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Local Officials Lead Revolution to Make American Cities More Livable

June 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
According to Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, local officials are searching for new ways to innovate and make urban centers more livable. Judy Woodruff talks with Katz and Bradley, authors of "The Metropolitan Revolution," about major moves at U.S. city halls to breath new life into the American economy and democracy.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: a good news revolution of sorts in cities across the country, as local officials search for new ways to innovate and make urban centers more livable.

Judy Woodruff has our book conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cities are increasingly the places people want to live. Two-thirds of Americans today reside in metropolitan areas, which in turn account for three-fourths of the nation’s economy.

But government has traditionally operated with the model of Washington, the federal government, on top, the states next and cities having whatever is left over at the bottom. Now, however, as urban areas are being forced to grapple with most of the toughest problems, including jobs, housing, transportation and the environment and because Washington is viewed as stuck in partisan gridlock and not able to respond quickly, cities are starting to take matters into their own hands.

And that’s the premise of a new book. It’s called “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.”

We’re joined now by its co-authors. They are Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Brookings Institution and founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. And Jennifer Bradley, she is a fellow at the program.

And welcome to both of you.

JENNIFER BRADLEY, Co-Author, “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy”: Thanks for having us.

BRUCE KATZ, Co-Author, “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy”: Thanks for having us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, to both of you, the phrase that caught my eye in the very beginning of the book, you said cities and metropolitan areas are on their own.

And, Bruce, at one point you write, they realized that the cavalry is not coming.

BRUCE KATZ: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does that mean?

BRUCE KATZ: Well, I think cities and metropolitan areas first understand they face supersized economic and competitive challenges. And they look to Washington and they see a place mired in partisan gridlock.

But the good news is that mayors and philanthropists and heads of corporations and universities, they’re stepping up and they’re doing the hard job to grow — or the hard work to grow jobs. They’re investing in infrastructure. They’re making manufacturing a priority. They’re equipping workers with the skills they need.

Change happens where they live. These are powerful places and smart, strategic leaders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jennifer Bradley, was it the case that cities used to be able to count on the federal government to fix things?

JENNIFER BRADLEY: I think what happened is that cities and metros have realized that the federal government is an unreliable partner. And they understand that they themselves have power.

So they don’t have to wait for the federal government to decide they’re going to increase a particular program. Metros are seizing the power that’s they have — that’s always been sort of there latently. They’re just taking to it the next step, whether that’s Houston and immigrant immigration, Denver and Los Angeles and transit systems, or New York and trying to supercharge their innovation economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you about some of those examples in a second.

But, Bruce Katz, you also say this is the result of something bigger than the dysfunction here in Washington and even bigger than the great recession we have been through. You talk about it being a structural shift. Explain what you mean.

BRUCE KATZ: I think it absolutely is a structural shift. If you look at our demographics, we, like many countries around the world, are going to see the aging of our population.

What that means for our national government is they’re going to have to shift enormous resources to caring for the aged, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. What that may do literally within the next 10 years is crowd our other investments in infrastructure, in education, in research and development.

And city and metropolitan leaders are looking at a very competitive world and saying, you know what? We’re going to have to step up, compensate, work with our private and civic sectors, get stuff done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jennifer Bradley, you were starting to give us some examples. Give us one or two examples of where this is happening, where local people have taken control of the situation.

JENNIFER BRADLEY: Absolutely.

In our book, we talk about a lot of places where the metropolitan revolution is happening. One, for example, is New York City, where the mayor and the local economic development corporation decided after the great recession that they needed to diversify their economy.

They decided to launch an international competition to bring a top-level graduate school in science and technology and engineering to the city. The city spent about $130 million dollars to do infrastructure improvements. They’re going to get two billion dollars in immediate investment. And over the long term, they’re going to have a stronger and more diverse economy, about $30 billion dollars in economic activity, tens of thousands of jobs, and an economy that is resilient and equipped for the 21st century.

They’re inventing an entirely new industry in New York. We think that’s a great example of the revolution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also write — Bruce Katz, you write about a number of other cities. You talk about Cleveland, Detroit and Houston.

BRUCE KATZ: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I guess, you know, my question is, these cities are trying to do interesting things, but they’re also cities that are facing big problems of poverty, lack of education for so many people.

BRUCE KATZ: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How are these cities going to be able to do all of it?

BRUCE KATZ: Well, I think — cities are not governments, right? They’re networks of leaders, mayors, for sure, county leaders, for sure, governors in many places, but also heads of business and business associations, heads of universities, heads of philanthropy.

They come together. They form networks. They try to sort out, what’s our distinctive vision? What’s our special position in the global economy? And then what is our game-changer? What Jennifer just described, the applied science district in New York City, that’s a game-changer. Investing in manufacturing, supporting your manufacturing, when we have a chance to re-shore production to the United States, that’s a game-changer in Northeast Ohio. Transit clearly is a necessity for the 21st century. So they’re not waiting for Washington. They’re basically coming together across party and jurisdictional lines saying, how do we make our place more prosperous?

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they still are going to need some federal resources and state resources, aren’t they?

JENNIFER BRADLEY: The metropolitan revolution is certainly led by metros. It doesn’t let the federal government off the hook. In our book, we talk about how Los Angeles pressed for a change in federal funding for transit systems.

That’s an example of how metropolitan areas are leading the way. They’re not waiting for the federal government to come up with a new plan or program. They’re going to the feds with a coalition of other metro leaders and saying, this is what we need from you to move our economies forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how are they avoiding getting caught up in the kind of partisanship that you write about and we are very familiar with here in Washington …

BRUCE KATZ: Of course.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … that seems to — it swallowed up everything we do. And, as you note, it’s taking place in a lot of states too.

BRUCE KATZ: Absolutely.

Well, when Jennifer and I visit cities across the country, I have to tell you, it’s hard to know who a Democrat is and who is a Republican, who is a liberal and who is a conservative. These are people who are passionate about their place. And they want their place to be as competitive as it can be in a very fiercely competitive environment.

So they’re basically focusing on the fundamentals, good infrastructure, obviously, safe streets, good schools, but also helping the universities work more closely with their companies, so they can innovate, crack the code on the next generation of products and services.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the political labels don’t matter at all in these places?

JENNIFER BRADLEY: The political labels matter so much less than getting stuff done.

And I think when you have coalitions of mayors, civic leaders, labor leaders, business leaders all coming toning and showing that change can really happen on the ground, that is a powerful example for Washington. We hope it’s one that Washington will follow. But you know what? Even if it doesn’t, cities and metros aren’t bound up in all the dysfunction happening here. They can still move forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one thing that the viewer watching this should know about this, they’re listening and they’re thinking, oh, that’s really interesting, but somebody else is doing that.

BRUCE KATZ: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What should people know about this?

BRUCE KATZ: I think this can happen all across the United States, because the top 100 metros, the stats you put up earlier, they’re only — they sit on only an eighth of our land mass. They’re two-thirds of our population. They’re three-quarters of our GDP.

And on everything that matters, innovation, human capital, infrastructure, they’re 75, 80, 85, 90 percent of the national share. These are powerful economies. They’re bigger than national economies in many respects. And now they’re stepping up and saying, you know, if Washington can’t lead, if our state is adrift, we need to be the vanguard of policy and innovation. This can spread across the United States. We’re more powerful. We are rich in leadership. And we need to step up.

JENNIFER BRADLEY: And if I could just follow up, it’s — what we want people to take away is that, if their place isn’t doing it, there are a lot of lessons there. They should be doing it. And if the leadership is not providing something in metropolitan areas, citizens need to step up and say, why can’t be as great as Portland, as Los Angeles, as Detroit or New York on these issues?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jennifer Bradley, Bruce Katz, the book is “The Metropolitan Revolution.”

We thank you both for being here.

BRUCE KATZ: Well, thanks for having us.

JENNIFER BRADLEY: Thank you.