Outpacing Design

The United States of the American Revolution and of 1787 (the year the US Constitution was written) was dramatically different than the Untied States of today. The 1787 Constitution written for that time was meant for the country and the world in which the country existed during our nation’s young independence. Our nation today in many ways does not resemble the nation of 232 years ago, and in many ways has moved far beyond what the Constitution was imagined to deal with.

 

In New Localism authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at the ways in which the American economy and American governance are changing and co-evolving and what that means as we move forward. With regard to the Federal Government and Constitution they write, “Programmatically, the basic architecture of the American Federal Government is in contrast to the fact that American demography and wealth are metropolitan.” 

 

At the time that our constitution was written, our nation was more agrarian than industrial. Wealth was tied up with land owners who had vast plantations and farms. Many of our founders, like Jefferson even though he was absent when the Constitution was written, praised bucolic values and had an almost romanticized notion of the good life being one of space, freedom, and simple farming lives.

 

Our nation today has moved far away from the view of the nation that our Constitution was designed for. We have outpaced the imaginations of our framers and the way we live and the lives we romanticize are far different than the visions of the framers. American cities are dynamic engines of productivity and economic growth today, while American farms are often forgotten, have become large conglomerates, and are often stuck in a battle between hiring cheap immigrant or low skilled labor and automation. For the time being, government is reacting by not reacting. Instead of changes and adaptations at the Federal level, we see a shift in governance and problem solving to the local level. The shift involves not just local government, but new networks that have come together in an adaptable framework to include actors and groups outside government. This is helping, for the time being, cities and metropolitan areas to respond to the challenges of the world today with new and innovative solutions, helping our nation which has outpaced its design adapt to a new, globalized world.

New Ideas and Diversity

One reason why innovative problem solving and action on our nation’s most pressing problems has moved from the Federal government to local governments is because of the incredible diversity of our nation. Each state has its own unique flavor of any given national problem, making a one-size-fits-all approach to national politics incredibly challenging. Within every state we have a variety of cities and regions. Some areas are densely packed and populated, some areas are incredibly rural, some areas have access to natural resources that help with trade and politics, and some areas have incredible universities that attract global talent for education and possible careers.

 

Managing the diversity of our nation, our states, and the cities and regions that power our country is crucial in a new age of globalization. In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write, “New Localism is the locus of problem solving that must by necessity be open to new ideas and a diversity of constituencies.”

 

We have diverse populations across our diverse landscape. Not just the issues that matter most to people, but the acceptable approaches to those problems will also vary across individuals and regions. When we start building our solutions at the local level to match our diverse population, we have to be open to new possibilities that align with that diversity. We must find ways to be inclusive if we are going to manage diversity well, and that will necessitate taking a fresh look at problems we have seen in the past.

 

By incorporating our diverse perspectives, and understanding that seeing the problem and the solution as they have always existed will lead to a shortcoming, we can find the new solutions required by New Localism. Standard approaches will break down because they won’t be able to account for diverse views and beliefs, and they will ultimately leave people out. That will cause friction which will ultimately lead to breakdowns in policies and programs. Incorporating local people who understand local conditions is key to developing new programs, new policies, and new approaches to governance to help our cities, metropolitan regions, states, and ultimately our nation thrive in the future.

Why the City-State is Returning to Prominence

I live in Nevada which is in an interesting state driven largely by two main metropolitan areas: Las Vegas in Southern Nevada and Reno in Northern Nevada. States today are relying on dynamic cities in order to get things done and to jump-start their economies. In my home state, Las Vegas in a tourism driven town that has remained an attractive hub for people looking to get away, have a chance to win some money, and to escape into a desert paradise. Reno has begun to reinvent itself by serving as an extension of San Francisco/San Jose tech companies who need more space and cheaper labor than is available in the Bay Area. Our state is in a sense two city-states that make decisions, interact with private companies, and coordinate citizens for economic growth and development. Government at the state level doesn’t forget our rural communities, but seems to often focus on what can be done to make sure Las Vegas and Reno can continue to grow and develop in the best way possible.

 

One reason why the city-state is becoming a powerful engine in the United States is that the Federal Government is pulling back from is role in making overarching national policy. Part of this is a result of deliberate choice as one political party attempts to reduce the overall impact, size, and function of the Federal Government. As Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write in The New Localism, “The stated aspiration of the Trump administration to deconstruct the administrative state is ironically elevating the city-state as the locus of problem-solving activity.”

 

The authors write that the city-state has risen in an ironic result of the Trump administration’s actions because the nation’s most dynamic metropolitan regions generally seems to oppose the policies of the Trump administration. In the 2016 election most major metropolitan areas voted in favor of Hilary Clinton and Democrat candidates for other offices. Republican’s who felt left behind in rural areas generally favored Trump and Republican candidates and wanted a federal policy that did not leave their areas behind while focusing on the growth and expansion of dynamic cities. However, by abdicating decision-making responsibility, the Federal Government may be doing exactly that.

 

Decreasing the role of the Federal Government in effect gives cities the green light to take the lead on issues ranging from climate change to biomedical research and we see cities passing ordinances to reduce carbon emissions and encourage more spending and development in technological advancements (in Boston it is biomedical research and in Reno it is battery development). Cities can move fast and offer attractive amenities, tax breaks, and living environments for companies and organizations that want to change the world, a big contrast to the Federal Government that is characterized by gridlock.

 

When the Federal Government takes a hands-off approach, it is American cities, where people live and innovative cities are taking hold, that are able to engage in place-making to develop new structures and institutions. These cities work out the solution to the challenges and problems our country is facing, and then export those solutions from one metropolitan region to another. It is a city driven model of federalism which brings even more irony to the table. The Republican party has long been the advocate of federalism (at a state level) encouraging states to be able to adopt policies without interference of the Federal Government. In the past, these were often policies that maintained traditionalist values, as opposed to the new policies we see from states that address problems that the Republican Party would rather ignore. Federalism has shifted from states to the cities and is spreading in a new way as the Trump Administration creates confusion and incoherence at the Federal Level.

The Location of Power

Power in the United States, at least the power to actually get things done and make changes, is transforming. National politics exist at such a polarized level that bipartisan lawmaking and any action in general is almost impossible. As a result, political decision making and dynamic policy changes are occurring at a different level of governance, the hyper-local level. From my vantage point, state governments are muddling through as normal, with some big legislation passing here and there in some states, but simultaneously a lot of state level legislation seems to me to symbolic and broad, and often hung up in courts.

 

The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak explores how and why power in American public policy is shifting to the city, municipality, and metropolitan arenas. Dynamic changes and transformations are not occurring nationally, are not occurring in all states, and are not occurring in all counties. Some regions of the United States are growing, booming, and adapting, while others seem stagnant and stuck.

 

The authors write, “The location of power is shifting as a result of profound demographic, economic, and social forces. Power is drifting downward from the nation-state to cities and metropolitan communities, horizontally from government to networks of public, private, and civic actors, and globally along transnational circuits of capital, trade, and innovation.”

 

The thing about city governments and metropolitan communities is that they can act with a sense of informality that large national governments and bureaucracies cannot. They can be quicker to respond and more targeted with their actions. We are coming out of a period in American history where policies and actions moved upward to the Federal government. Lobbyists moved from small town capitals across the nation to Washington DC, to be closer to the big decision makers. As congress has fallen into gridlock, local governments have taken up action to innovate and re-imagine their futures. New actors come into play at local levels, and connections in both public and private organizations are driving the changes of governance, economies, and communities.

 

It is important that we embrace these changes, but recognize the potential for inequality with these changes. We have to find ways to embrace the new drivers of innovation, knowledge, and development while equitably ensuring that our communities are strengthened and not fractured from this new localism. Metropolitan areas are booming, but they must not become exploitative or this shift in power can become dangerous and further the divisions in our country. In order for new localism to be sustainable, it must also become equitable to bridge the gaps we see in our current politics.