The City Is the Future and It Does Work

Leaders in Washington must wake up to the potential of the city.

San Francisco

San Francisco

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"I have seen the future and it works."

It is perhaps history's most notoriously wrong-headed quote, written by Lincoln Steffens, the New York "muckraker" reporter for McClure's magazine, after his visit to the Soviet Union in 1919. In his lifetime, Steffens did not have to disavow the whole of his most celebrated book about America, "The Shame of the Cities," in which he exposed municipal corruptions that lasted many years. But if he were reporting on the nation's metropolises today, the evidence would surely merit a different title: "The Pride of the Cities."

Our cities really suffered in the Great Recession. Most of the unemployment was concentrated in the 100 largest metropolitan areas. According to the Brookings Institution, between 2007 and 2010 more than 5.8 million people lost jobs within 35 miles of these metro areas' downtowns, with construction, manufacturing and retail accounting for 60 percent of the decline. New York City was hit hard, given its leadership role in finance. The Lehman Brothers collapse sparked an explosive loss of jobs at other financial firms. City revenues shrank by more than $2 billion in 2009, and cutbacks in consumer spending and tourism erased another 140,000 New York jobs.

But look what happened. The resilience of our cities has been remarkable. New York's leaders worked together to reinvent the overall economy, and to retain and attract the talented people needed to deal with a shortfall in technology, engineering and R&D, by scaling up New York City's technological capabilities.

[See the top 10 cities to find a job.]

The 100 largest metropolitan areas, home to roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population, have produced 80 percent of all of the U.S. inventors who were granted patents since 1976, and 82 percent of them since 2005. That's the finding of the Brookings report "Patenting Prosperity: Invention and Economic Performance in the United States and its Metropolitan Areas." In other words, very few inventions are produced outside of the major metro areas.

Of course, not all patents work out. But you have only to mention the names of the leading centers of innovation to think of some great success or other. Silicon Valley, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Cupertino bring to mind a Google answer to a query, an iPhone, shiny hardware and the codes that drive it. Silicon Valley is first in total patents and also in terms of patenting per capita. But look who makes up the rest of the top 10 in terms of total patents: San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, San Diego, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit. Not to mention the various university towns and their technology clusters that performed the best among the innovative cities: Ann Arbor, Mich.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (the home of IBM); Cambridge and Boston. Such towns accounted for 12 of the top 25 success stories.

We should celebrate their achievements. It's fun to test yourself on who gave us what. Where was today's lifesaving biotech created and by whom? What comes out of Austin, Texas. Or Boulder, Colo., or Minneapolis-St. Paul? When you slide into an MRI machine, to whom should you give a metaphorical nod? It was at Brooklyn's Downstate Medical Center that Raymond Damadian succeeded in its invention in 1977.

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

Urban leaders – that is, mayors – have understood that there is a clear connection between talent and human capital and metro performance. Indeed, when urban centers have been revitalized, more educated and highly skilled people have moved in. Mayors also have known that the jobs that were created were job multipliers, and they were right. The Milken Institute has reported that for each new high-tech job, two professional positions such as doctors and accountants and three non-professional jobs were created. It also noted that while Apple employs some 34,000 people in the Cupertino region, it is estimated to have inspired another 170,000 jobs in the area.