Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak reply to Minton’s recent Prospect review of their new bookby Prospect Team / May 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
We read Anna Minton’s review of our new book, The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism, with extreme disappointment given our high regard for this magazine.
We always expected our main thesis—that cities are now the vanguard of problem solving in the world and need to gain and deploy power—to elicit controversy in Britain. Despite recent moves towards devolution—City Deals, the recent election of Metro Mayors—Britain remains one of the most centralised and compartmentalised governance regimes and political cultures in the world. This has left city governments and city networks weak and excessively dependent on national largesse at the very moment when Brexit requires communities to exhibit agency and action.
To Minton’s credit, she bemoans the fact that Britain has a “democratic deficit.” That was a main reason why the Brexit vote passed, particularly in northern cities and towns left behind by globalization and national policy.
Yet she simply ignores the central thesis of New Localism and the inextricable link between local democracy, city power and problem solving. Rather Minton spends the bulk of her review focusing on the rise of gentrified and exclusionary global cities and the inadequacy of many current policies, at the national or local level, to address this phenomenon. She chides us for promoting 1990s-era policies around networked governance and place making which, in her view, have contributed to the housing affordability crisis (even though she later mentions the central government’s retrenchment on council housing under Thatcher).
We appreciate and recognize Minto’s arguments; the challenges she identifies are all too real in “hot” cities. But our response is three-fold.
First, London is not Liverpool just as New York City is not Detroit. The evidence shows that poverty, not gentrification, remains the central challenge facing low-income families in most U.S. cities. In 2016, for example, researchers found that just 15 of Philadelphia’s 372 residential census tracts gentrified between 2000 and 2014. They also found that over 160 Philadelphia neighborhoods saw a significant decline in the median income during the same period.
For these cities and communities, it is essential that local governments and stakeholders have the capacity and authority to grow and diversify local economies, invest in schools and skills and reform local institutions for a new world. National governments do matter, particularly around “safety net” policies; yet waiting for national action and political reform is no longer reasonable nor responsible. In Pittsburgh last week, Mayor Bill Peduto unveiled the initial vision of a Social Benefits Fund that would invest $3 billion over the next 12 years in his city of 300,000 residents to make, among other things, early childhood education universal, green infrastructure a reality and easy access to arts and parks the norm. Prosperity and local power is a necessary pre-condition for this kind of New Localism in action. Can any UK city even come close to this?
Second, our thinking has moved way beyond the 1990s, as have most cities. The stories in our book unveil innovative ways for cities to harness private and civic capital and unlock public wealth for public good. Our chapter on the rise of public asset corporations in Copenhagen and Hamburg describes a bold institutional mechanism that has yet to be embraced by US and UK cities, which create but do not adequately capture value. Andrew Adonis has already written in these pages about how leveraging public assets could be a way to ameliorate the housing challenges of London cities. We would hope that subsequent discussions of New Localism focus on the hard work of adapting these global innovations rather than retreating into practiced criticism.
Finally, the true power of cities is that they are not governments but networks of public, private, civic, university and community leaders and institutions. That’s why they are resilient in the face of angry populism and capable of interdisciplinary actions that are more likely to be effective than specialized responses created by stove-piped national bureaucracies. Networked governance is not a policy idea cooked up in an isolated academy; it is the way cities actually operate in the real world. Understanding the governance mechanics and power dynamics of institutions like Indianapolis’ Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, St. Louis’ Cortex Innovation Community, Copenhagen’s City & Port Development Corporation and Sweden’s Kommuninvest is the way cities progress and tackle hard challenges.
As Minton rightly points out, this creates tensions in a democracy. But cities are messy organisms and perfecting participatory as well as representative democracy at the local level deserves the same level of attention as the next “cure-all” national policy move, which rarely comes. The shift towards city problem solving is structural not cyclical and deserves more deep and nuanced analysis than provided here.
As the United States has painfully learned, it is always easier to exploit grievances (on either the right or the left) than solve problems. Solving problems locally (particularly ones as complex as housing affordability) requires a mix of market savvy and social conscience, of public vision and professional management, of aspirational goals and evidence driven accountability, of pragmatic flexibility rather than ideological rigidity, of community empowerment as well as community participation. The harsh reality is that we have entered an Urban Age without adequate instruments or mechanisms to enable cities to manage growth or reverse decline. We wrote this book to provide some answers. We hope a productive debate will provide more.
Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, Washington, United States