A key aspect of new localism, as described by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in their book The New Localism, is cooperative governance. The national government and many state governments today are characterized and plagued by partisan gridlock, however local governments are able to function and get beyond gridlock through principles of new localism. Cogoverning is a term that the authors use to describe the new system of governance that is in action at city and metropolitan levels across the nation today, and that seems to be able to help communities thrive in a globalized world.
The authors write, “Cogoverning also helps explain why New Localism is nonpartisan. The regular engagement of business, civic, and academic leaders elevates pragmatic thinking and commonsense discourse and crowds out the inflammatory rhetoric associated with partisanship and ideology. This creates a healthy group psychology that rewards creative tinkering (the essence of problem solving) rather than obstructive action (the essence of partisanship). Localities, in other words, engender group innovation; legislatures reward groupthink.”
At a local level, our common interests are more clear. We can more clearly see that a rising tide in our city or metro will lift all boats, and we can get on board to make big advances. Having the leaders of businesses, civic groups, and academic research facilities coordinate together helps bring elements that might normally oppose each other and cause friction into alignment to GSD (get shit done). On a national level, we lose our common interest, and we revert to a form of tribalism where we look for the group that reflects our identity, and lose an ability to GSD as we become recalcitrant partisans, only favoring legislation if we gain without the possibility of a loss.
A key distinction at the local level between new localism and business-as-usual is that new localism brings together leaders from different arenas. It is not just a single business leader who dominates or a single industry that holds the loudest voice. Placemaking requires the input of people living in the place, and it requires that those with money and authority also work with those who can bring a civic perspective and cultivate local support for initiatives. By incorporating these voices and working together, business leaders can find new innovative solutions to problems that will actually be supported and aligned with the spirit and interests of the local community. Creative tinkering cannot be a top-down process that is guided by business and government agencies alone, it requires a bottom-up element that incorporates the desires and values of the local population. New localism incorporates this bottom-up element in a constructive way, by bringing the top leaders of organizations and groups together in structures and situations that demand decision-making and not just deliberation.
I have written a good amount about the importance and value of institutions. The systems and structures, both formal and informal, that create appropriate venues for discussion and help shape our norms and rules are crucial to our culture and to the development of society and knowledge. In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss ways in which rediscovering institutions within American cities is leading to a rebirth of metropolitan areas. Large cities are important because they pull people together, unite them around local problem solving, and produce benefits for the entire society to enjoy. As people have begun moving back to cities and re-creating them to be more livable and social, they are discovering new institutions and new value in places that had been forgotten and previously experienced periods of disinvestment.
The authors write, “Placemaking uncovers the inherent value of a community and redefines its potential by integrating its historical identity with contemporary uses. As American cities lost population and dynamism, many of the grand institutions and buildings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fell into decline or disrepair. Late twentieth-century place-making rediscovered what still existed and repurposed it for a new era.”
This quote provides encouraging notes about reinventing and returning to valuable institutions, and also a cautionary tale about deserting institutions. When we have physical structures in place and enough people to remember institutions from that past which had served us well, we can always return to those institutions and even find new ways to use them and incorporate them into our lives. However, if we chose not to support our institutions and allow them to decay, they can languish and sit in disregard, becoming more of a headache than a valuable tool.
I think this is true for any type of institution, be it a physical institution such as a library, or a non-tangible institution such as a value of equality. For various complex reasons (some sensible like finding clean playgrounds for children and some not so wholesome such as new forms of racial segregation) American cities experienced a period of declining populations as (primarily white middle and upper class) citizens abandoned city centers for outlying suburbs. Katz and Nowak argue that this weakened the institutions that had made cities thriving places and had originally helped them grow and develop. Negative stereotypes of city centers persisted and while they may have been economic engines, they were not the cultural and in many ways not the institutional centers they had once been. New Localism is in some ways a return to the institutions of cities that had been abandoned in the past. As cities gentrify (a challenge in itself that is still tinged by racial disparity) they are becoming more attractive places to live, and the institutions which had once served city populations are being reinvented and reinvigorated.
We should recognize the positive in this story and celebrate and strengthen those institutions which fuel progress, improve our lives, and help promote equality and democracy. We should look at the squalor that cities and their institutions were put through and avoid throwing many of our modern institutions through those same tortures. We should remember that our suburbs are valuable as well, and support the populations and institutions of suburbs as people begin to move from suburbs and rural areas back into dense cities. This creates a two (or maybe three) front situation in terms of protecting and strengthening institutions, and the lessons we learned from abandoning and rediscovering and reinventing city institutions can help us navigate this new challenge brought about by New Localism.