The "Metropolitan Revolution" and the Changing Role of Cities

Why cities and their leaders could wind up mattering more than Washington.
June 18, 2013

Bruce Katz, who leads the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, spoke with Governing about his new book published Monday that explores the changing role of cities and metropolitan areas.

In "The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy," Katz and co-author Jennifer Bradley make a powerful argument that the federal government isn't positioned to tackle the most pressing challenges facing the country. Instead, they say cities are developing creative ideas that will lead the nation -- and its economy -- for the foreseeable future. It's a role Katz says city leaders must embrace or else risk being left behind.

This interview has been condensed and edited for the sake of clarity.

Governing: Why'd you write this book now? What made 2013 the right moment?

Katz:  I think it was because we saw the juxtaposition between innovation at the city and metro level and the pervasiveness of drift at the highest levels of federal government that's really left us mired in partisan gridlock.

It's the contrast. We started writing this a year ago, before the 2012 election. Our sense was the writing's on the wall. For the foreseeable future, cities and metro areas are really the ones stepping up and powering the nation forward.

The stories in the book are really about the economic vision for investing in infrastructure, making manufacturing a priority again, and equipping workers with the skills we need.

Governing: For someone who's worked in Congress, who's worked for HUD, and who was on the Obama transition team, you sure don't seem to think highly of the federal government. When did that change?

Katz: I always considered myself -- even when I was in the federal government -- someone who cared first and foremost about cities and metropolitan areas. My view of the federal government has been that it's successful when it really acts in the service of city and metropolitan prosperity. That can either be by setting common rules -- for economic activity, for immigration, for trade, et cetera -- or by providing resources (for cities) to advance their own vision.

In some respects, I feel the book is consistent with how I've always felt about the world. The only difference now is we have a national government that's really gripped by this polarization. It's not anything to celebrate. It just drives home the point that cities and metros, for the foreseeable future, are on their own. Nobody's riding to the rescue. I think we're going to have to make due with the powers and resources as they currently stand. Cities and metros are really, at this point, leading and innovating. I think over time this will be a major structural shift.

Governing: Does it change once we've finally fully rebounded from the recession?

Katz: I think there's several things that are happening. The top 100 metros really do punch way above their weight. Everything that matters, like skilled workers, they're 85 or 90 percent of the national share. We are the quintessential metropolitan nation. That's why we're powerful. And at some point, when you're that powerful in a subset of your country, I think structurally, that's where policy leadership is going to lie.

I think the other issue ... is that because of the aging of the population, the federal government is about to shift an enormous amount of resources towards health care of the elderly. I think over time, that's going to put a lid on things like investment in infrastructure and education. And that's why you see cities and metros stepping up.

Governing: Meredith Whitney's predictions about cities going broke didn't come true. But we're still seeing places like Detroit struggle, and communities like Jefferson County, Ala. and several California cities have even gone bankrupt. Does that undermine your argument?

Katz: Cities are not governments. Our book tell stories where what you see are networks working together to organize themselves in more strategic ways. That's what cities and metros do so differently from the state and federal level, which are really just governments.

When cities and metropolitan areas are trapped, there are options. They can go to voters or leverage private investment capital. There are other market mechanisms at their disposal. I do think the focus on the fiscal health and vitality of cities is somewhat distorted because it's using the Detroit case to paint a broad brush across the country. It's also missing the point about why cities are powerful.

One thing that's really interesting about cities is this is where elected leaders use their informal power as much as their formal power, like when you see Bloomberg after the recession pulling together leaders to say 'what's our game changer?' That's how they came up with the Applied Science District. They have a new role now. It's not just running their governments but also helping to convene disparate stakeholders.

Governing: There's a quote in your book from Daniel Patrick Moynihan that basically says federal officials don't bother to think at all about how their work impacts cities. You know lots of people in Washington. Is that true?

Katz: I do think that governments tend to be very specialized at the state and federal levels. They tend to be organized by legislative committees into very discrete categories. Executive agencies do the same. And even within executive agencies, there's enormous compartmentalization. One of the Obama administration's achievements has been to break down those barriers.

At the local level, that kind of integrated thinking happens as a matter of course. It's hard not to see the connection between transportation and housing when they're living it day-to-day.

There are large areas of domestic policy that really should lie at lower levels of government because you're more likely to have an efficient allocation of resources than the one-size-fits all at the national scale.

What you still want the national government to do is the things cities and metros can't do. This is not about letting the federal government off the hook. They need to be the level of government that provides the safety net, that makes sure our food is safe, that makes sure our borders are secure. We can't have cities writing their own trade deals with China. But what we're seeing is a de facto sorting out of responsibility that may actually make more sense.

Governing: What should local leaders take away from your book?

Katz: The message is 'you have power.' The power, to some extent, starts with using the local government to convene stakeholders. You form a network, and whatever the problem is, find the right government, civic, corporate, university and labor leaders to start cracking the code.

The economic structures of the metros are really different from each other. So the last part is find out what's your game changer. In New York, it was the Applied Sciences Initiative. In L.A. and Denver, it was transit. This is the Dolly Parton line, "find out who you are, and do it on purpose." What's going to make your metropolis stand out among the crowd?

In some ways, this should be liberating. It's the quintessential American value. We're basically saying, 'roll up your sleeves and solve problems.' Who else do you think will? You're on your own. We're not celebrating a moment here. It's the harsh reality.

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