How the Metropolitan Revolution Works for Cities of Any Size

August 7, 2013 at 8:03 am CDT

In a recent post , I touched on a talk given by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brooking Institution, and authors of the book The Metropolitan Revolution . The book looks at the increasing role metro areas play in economic and policy leadership in the U.S. – especially as Washington seems increasingly incapable of such leadership. After their panel, they sat down with me to talk about cities.

Livability: Why the revolution now?

Bruce Katz: I think the roles and responsibilities of city leaders are changing. If you go back 30 years, what you would find is an enormous amount of focus on community policing, public safety, the early part of school reform and the efficient delivery of public services. Then you begin to see this focus on transit, transit-oriented-development and quality of place making. Now you’re really seeing mayors and their business/civic/university allies focusing on the fundamentals of the trade economy: manufacturing, innovation, skills, exports.

Jennifer Bradley: We see a lot more engagement from corporate civic philanthropic leaders. It used to be that to engage in a place, you used to be the headquarters of a place. But now we see that people are thinking a lot more about talent attraction and the prospects for growing their company, and they know they need to be engaged in creating a livable place and a prosperous place. They need to be engaged on issues of infrastructure and transit and workforce.

Livability: The book focuses on metro areas, which include large towns, their suburbs and nearby smaller towns. As the mayor of a smaller town, how can you help drive change in your region?

Bradley: I think smaller town mayors are more dependent on networks because they themselves don’t have the kind of international or national throw weight. A mayor of a small town isn’t going to be as powerful on the global stage unless he or she is part of a group of mayors in a metro. They have to do more to pull down the assets.

Livability: You talk in the book about public funding for stadiums, civic centers and projects of that sort. You’re not fans, are you?

Katz: The blueprint for growth and jobs is the right path forward. These are the kind of initiatives that should be borne if not exclusively than disproportionately by the private sector. [Cities should focus on] things that have high return on investment and high return on community. That’s going to be these investments in manufacturing and technology, and trade and export around the skilling of workers. A lot of people say that mayors just like to cut ribbons. If we could just put a ribbon on the head of every community college graduate, maybe that would solve the problem.

Livability: Affordability is a challenge in dense areas. Are cities, especially downtowns, becoming a luxury item?

Katz: Affordability has a lot of aspects to it. We’ve tended to focus on the income side of the equation for a long time. We have to focus on the cost side. We have to rethink land use in the United States to be more inclusive. We’re going to have to rethink building codes and have a broader mix of housing units for a very diverse society. We’re going to have to rethink financing because it’s very easy to securitize single-family mortgages. It’s harder to initiate and securitize loans for mixed-use development and mixed-use housing. At the end of the day for business and for competitiveness, housing that’s affordable and accessible so people can get to work is critical.

Livability: You mentioned in your talk that cities do a good job of learning from each other. Can ideas trickle up as well as down?

Bradley: Smaller cities can get their innovations in front of larger cities. Larger metros often have to overcome a perception-of-livability hurdle. They’re perceived as expensive, stressful, crowded, challenging. So this is a great opportunity for the small and mid-sized places to export their livability solutions and say they’ve mastered it – globally.

Livability: If you’re not in a metro or you’re in a smaller metro, how can you keep up?

Bradley: There’s something that those places do almost better than anyone else. There’s no place too big to need the revolution and no place that’s too small to participate in it. Instead of looking outside to see how you can fit in, look inside to see what you already do well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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