Cities Building from Strengths

I really like the ideas presented in The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak because they provide a road-map for getting stuff done in a local context where our hyper polarized tendencies can be put aside. The ideas presented in the book focus on engaging local community members and groups to take real action against our most pressing challenges. It doesn’t simply present a best case scenario of local policy-making, but demonstrates real examples of local place-making alongside realistic decision-making.

 

Cities have the power to lead on many issues that we face today because of their abilities to create networks to pull people together. It is the strengths of cities that propels them to be the solution engines that they can be in our world today. The authors write, “Cities unveil and tap hidden strengths by aggregating public, corporate, philanthropic, and university stakeholders into networks that work together to tackle hard challenges and leverage distinctive opportunities.”  It is the people, the companies, the groups, and the local environment that allow cities to be diverse, dynamic, and successful in developing real responses to social, economic, and security threats. By understanding and connecting these resources, cities can build coalitions with the power and energy to transform cities in the face of obstacles.

 

Katz and Nowak continue (emphasis in original), “The best networks have a smart recipe:  Build from strength to address needs rather than build from needs to address strength. This enables cities to realize the full value of latent assets, whether they are sector based … or geographic …”

 

Cities cannot identify who they want to be, and then try to engineer the strengths that would help them bring about the transformations they want to see. Cities have to be able to honestly look at themselves and see what they can be. There is plenty or room for imagination and visionary leadership in this model, even if it feels limiting. Cities cannot invent strengths out of no where, but they can identify, coordinate, and combine the resources that produce existing strengths to further develop new industries and sectors, or to capitalize on existing advantages. Building from strengths takes the existing pieces and encourages them to grow, expand, and recombine in novel ways. It requires organic communication and networking along with new institutions to help streamline the decision-making process to implement the programs and policies to help propel cities forward.

Place-making and Networks

One idea from The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak is that states and cities should not be looking to attract companies simply by offering tax breaks and by promising to streamline permitting. Bringing companies that can be enticed by these types of handouts is a good way to generate short-term positive headlines, but it is unlikely (especially on its own) to attract the kinds of companies that will help develop a city or metropolitan region into an attractive hub for other companies. For Katz and Nowak, what is more important than just getting a few companies to move in with tax breaks is engaging the business community that already exists, and working with civic and private sector leaders to invest in place-making.

 

A general problem we have faced in the United States over time is sustained disinvestment in localities. This has taken different forms at different times and has had serious conflicts for people living in disinvested places. For years, urban centers were ignored as people moved to outlying suburbs, and the result was a crack epidemic and a hollowing-out of many great American cities. Today, we are disinvesting in our suburban small towns and in former manufacturing hubs in the Midwest. The result has been an opioid epidemic and a spike in suicides. Simply convincing a company to move to an area that has been disinvested with some tax breaks won’t help solve our underlying problems and won’t help cities and people adapt to a dynamic globalized economy. What we are more likely to see in this strategy is the attraction of companies who are able to implement exploitative labor strategies that burn-out the people who have faced disinvestment and desperately need jobs.

 

“Networks must now ensure that their education and workforce development systems produce locally grown talent with the specialized skills that align with local advantages,” write Katz and Nowak. On its own, this advice is not very helpful. But when you think about what a network is and how cities can invest in existing networks within a region, you see that this advice is actually quite practical and represents a shift from the traditional thoughts of attracting companies to a region to produce jobs. Cities have to consider their advantages, such as ports, transportation lines, physical space, or educational institutions, and find ways to connect local business leaders, engaged civic actors, and other organizations in a way to get stuff done. Engaging to talk about problems and starting action for just a few months is insufficient – leaders need to be engaged in long term place-making – a committed effort to improve the region in a “rising tide lifts all boats” type of approach.

 

Katz and Nowak continue, “And they must also create quality places that not only attract and retain workers and companies with a rich set of amenities, but also provide a platform for the seamless and collaborative exchange of ideas.” The organizations and groups brought together in these networks cannot remain in individual silos. They need to be connected through new co-governing institutions that have the power and authority to make real decisions that generate meaningful investments in the places where businesses operate and where workers live. Without such long-term and permanent planning that gets stuff done, cities will meander along with incremental changes, or worse, will continue on a path of disinvestment that leaves their citizens vulnerable to despair and exploitation.

Dynamic Economies

A lot of work from both the Brookings Institute and from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University comes across my radar. Oftentimes the perspectives of the two think-tank centers differ quite a bit, but one area where they align is on local economies. Brookings (a center-left think tank) and Mercatus (a Libertarian leaning academic quasi-think tank) both agree that local economies depend on dynamic innovation and thriving centers where people actually want to be. Both agree that attracting competitive companies and driving innovation requires investments in placemaking, not just tax breaks and financial incentives for firms.

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak (both from Brookings) write, “A globally dynamic economy requires that any locality that wants to thrive must invest in the qualities of place that attract and retain residents and firms, in human capital, and in an enterprise environment that enables innovation and business growth.” Mercatus also suggests that places focus on infrastructure and development to attract firms and encourage people to move to them. Mercatus is likely to encourage this growth in an organic invisible hand manner, while Brookings is more encouraging of using the state to intentionally develop infrastructure and systems for growth and network development.

The important lesson is that economic growth and development require meaningful investments in infrastructure. Human capital is the heart of networks and the key to innovation and growth. In order to attract people and to attract companies that can compete in a globalized world, cities need to make themselves livable and attractive to young and dynamic people. Tax incentives are not enough to attract companies for the long term. A company that is willing to move for a simple tax break, is not a company that is in it for the long run. Stable companies that want to grow and develop in one place will want places that are interesting and offer the amenities needed for a thriving 21st century lifestyle. Companies that are looking to make long-term and winning investments need human capital, and in order to attract human capital they need dynamic places where people want to live and set roots.