Urban Opportunity: A Q&A with Bruce Katz

September 25, 2014

Cities and metropolitan areas are increasingly at the center of everything. More than 80 percent of Americans live in one. Altogether, they account for more than 90 percent of the country's GDP, dwarfing the economies of other nations. In his book, The Metropolitan Revolution, Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, and his co-author Jennifer Bradley make the case that in the absence of federal leadership, cities are taking the reigns, making headway on everything from economic innovation and infrastructure to inequality and climate change.

Ahead of his Grand Rounds talk at the Mailman School on October 8 with Sandro Galea, Gina Lovasi, and Peter Muennig, Katz spoke with Transmission about the trends driving this urban transformation, including the important role of innovation hotspots like university research campuses.

When you wrote, "Cities and metropolitan areas are on their own. The cavalry is not coming," what did you mean?

The national government has essentially left the building and ceased to function as a reliable partner. Partisan gridlock is the order of the day.

In addition, as our society ages, our national government will increase its support for the elderly and other disadvantaged individuals. [As a consquence,] its ability to invest in the future—infrastructure, innovation, education and skills, housing—will be greatly circumscribed.

As the whole world urbanizes, more and more you see a devolution of power and a responsibility to metropolitan areas—because those are the places that really drive national economies and prosperity.

In 1975, the New York Daily News famously said President Ford would have New York City "drop dead." What turned the tide on urban decay?

Cities got disciplined about education, crime, and the delivery of services. They began to work harder for their residents and businesses. There are other bigger trends too, like how the market revalues cities and "cityness" in terms of proximity, density, amenities, and choice.

There is a radical shift in the geography of innovation. Fifteen years ago, innovation happened on a suburban corridor or in a science park. Today it is more likely to be in in a city, around a university or medical campus or in a tech cluster. The other major trend favoring cities is demographics. Millennials, Empty Nesters, and others increasingly favor cities. The result is a fundamental change in where people live and businesses locate in the United States.

What are cities doing on issues like climate change?

Whether it's climate, poverty, wage stagnation, economic competitiveness, or demographic transformation, cities are on the frontline of some of the toughest challenges facing our country today.

Cities can respond to climate in several ways. They can innovate a way to lower carbon emissions via technological solutions. Cities can also redesign how they organize and arrange housing, transit, and employment clusters so as to dramatically lower energy use. They can also alter the production and distribution of energy. Through these and other means, Copenhagen and others are becoming essentially low- or no-carbon cities.

National governments and global conventions matter, but in the absence of responsible action, cities can have a dramatic effect on carbon emissions and making their places more sustainable and resilient.

You write that cities have ambitions beyond their borders. Some are banding together to make things happen nationally and internationally.

Cities watch each other closely. When one innovates, others replicate the innovation or adapt and tailor it to their own circumstances. We used to think if you were going to have dramatic change in a country on any number of issues, you needed the scale of the national government. Today it's more likely that a city will innovate in such a way that other cities can say, "We can do that, and maybe we can do it better."

For example, when Portland, Oregon, finds a way to promote itself as the place that builds green cities and exports sustainable products and services to growing cities in Latin America or Asia, other cities begin to think, "Wait a second, we have our own clusters of clean energy or clean economy. Perhaps we can do the same branding and marketing and export promotion."

The success of individual cities, or what Michael Bloomberg has done with C40 [a city-centric climate leadership group] rests on this notion that cities can learn from each other, share with each other, and then replicate the best innovations to have impact in their locales. That's a very different, 21st century model of how society goes about solving its major problems.

City-based universities are often the loci of innovation. Why is this?

In a knowledge economy, the institutions of knowledge are highly valued. Large companies want to be close to universities and close to entrepreneurs and smaller companies so that there can be a crowdsourcing of ideas. We're a society that takes basic science or applied research and then through entrepreneurial behavior, access to capital and rule of law, are able to introduce discoveries to the masses.

We're now in a sweet spot for cities. The question becomes whether you can make your city work harder for your residents, particularly those left out of the economy. The challenge is to bring more people into the innovation economy—not just through four-year degrees, but also by changing our high schools and community colleges to provide a broader sweep of residents with the education and skills they need to participate.

Particularly for someone like me who grew up in Brooklyn and experienced New York at its depths and spent a lot of time in Detroit, New Orleans and elsewhere, I think we've entered a different period in American history and around the world. Cities have been elevated to be the engines of the economy. Now the question is whether they want to be the vanguard of policy innovation and political change in absence of national leadership.