What with dysfunction in Washington and incompetence in state capitals, the spotlight is shifting to the role of cities, not only as arenas of democratic governance but simply as places where things get done. It’s early days yet for this debate, but two new books are setting an agenda.
The one getting the most attention, The Metropolitan Revolution, focuses on what metropolitan regions – cities and their suburbs -- can do at home to prepare for the demands of the global economy, at a time when they aren’t getting much help from either federal or state governments.
In both their title and in their subtitle, How Cities and Metros Are Fixing our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, the authors, Brookings scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, may promise more than they deliver. But they’re being rightly praised for calling attention to the fact that more than two-thirds of all Americans now live in the 100 biggest metropolitan areas – that is, cities and their suburbs – and that these metros generate most of the nation’s GDP and sheer economic drive.
Katz and Bradley argue that metros have the power and focus to sidestep national ideological logjams and take their futures into their own hands. If their examples add up to something less than a “revolution,” they offer encouragement to mayors and civic leaders from New York to Portland who are trying to meet local needs with local actions.
The other book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, takes this idea one big step further. The author, the New York-based scholar and author Benjamin R. Barber, argues that cities, not nations, are best placed to deal with the big global problems, such as climate control, terrorism, immigration, gun control, disease, and global inequalities.
Theoretically, Barber says, national government should handle these problems. Indeed, they’ve tried -- and mostly failed. The reason, he says, is simply because they’re national, which means they are so hobbled by national constraints – constitutional, political, judicial, sovereign, patriotic – that they simply can’t muster the political will or compromise to deal effectively with any problem that crosses national frontiers.
That leaves cities as the only governments able to get the job done. He gives examples of progress toward this goal but, like Katz and Bradley, makes it clear that this is a work in progress.
Both books sprout from similar roots. Cities are practical and non-ideological. Mayors who have to pick up the garbage and fix potholes don’t have time for political gridlock. Global problems – terrorism, for instance – are felt in cities, such as New York or Mumbai, not nations. City governments exist to solve problems.
Katz and Bradley cite examples of local action – the creation of a new applied science university in New York City, a big immigration project in Houston, a philanthropic fund aimed at reviving the economy in northeast Ohio, regional cooperation in Denver. All are considerably less than “revolutionary,” but point up ways in which cities and their suburbs are trying to work on a metro-wide basis, across town lines.
If Katz and Bradley have a local focus, Barber talks “globally,” flinging cities into the global arena. He argues that the sheer power of national governments – especially the American one – leaves them muscle-bound abroad. “It is not that states are weak,” he writes, “but that their strength is without bearing on so many cross-border challenges – problems of immigration, disease, terrorism, climate change, technology, war, and markets.”
Barber acknowledges that the same power can enable a national government to squelch any attempt by a city to act on its own. The answer, he says, is for cities to seek out areas where Washington doesn’t care or isn’t paying attention. Cities also can join global networks – associations that are more than local but less than sovereign – to work with like-minded cities around the globe. He’s not talking about global government so much as global governance, about cities “leveraging change... in the space between eroding national power and the growing challenges of an interdependent world.”
Barber admits that this global “networking” gives off idealistic vibes common among activists and academics anxious to find neat solutions to big problems. Practical politicians, especially in Washington, may scoff, and they may be right, but his point is that, if any of these problems are to be solved, cities must take the lead.
This amounts to major cities adopting their own foreign policy, to pursue local interests that may be blocked or ignored at the federal level. This isn’t as fanciful as it sounds: Barber cites many cities – Los Angeles, New York, Stuttgart, Barcelona, Singapore, Palermo, Bogota – that are doing just that, with varying degrees of success. Katz and Bradley note with approval what Portland, Oregon, is doing to identify their leading export-related clusters and promote their sales abroad.
I’ve been arguing for some times that Midwestern cities need to act regionally – that is, across political boundaries, cooperating with other cities, often to the disapproval of their state governments. Both books get at this imperative.
Katz and Bradley see urban areas as metros, embracing both cities and suburbs. If their examples seldom cross state lines, they’re recognizing the need for an economy of scale if these metros are to be effective in a globalizing world. Each of their examples stresses strong leadership: years of political rivalries and balkanization can’t be overcome without strong leaders taking the helm.
Barber focuses more on cities, not metros, and says these cities’ natural partners might not be the city or suburb next door but similar cities, with similar needs, halfway around the world. He includes long lists of such urban networks already existing.
None of these networks seem to be headquartered in the Midwest, where cities are just beginning to realize that they’re on their own, in a world where Washington and their state capitals doesn’t much care what happens to them, but where distant cities may hold the key to their futures.