregon that helps small businesses access global markets; and a network of Neighborhood Centers in Houston that gives new immigrants access to low cost banking, education, child care and health care.

Across the nation, cities and metros are taking control of their own destinies, becoming deliberate and intentional about their economic growth. Power is devolving to places and people who are closest to ground and oriented towards collaborative action. This shift is changing irreparably who our leaders are, what they do, and how they govern.  

The Foundations of Metropolitan Power

America’s cities and metropolitan areas are acting with vision and ambition because they can.  

The top 100 cities and metropolitan areas are the engines of the U.S. economy and the centers of trade and investment. They sit on only one-eighth of the nation’s land mass but are home to two-thirds of the population and generate 75 percent of the national GDP. They also contribute outsized shares of the nation’s educated workers (75 percent), advanced industries (90 percent), patents (92 percent) and global passenger and freight flow (e.g. 92 percent of air passenger boardings). Metros punch above their weight because they concentrate and cluster advanced research institutions, innovative firms, talented workers, risk taking entrepreneurs and supportive institutions and associations. There is, in essence, no American (or Chinese or British or Indian) economy but rather a network of metropolitan economies.   

Cities and metropolitan areas are also the frontlines of America’s demographic change.  America’s future population – and its future workforce - will be much more diverse than its present, and soon no single race or ethnic group will be the nation’s majority.  Many U.S. metros are already living that future, housing 85 percent of the nation’s foreign born population. In fact, every major demographic trend that the U.S. is experiencing - rapid population growth, increasing diversity, an aging tsunami - is happening at a faster pace, a greater scale and a higher level of intensity in its major metropolitan areas.  

Although only states and the federal government are recognized by the U.S. Constitution, cities and metropolitan areas enjoy considerable powers. There is an inextricable link between fiscal devolution and the shaping of economies in cities and metropolitan areas. A large share of financing for local services, for example, comes from revenues generated at the municipal level. Given these fiscal tools, cities are able to access municipal bond markets and utilize innovative financing techniques, such as tax increment financing (TIF), to support specific economic development strategies and projects. Cities and counties also have the power in most states to go to voters with ballot initiatives to ask for bond issues or dedicated tax sources to support smart, targeted investments. All these financing tools leverage additional funding and resources from the private sector. Municipalities also have enormous ability to grow and shape their economies given their substantial control over local land use, zoning and planning. The design and implementation of these powers helps set the framework not just for the physical landscape of the city, but also structure of industry and residential and commuting patterns.

Against this backdrop, directly elected Mayors play both formal and informal roles within cities. In many cities, Mayors are the CEOs of the local government, responsible for the overall management of city agencies and departments and the appointment of board members and even senior staff members to quasi public agencies. The best U.S. mayors also extend beyond their formal remit and help set the broader competitive vision for the city, in coordination with corporate, university and civic leadership, and develop strategies to achieve that vision. The informal power to convene is probably the least respected tool a local elected official possesses, but the most important one when addressing issues as multi-dimensional as the desired shape and structure of a metropolitan economy. Mayor Bloomberg understood this in the early days of the Great Recession when he and his Administration reached out to dozens of corporate and civic leaders to discern options for economic revival and diversification, a process which ultimately resulted in the Applied Sciences District.

America’s metropolitan revolution seems thoroughly attuned to the pace and tenor of modern life spawned by technology and globalization. We are living in a disruptive moment that worships speed, extols collaboration, rewards customization, demands differentiation and champions integrated thinking to match and master the complexities of modern economies and societies. The metropolitan revolution is like our Age: crowd sourced rather than closed sourced, entrepreneurial rather than bureaucratic, networked rather than hierarchical.

This latter point bears emphasis. America’s cities and metropolitan areas constitute networks that prosper together when working together. In a world in which people live, operate, communicate and engage through networks, metros have emerged as the über-network: interlinked firms, institutions and individuals working together across sectors, disciplines, jurisdictions, artificial political borders and, yes, even political parties. In the process, a new kind of metropolitan leadership is being spawned.  It is, at its core, a Pragmatic Caucus, which puts place over party, collaboration over conflict and evidence over dogma.  
Members of Pragmatic Caucus have one other critical characteristic: they are fast, eager learners, ever observant of their peers, able to move quickly to spot innovation elsewhere and apply it at home. A smart export strategy in Portland will inform thinking and action in Pittsburgh and Phoenix within months, given easy accessibility to information and the propensity of smart ideas to spread virally in a political market.

What America’s Revolution Teaches

In an era of rapid urbanization, America’s Metropolitan Revolution will, like our 18th Century upheaval, infect and affect the world. Lessons will clearly be drawn by fellow federal republics (e.g., Germany, Canada, Spain, South Africa) as well as emerging nations (e.g., India, Brazil) that have yet to devolve beyond national and state governments.  Yet the strong lessons may be reserved for nations like the United Kingdom, long governed, almost mandarin-like, from the center. The time has come to let cities and metros lead on many areas of domestic policy and have national governments follow, respecting local vision, priorities and democratic principles and practice. The time has come, in essence, to let go of power.  
Bruce Katz is a Vice President of the Brookings Institution; Jennifer Bradley is a Fellow in the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.  They are the co-authors of The Metropolitan Revolution.  

This is a contribution to the joint Policy Network / Center for American Progress - Global Progress essay series on The Party of the Future: Coalition‐building and a new style of politics.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Opinion , Metropolitan Revolution , Bruce Katz , Jennifer Bradley , U.S. , United States , Germany , Canada , Spain , South Africa , India , Brazil , United Kingdom , UK , Cities , Reform , Government , Innovation , Government , Reform , Localism

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