How Big Cities Push Big New Ideas

As urban populations have grown, cities have become centers of innovation.

This story appears in Governing's annual International issue.

Four years ago, I attended the sixth annual Richard J. Daley Global Cities Forum, designed by the University of Illinois in Chicago to convene more than 2,000 public and private leaders “to discuss, analyze and propose pragmatic and innovative solutions that will enhance the lives of city-dwellers around the globe.” 

Underline “around the globe.” Mayors came from everywhere: scores of large and mid-sized U.S. cities,

but also from the likes of Abu Dhabi, Amman, Bogotá, Guadalajara, Istanbul, Kathmandu, Paris, Warsaw and others. Hosted by Mayor Richard M. Daley (the son), it was an amazing assemblage, dedicated to learning from each other about solutions to common problems.

Less than a year later, I participated in a planning session for something called Citiscope, an ambitious global reporting service that was the vision of Neal Peirce, my first editor at Congressional Quarterly back in 1969. Ironically, Neal’s real interest was not so much Washington as states and cities, and in 1975, he became the only national columnist concentrating on state and local trends and issues.

Citiscope is now a reality, thanks to Neal’s energy and tenacity, as well as funding from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. His idea was sparked by something he learned covering a global urban summit in 2007. “Inventive solutions to various cities’ challenges were hard if not impossible to find in popular media,” he told me.

“The skills and energy that professional journalists bring to bear on investigative reporting of official malfeasance need to be matched by vigorous, objective reporting that covers cities’ most original new policies and solutions to their tough problems.” And he added, it cannot be confined to one region or country, but must cover the entire globe.

Citiscope is not alone in shining a spotlight on this issue. Atlantic Media, along with its magazine, has been operating an international news service called Atlantic Cities for a few years, though it is not as program-and-solution oriented as Citiscope. But one of The Atlantic magazine’s best-known journalists, James Fallows, recently authored a fascinating article called “Why Cities Work Even When Washington Doesn’t.” He reports “that once you look away from the national level, the American style of self-government can seem practical-minded, nonideological, future-oriented and capable of compromise.” And he gives examples, comparing Greenville, S.C., and Burlington, Vt. -- two cities in different political time zones but seeking solutions in very similar ways.

It isn’t just disillusioned Washington journalists writing this stuff. The advent of international cities is the mantra of some respected academics, most recently Benjamin R. Barber, a senior research scholar at the City University of New York, whose new book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, was published late last year. Barber’s message is pretty clear. He wants to change the subject “from states to cities, from independence to interdependence, from ideology to problem solving.

The city is the right subject today because hope has always been an urban currency and mayors have always … been optimists hoping to get something done.” Like Fallows, his disdain for Washington and other dysfunctional “nation states” in the developed world is laced throughout his writing. He warns that they “will fight to regain control of globalizing cities that contemplate cross-border actions, demonstrating forcefully that however collaborative and trans-territorial cities may regard themselves, they remain creatures of state power and subsidiaries of national sovereignty.”

Sure enough, as Barber’s book was being published, the American Political Science Review ran the results of an academic study showing just how disadvantaged large cities have been over more than a century in 13 state legislatures. In all, bills benefiting large cities of more than 100,000 were twice as likely to fail as those supported by small and medium-sized towns. “Year after year,” it concluded, “while most bills affecting smaller districts pass, most big-city bills fail.”

Perhaps most interesting in this international urban movement is the new venture of New York’s recently retired mayor, Michael Bloomberg. After serving three terms, he is launching Bloomberg Associates, a sort of “mayors’ mentor” consulting firm that will help urban governments around the world solve problems -- free of charge. It is being staffed in large part by former top aides in his administration, including the chief executive who was the city’s tourism director and presided over record increases in visitors to the Big Apple, to an astounding 54 million last year. The firm expects to work intensively with four to six cities from around the world every year.

Big ideas are propelled by big numbers. The World Health Organization reports that the majority of the world’s population now lives in cities. Within the next three decades, that number will increase to 70 percent, adding some 60 million new residents a year. In developing countries, urban growth is expected to double by 2050 to 5.2 billion people from just 2.5 billion in 2009.

That huge wave building around the globe helps ensure that Neal Peirce, Benjamin Barber, Michael Bloomberg and others are on to something in predicting the international surge of the city. 

Peter Harkness, founder and publisher emeritus of GOVERNING, now serves as a co-writer of the Potomac Chronicle column. He launched GOVERNING in 1987 after serving as editor and deputy publisher of the Congressional Quarterly news service. Peter currently also is a senior policy adviser to the Pew Center on the States.