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Bruce Katz is director of the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy

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Some of my common criticisms of books these days applies to this one: the title really does not do justice to the content. There is the assumption that we are living in a unique age of populism and no real analysis of the premise, but the so-called age of populism is really secondary to the major point of the book: that redirecting the attention of municipal leaders to the underlying wealth of cities can provide the basis for leadership to accelerate growth, provide a basis to deal with intractable urban problems, and rebalance the relationship between levels of government in democracies.

This is actually quite a helpful book on the subject of what cities can do to help themselves.

The stories remind one that some people are really trying hard in America and elsewhere to redress systemic racism, intractable poverty, improve access to educational and economic opportunity, urban renewal (there’s an old phrase), and social cohesion.
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MylesKesten | Jan 23, 2024 |
This is an attempt to square the circle, a documentation of important innovations in urban policy and practice that tries to be as palatable as possible to the current power structure. Since both of the authors work for the Brookings Institution, this book contains equal measures of interesting analysis of contemporary urban issues mixed with gauzy visioneering designed not to offend anyone important. It's been blurbed by the likes of Cory Booker, Henry Cisneros, Rahm Emanuel, Jon Huntsman, and Robert Rubin, so while it doesn't lack for star power, its ending is likely to disappoint anyone looking for bolder solutions to issues of metropolitan gridlock.

I've long thought that the Dillon's Rule theory of urban subjugation to state governments is inappropriate to the economic structure of the modern world, and probably never was appropriate in the first place. Cities are where most people live, work, produce, and consume, and I simply don't see the point of vesting important taxation and regulatory powers in often fairly distant and hostile state governments that are frequently in thrall to reactionary interests. There are plenty of issues that should be handled on the national level, plenty more that should be handled on the local level, but very few that a thoughtful person or convention would delegate to a state level if American federalism was designed from scratch. The weaknesses of the system are exposed every day in countless ways - center city stagnation at the hands of suburbs, states devolving responsibilities without providing adequate funding, policies designed by and for rural interests at the expense of cities, and the general costs of balkanized urban areas. Nevertheless, since there are those rural and suburban interest groups who do benefit from this setup, we're stuck with it for the foreseeable future, so it's worth exploring what cities are doing to work around and through these political obstacles to pursue their goals.

The book is split in twain between case studies and future projections. In the first half, there are four profiles of cities who are coping with big challenges: New York City's program to jumpstart an innovation economy like Silicon Valley; Denver's struggles to fund regional mass transit; Northeast Ohio's coping strategies for deindustrialization and general economic malaise; and Houston's efforts to integrate its waves of immigrants. The authors' relentless efforts to accentuate the positive is visible whenever they discuss the role of the suburbs, as in the case of Denver, which has been subject to relentless petty attempts to hamstring its growth and development. The other three cities have less adversarial relationships with their suburbs, either because of their unquestioned economic superiority (NYC), their large size relative to their neighbors (Houston), or simple lack of anything much to fight over (Northeast Ohio). The takeaway is that while higher levels of government did contribute in some small ways, for the most part the mayors of each city were the ones who provided the ideas, driving force, and resolution to see their initiatives to completion. I enjoyed seeing the ways in which local initiatives, each tailored to "the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place", in Hayek's phrasing, either helped build on the city's strengths, integrate the city with its surroundings, or develop something new to the city that bettered its attractiveness as a place to live and do business.

The second half contains some good material as well. The authors believe that STEM-heavy innovation districts, akin to what New York City was trying to introduce in the first case study, will be a primary focus of urban development in the future as the returns to possessing a strong technology sector continue to increase. My own city of Austin, with its "Silicon Hills" attempt to ride along with Silicon Valley, obviously agrees, and certainly the more agricultural and manufacturing-dependent cities of the country haven't seemed to do so well as the more white-collar ones. While the American economy has not traditionally relied heavily on exports, at least in percentage terms, many cities are finding that they are developing natural trading relationships with each other and foreign cities in a way that Katz and Bradley liken to the famous medieval Hanseatic League. This is held back by often clunky and inflexible state and federal policies, but as seen by Houston's efforts to integrate immigrants earlier in the book, as well as other internationally focused cities like Miami, often metros are the true natural starting places to think about international trade.

The final two chapters in the second half talk about new approaches to federalism, though unfortunately in a somewhat breezy, jargony, in-flight book sort of tone. Readers hoping for a truly novel proposal to reduce the unfairness of the current system will be disappointed. The superiority of the Constitution over the Articles of Confederation is self-evident, but due to an unfortunate attitude of parochialism when it was being negotiated, it looks like its treatment of states and not cities/metropolitan areas as the basic unit of democracy are going to be with us indefinitely. What can an enterprising mayor do in the meantime? Katz and Bradley recommend the following: "Build Your Network" by talking to local leaders and stakeholders; "Set Your Vision" by focusing on just one buzzword affirmation instead of too many (Michael Lewis' Moneyball shows up here for some reason); "Find Your Game Changer" by finding a way to make your buzzword truly soar; "Bankroll the Revolution" by using creative financing techniques ("creative" in the "public-private partnership" sense, not the "Arthur Andersen" sense); and "Sustain the Gain" by committing to a continuing culture of change rather than by passing an ordinance and assuming things will work out.

This is a fundamentally conservative book in attitude, even as its maniacal evenhandedness means that the words "Republican Party" do not appear at all in the text. There's no mention of even something as mild as a proposal to revamp the way that transportation funds are allocated, let alone implementing a system giving cities more direct access to funding and policy without having to go through their state legislatures and Congressional delegations. Katz and Bradley's tone is one of resignation and acceptance; this is undoubtedly more politically realistic than my own more radical feelings, but it makes for a somewhat uninspiring ending. They've got a book that is sure to inspire some mayors, but doesn't give the average citizen much hope for more sensible policies concerning our cities in the future.
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aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
 
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BmoreMetroCouncil | Feb 9, 2017 |

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