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09.11.2013
Editorial> The City Will Fix Everything
Chris Bentley weighs in on a new Brookings report that urban economies are driving the country forward.
The Chicago skyline.
Anne Petersen / Flickr

It’s a great time to be a mayor. A strange result of the nation’s recent socioeconomic turmoil is that politicians are realizing what many architects, developers, and planners have long known intrinsically: Cities are society’s vital organs. While Congress and the country’s statehouses dig deeper into hyper-partisan trenches, the leaders of major metropolitan areas are getting things done.

That’s the central thesis of a new book by the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, entitled The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy. The authors clarified their argument during a July 18 event to promote the book in Chicago.

“There is no American economy,” Katz said. “What we are is a network of powerful metros.” The 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas account for one eighth of the country’s land, two thirds of its population and three quarters of its gross domestic product. (Katz and Bradley use the metro area as their boundary, lumping in Chicago’s collar counties with that city’s outlook, for example.)

 

This is, they write, “the inversion of the hierarchy of power in the United States.” The revolution is a child of the Great Recession; the recent financial collapse exposed the vulnerability of an economy premised on speculation and consumption for consumption’s sake. But unlike before, feckless, politically gridlocked federal and state governments are in no position to rescue the nation’s regional economies—“Cities and metropolitan areas are on their own,” the authors write.

It’s an interesting lens through which to view the rapidly changing faces of many U.S. cities. The book’s examples—Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, Denver, Houston, Detroit, northeast Ohio, and New York—are indeed cases of city-led innovation worth a look for any civic leader grappling with economic and demographic transition. Not every city can summon massive investment to supercharge a budding tech sector, as New York has with its Applied Sciences NYC initiative. But The Metropolitan Revolution offers overarching advice for all cities: find an individual or regional strength, and take that “game changer” to a global market.

Big box stores and mega-retailers like Walmart “masked the economy,” Katz said, because they homogenized the marketplace. Disparate metros hitched their economic futures to the same panacea: Compete for today’s jobs with tax breaks to suppress near-term unemployment at all costs. The cities succeeding today have found their niche and built partnerships around it so that no one employer or trade partnership is solely responsible for sustaining the metro area. To wit, Portland, Oregon, built a name for itself as an international leader in sustainable development exports.

The book gives city government too much credit at times, suggesting their leaders are apolitical and driven only by omniscient and unfailing pragmatism. The assertion that Chicago’s or New York’s “leaders live daily with the consequences of their decisions” is best taken metaphorically; no one should be under the illusion that Rahm Emanuel or Michael Bloomberg stands to gain or lose as much as those they represent from the “experimenting, taking risks, [and] hard choices” that characterize good leadership in The Metropolitan Revolution.

Chicago, though not one of the book’s case studies, faces the same challenges. Like Miami and Jacksonville, which the book calls out, the city is a major port. Its position as the country’s premier inland port and freight hub could be its saving grace. Clean and advanced manufacturing, too, may hold out hope. As a manufacturing report by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning made clear, no single industry in metropolitan Chicago accounts for more than 19 percent of manufacturing employment. The sector’s diversity is its strength, and job training programs like Richard J. Daley College’s manufacturing technology department can play an important part.

Ultimately, the revolution they describe is about rebuilding the middle class. “Game changing” industries must go hand in hand with the hard work of fixing education, crime, and the persistent, concentrated poverty that has fragmented the nation’s metros along class lines. It’s a critical point that author Jennifer Bradley acknowledged in Chicago, although it bears repeating: The revolution has to be for everybody.

Chris Bentley