Why leadership absent in state and national capitals is abundant in our cities

Review – The New Localism – How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism, by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, 2017, 290 pp., The Brookings Institution

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash
Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Cities are having their moment. Well beyond the urban studies departments of old, universities from the London School of Economic to MIT have launched new and creative initiatives seeking to rethink the design of cities. News organizations from the New York Times to the Guardian have begun new sections and series to explore the fast-urbanizing world and what it means. Closer to home, the Austin-based Texas Tribune recently convened a conference in Houston, “The Future of Urban Texas.”

Good and recent books abound, some of which we’ve already reviewed here at Urbanitus; others are still on our list.

But against that busy backdrop, a standout is The New Localism – How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism, by Bruce Katz and the late Jeremy Nowak, both well-traveled scholars who penned the book while at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Nowak died last year. Katz, who founded Brookings’ own new cities initiative, continues his and his co-author’s work as the director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University.

At risk of oversimplifying a complex, sweeping and data-rich work, The New Localism casts its gaze at cities on two levels.

In the first instance, Katz and Brookings explore the global forces at work that are both transforming cities while giving rise to the global populism that is the stuff of daily headlines. In essence, they see this as a single phenomenon.

In the second instance, The New Localism is almost an operator’s manual focusing in on three cities as case studies: Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Copenhagen. These are just a few of the pioneers responding to global challenges that get little more than a shrug from increasingly dysfunctional state and national governments.

On the subject of populism, the authors see this has a political response to local social and economic dislocation that is animating anger throughout the industrialized world. Writing in 2017, they see income disparity, technological change and other shocks and trauma as the forces energizing the rise of both President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders. In Europe, this helps us understand the poisonous “Brexit” debate that has hived the United Kingdom in to two warring camps and explains the ongoing anger that boils over routinely into the streets of Paris.

“Because populism emerges during periods of significant change, it is often an uneasy mix of tradition-seeking momentum and future-facing reform,” they suggest in an argument that certainly others have made. They carry this line of analysis, however, in a less familiar direction when it comes to the perceptions of cities that find themselves in the crosshairs of diverging populist polemics.

“From the perspective of the populist right, cities are the sites of cosmopolitan identity that do not necessarily share the traditional values of the rest of the nation,” reads The New Localism. “From the perspective of the populist left, cities embody globalization’s flawed economic outcomes: a wealthy upper class connected to finance, technology, and higher paying professions such as law and medicine, socially isolated from an economically insecure working class of service, public sector, and manufacturing workers.”

Which all boils down to the effectively argued conclusion that it is actually cities that are solving the problems that populists of all stripes decry. Further, it is cities that are – and will — carry society to a new, innovative and creative future while state and national governments stand by barking empty commands.

Broadly, Katz and Nowak explore new models of governance, emphasizing that cities are far more than City Hall, and that “networked governance” requires leaders who can bring stakeholders together regionally from politics, academia, business and civil society. Coalition building is at the heart of The New Localism.

Innovation and the creation of networks of new business incubation, business models, and even complimentary trading and commercial relationships between cities, are detailed. And new financial models, leveraging undervalued assets and creating new revenue sources to ease dependency on property taxes, are argued for in this book. Most cities, Katz and Nowak say, are living up to only 50 or 60 percent of their potential when it comes to financing their operations.

“In many respects, our diagnostics and prescriptions are limited by our antiquated perception of cities as governments rather than networks, and as political wards of the state rather than centers of the economy and innovation,” they write.

In the examples drawn from Indianapolis, the lead protagonist is the 60-member Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, or CICP, which brings together the CEOs and presidents of the region’s leading companies, philanthropic foundations and universities. Among the successful initiatives of the CICP was the decision to lead the city away from its sports and stadium-based strategy to the nurturing of healthcare and life sciences development. This has transformed Indianapolis.

In Pittsburgh, just one example of how the city rebuilt itself after the collapse of Big Steel beginning in the 1970s was the emergence of a nascent robotics industry when scientists at Carnegie Mellon University were tasked to help clean up the badly damaged Three Mile Island nuclear power plant after a reactor explosion in 1979. Robots, capable of exploring and clearing the radioactive waste site, were essentially invented at Carnegie Mellon. And Pittsburgh was to become today’s leading center of robotics research and manufacture.

“A convergence economy emerged: a fusion of academia and industry with electrical and mechanical engineering, computer science, and multiple other fields,” they write. “When disciplines collide, magic happens.”

Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen, arguably the world’s most sustainably run city that seeks to be carbon neutral by 2025, is among the book’s examples of reinvented urban finance. Just one interesting case is how the city “put Humpty Dumpty back together again” to manage property assets systematically. Essentially, Copenhagen reversed the fracture typical in most American cities with public ownership spread across airport authorities, port authorities, distinct water and sewer authorities, convention center authorities, stadium authorities, redevelopment authorities, housing authorities, land banks, school board and others.

A similar, if more limited, exercise of consolidating and reassessing assets by the city of Cleveland in 2014, for example, boosted the city’s net worth from $6 billion to $30 billion.

The small galaxy of successful and transformative efforts that Katz and Nowak assemble is not without complexity and struggle, the authors readily concede. Housing affordability is among the most vexing problems. So is K-12 education, a battle the authors basically leave for another day. Universities are the lead protagonist in every success story; community colleges less so. And this needs to change, say Katz and Nowak.

But the The New Localism paints a daring vision and optimistic vision of cities as the new global leaders. And at a time at when cities are having their moment in the journalistic, think tank and academic sun, this book is as practical and realistic a volume of practice and theory as you will find. And the new urban age is just beginning, they say.

“We need, in short, a theory and practice of New Localism that are as rich and as textured as cities themselves,” they conclude. “This is the way we reimagine power, redefine leadership, and create and repurpose effective institutions for this challenging age.”

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