The Metropolitan Revolution
by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley
Brookings Institution Press, June 2013
By far the most important thing that the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program has done is educate and advocate for the reality of the metro-centricity of the United States. This might seem obvious from their name, but from the behavior of all too many, this new metro reality is apparently not obvious to most.
Lost in the statistics of world urbanization is the fact that the United States is already almost entirely urbanized. In 2010, over 80% of the US population lived in urban areas. In America, that urbanization takes the form of the metropolitan area we’ve come to know, consisting of a central city and its associated suburbs. Just the top 100 metros contain 2/3’s of America’s population.
Too many policy makers seem to think that America is still a nation of yeoman farmers or that the average American lives in something resembling Mayberry. Because the basics are like the urban air many of us breathe, I think it can be difficult to appreciate just how hard it is to talk to senior elected officials who don’t share our mindset – or even get them to listen in the first place. One thing Brookings has is the institutional stature to speak to them at both the state and federal level. Thus they are able to educate those people on basic facts that probably seem beyond obvious to anyone reading this. This is hugely important.
On the other hand, Brookings can be distinguished by being advocates for the idea of metropolitanism to urbanists who too often reject it. Because the American urban form is often bifurcated into central cities that look and function one way and suburban areas that look and function another, it’s easy to see “city” and “suburb” as different entities and indeed even opposed entities rather than the integrated societies and economies that they are. While I think it’s fair to say that Brookings is favorable towards central cities, they aren’t anti-suburban. This is to their great credit.
The Metropolitan Revolution is a new book from them (Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley) that is basically a packaging of their urban point of view and manifesto circa now. It consists of four case studies followed by four chapters outlining their big call to action themes. Fortunately, it reads much more like one of Bruce Katz’s speeches than it does a typical Brookings whitepaper, and is very readable on that account.
Richard Layman already wrote a detailed review I’d encourage you to check it out as I’m going to attempt to cover different territory and rely on him for what he describes.
The four case studies are New York City’s process for developing the Cornell-Technion tech campus project, Denver’s regionalism, Cleveland’s Fund for Our Economic Future, and a Houston-based social service organization called Neighborhood Centers, Inc.
These cases were obviously selected with an eye towards a diversity of metro types. Given its prominence as a urbanist bête noire, Houston was a particularly bold choice. All of them were told as feel-good stories, which makes you come away feeling hopeful about metro America. On the other hand, this means that when you investigate the cases in more detail, they don’t look quite so perfect.
The New York tech campus example is an interesting one to me. It is an unrealized project, so the jury is still out, but it’s an important statement about how that city sees the future. Layman softly dings this one as being only a city level initiative, but at over eight million people, NYC is bigger than any other metro area aside from LA or Chicago, so let’s cut them some slack.
The most notable thing here in my view is that New York believes it has to be in the tech talent production business. NYC has traditionally been the ultimate talent attractor. They didn’t need to worry about producing the world’s top talent because it would seek them out. Silicon Valley and most tech hubs rely on this kind of talent attraction for their supply. By setting up a tech talent factory in town, however, NYC is saying that they don’t think they can meet their tech industry ambitions solely through hoovering up outsiders. They need to be in the production business as well. I’m not sure what Jim Russell thinks of this, but he’s often claimed that the era of prosperity on an attraction model is waning in a more convergent world (i.e., where tech & talent are becoming more decentralized). NYC seems to be responding to this reality.
Brookings has done quite a bit of consulting work in Cleveland I believe, so perhaps it’s unsurprising they used an example from that city. Cleveland is in a sense another bold choice for a case study given that it has performed so poorly as a region. But perhaps the desperation birthed out of such performance is what convinced a number of regional foundations to get into the economic development business, and to pool their resources to do so as something called the Fund for Our Economic Future. Whether foundations are a good vehicle for driving economic development is debatable. But in a place that has such toxic city-suburb divides – for example, Cuyahoga County reps banded together at the local MPO to veto a suburban interstate interchange even though a developer was paying for it … until the suburb in question agreed to share tax revenue with Cleveland – this was a good first place for regional collaboration to take hold. However, it’s not clear to me that this initiative is actually going well, as newspaper articles from 2010 suggest that the Cleveland Foundation, its biggest funder, was scaling back support for it. Whatever the status today, clearly the road was not without major boulders in it.
The chapter on Denver was one I found particularly depressing at it illustrates the problem folks like Brookings are fighting to overcome. As Denver grew, it annexed territory, but as in many places, a hostile state disempowered the city. Colorado effectively banned future annexations by amending the state constitution to require a majority vote of all residents in a county containing territory Denver wanted to annex. That’s all county residents, not just residents of the affected territories. Yikes! It just goes to show that America’s state legislatures will go to any length to kill the golden geese that pay their bills. Though this happened long ago, the same spirit is alive and well today in many places. As the authors put it when discussing the problem more broadly:
States have used their power not only to define and limit the power and geography of cities and municipalities but also to create a dizzying, often comical array of special-purpose entities: school districts, fire districts, library districts, sewer districts, mosquito districts, public benefit corporations, industrial development authorities, transportation authorities, port authorities, workforce investment boards, redevelopment authorities, control boards, and emergency financial managers. Fundamentally, cities and metropolitan areas have either been places acted on or the backdrops and locations where state and federal interventions have been made, whether for ill or good.
This case study charts the evolution of regionalism in Denver from this starting point of animosity, through to the creation of a regional mayors organization, building a new airport, a cultural facilities tax, and the vote to approve the FasTracks rail system (including discussing how an initial attempt fail). As with Cleveland however, all has not been rosy. In a bit of impeccable timing, earlier this month (no doubt after the book went to press), Adams County demanded that Denver de-annex the land that it ceded in 1988 to build the new airport. Lawsuits are threatened.
A Call To Action
In the second half of the book Katz and Bradley highlight a number of imperatives they think are critical to metro areas in the future.
I’ll start by talking about what I didn’t agree with. Richard Layman liked the “innovation districts” theme from the book, but I’m less sold. There are definitely bona fide examples like Cambridge, MA. But these were generally organic (or at least unintended by-products of government action). Most intentional innovation districts (Research Triangle Park being a notable exception) have been Potempkin village like constructs as near as I can see. I’d put the Detroit example in this bucket. There’s a lot of good stuff happening, but not all that much Cambridge or Silicon Valley style innovation. Heck, I’d even put Boston’s South Waterfront in the same category, at least to date. There’s a lot of real estate development, but not quite as much spontaneous innovation. (Mass Challenge is only one floor of one building, for example, received a lot of government money I believe, and is a non-profit to boot).
Layman does highlight a conundrum faced by metros when it comes to innovation districts, however. Namely, they are mostly in the core city. To him this implies a future that’s core city centric. To me it highlights the free rider dilemma for regional amenities. As I noted regarding sacred space, it’s the core city that often provides (and pays for and makes valuable land non-taxable for) regional amenities. These cities expect the suburbs to ante up for this. And in some cases (often the wrong ones, like stadiums) that’s happened. But in many cases it hasn’t. City advocates often decry this. However, if a suburb happens to step up and build a regional amenity, the city folks howl at that too. For example, when Carmel, Indiana built a concert hall, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra reportedly lobbied wealthy people in the region not to donate any funds to it. I’ve yet to meet one person from the urban core who thinks that suburban concert hall is a plus for the region. The downtown crowd wants to hog the amenities, but expects everyone else to help pay to support them. This is an example of the counter-productive thinking that plagues our metros.
Where I thought the book really stood out was in an area Layman was less sold on, namely the notion of an international league of trading cities. I think he got caught up in the analogy to the Hanseatic League. The key point here was that metro areas need to focus on exports. Global growth has shifted away from the US, so if your metro economy is only focused on domestic markets, you are practically doomed to being a slow growth city at best. The regions that export to high growth markets are going to have a huge advantage. As the authors put it:
Many metro leaders in the United States have not used or even flexed their communities’ exporting muscle. As a result, the system for global engagement in most metros is either nonexistent or badly frayed. Most American metros have no baseline information on what—and with whom—they trade. Few resources are dedicated to exporting, foreign direct investment, and global exchange.
Obviously in order to export, it helps to have existing relationships. Building these relationships is something that’s critical for every metro area to be doing. Katz and Bradley highlight attracting immigrant communities as one way to get international networks “for free.” This is something that too few local leaders understand. The backing for mayoral trade trips is one I’m less sold on. I’ve seldom seen these result in much actual business and I think there’s something to the notion that these are junkets (if not outright pseudo-bribery). Regardless, the Brookings offering around creating export plans for communities is right down the rails of what metros need to be looking at. They make a very effective case for this.
I once asked what globalization means to non-global cities. I think this book offers a compelling answer that it means the difference between having a stagnant economy and one that is potentially high growth through global trade. This is an imperative for every region with the scale to operate at the global level (which I tend to scope at around the top 50 metros).
I also want to highlight their chapter on metros as the “new sovereign.” Given the gridlock in Washington and the fecklessness that characterizes most state legislatures when it comes to metros, it’s tempting for a lot of people to talk about cities going it alone. Brookings, perhaps because they are so tightly connected to federal and state institutions, doesn’t see it this way. Katz and Bradley chart out a middle course, recognizing that now is the time for regions to step up and take the lead, but also acknowledging the criticality of federal and state governments. From their introductory chapter:
Like all great revolutions, this one has been catalyzed by a revelation: Cities and metropolitan areas are on their own. The cavalry is not coming. Mired in partisan division and rancor, the federal government appears incapable of taking bold action to restructure our economy and grapple with changing demography and rising inequality. Recent Supreme Court decisions have also circumscribed the ability of the federal government to respond to national challenges. States are a varied lot. Some, often under the leadership of mayors-turned-governors, are aligning policies and programs to meet the needs of their metropolitan engines; some are too broke and broken to engage and, in fact, are scaling back investments in critical areas like education, redevelopment, and community health; still others have a long history of antagonism toward their urban and metropolitan engines.
Yet cities and metropolitan areas, even if they are largely on their own, cannot go it alone. Federal and state governments are dysfunctional but powerful actors. If the states are an irresponsible parent, the federal government is a distant, often clueless relative—who nonetheless controls the family money.
They other thing they so importantly get right is the distinctiveness of cities. It’s no longer about having the same collection of assets and amenities as everyone else, but about trying to understand your unique local environment and build on that.
One takeaway for me was that, despite the almost obvious importance of metro areas to America, there’s isn’t necessarily a road map forward. This is most true within metro areas themselves. As the Cleveland and Denver examples showed, there are generally no legal or institutional frameworks that by default create metro level thinking. In fact, everything is aligned exactly the opposite direction, as I highlighted earlier with innovation districts. Doing the right thing requires immense leadership by broad-minded locals who realize that their own particular city or town is part of an overall mosaic or team on which everybody needs to know their role and bring their A-game. This where perhaps Brookings could help metros going forward. How can these regions see themselves as part of a single organic entity and not as a collection of semi-independent feudal estates?
In any event, the book’s biggest contribution in my view is making the case for why this new view is important to those local leaders (as well as folks in state houses and Washington). And along the way it will hopefully provide a wakeup call on globalization and other critical topics for a metropolitan 21st century.
PS: Kaid Benfield at the NRDC also just posted a review.