The Rise of Cities and the Mayors Who Run Them

With the feds and states more marginalized than ever, cities -- and the mayors who run them -- are growing stronger.
by | September 12, 2013

This fall, two major American cities -- Boston and New York -- will elect new mayors. The pending leadership changes for these different but dynamic cities will be watched closely. Can the next mayors continue the success brought by the long-term administrations of Boston's Tom Menino and New York's Michael Bloomberg?

Nobody really expects the next mayors to outshine their illustrious predecessors. But whoever ends up running these cities will be part of a new generation of city leaders that have growing political clout, and will be governing economic regions that outpace the nation's economy. As Bruce Katz points out in his new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, several key factors have opened the door to cities. For one, he writes, the Great Recession has disrupted national economies while partisan gridlock has stymied national politics. At the same time, states that are heavily dependent on federal grants to run programs are struggling with decisions of what to keep and what not to. But, he writes, "cities and metros ... are responding with pragmatism, energy and ambition to get things done."

The growing economic power of cities can best be illustrated with these facts: The 388 metro areas in the United States make up 84 percent of the nation's population and 91 percent of gross domestic product (GDP); the 100 biggest metro areas generate 75 percent of GDP. Strong metro economies aren't limited to the U.S. either. An estimated 40 urban metro areas produce two-thirds of the world's economic output and are highly innovative, according to the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Want more urban news and commentary? Click here.

Smart, savvy mayors realize a shift in economic concentration is under way and are trying to position their cities to take advantage of the trend. Take Toledo, Ohio, which could have become another Detroit because of its reliance on the auto industry. It has instead diversified its economy to meet not just domestic, but also global demand. Mayor Mike Bell, who has traveled as far as China to pitch his city's economic assets, told the National Journal, "I'm a regional mayor, and I'm also a global mayor." But Bell and other like-minded mayors are doing more than just being boosters and cheerleaders. They are behind a growing political movement that is setting national policy at the local level. Urban experts and scholars are taking note that cities have become an "important breeding ground for new ideas," because they are far more nimble than states or federal the government.

Those new ideas include immigration reform, public health initiatives, social change and resiliency, or the recognition that cities need to strategically plan for dealing with the next natural or manmade disaster. Outgoing Mayor Bloomberg has been at the forefront of several innovative public health initiatives, such as his failed attempt to ban large sodas, getting restaurants to post the amount of calories in the food they serve and banning smoking in public places. In 2004, former mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom made his city the first in the nation to issue marriage certificates for gay marriages. In 2011, Mayor Michael Nutter proclaimed Philadelphia an open city for illegal immigrants. Nutter was just building on what had become a success story for the city of Brotherly Love, which has the fastest-growing immigrant base among its peers, according to a 2008 Brookings Institution report.

But the growing political clout of mayors can only go so far. They face legal and fiscal challenges and constraints that can limit their ability to make a deep impact on national issues. Reinvention also has its limits. Not every city can have a successful high-tech manufacturing cluster or become a thriving entertainment center with downtown ballparks, casinos and convention centers. According to a new report on cities from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 60 to 70 percent of clusters fail. Cities also still face problems of crime, weak education systems, high infrastructure costs and congestion.

To avoid mistakes that could stymie growth and success, mayors need to run their cities more efficiently, taking advantage of new technologies while recognizing the limits of their revenue streams, according to McKinsey. This means giving public-private partnerships more consideration. They also need to recognize that change is not easy and can attract opposition. Having a high-performance team of deputies in key positions can help build stakeholder support with the rest of the city's workforce and the community.

Another way mayors can sustain success -- and their power clout -- is to cooperate with other cities and states. They should develop a governance policy that is regional, which means including the surrounding suburbs. By ignoring its regional neighbors, Detroit made a costly mistake, my colleague Mark Funkhouser, former mayor of Kansas City and director of the Governing Institute, recently wrote. Its opportunity lies with a new relationship between the city and its neighbors. During the auto manufacturing boom times, Detroit found it politically expedient to turn its back on the suburbs. Now, "the relationship between Detroit and its suburbs will have to be reinvented as well," says Funkhouser. "Together they can fall farther behind the rest of the country, or they can forge a new regime built on regional collaboration."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Urban Notebook