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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In their book, "The Metropolitan Revolution," Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley capture the economic, social and political transformation playing out in cities that are catalysts of prosperity and even social change. The regions embody networks of creativity, talent, and enterprise.

These cities and their leaders have thus become the de facto growth engines of our economy and social change. The efforts are led by mayors, who work with the heads of local universities, medical centers, companies, civic organizations, cultural institutions, labor unions and philanthropies out of a legitimate concern: that the federal government has proven incapable of taking the bold action needed to restructure our economy. Mayors make the megacities not simply productive but also enjoyable. These leaders work in an environment that is large enough to make a difference yet small enough to impart a sense of community and common purpose, and they have the executive powers to implement policies. They regenerate downtowns, revitalize waterfronts, expand transit and transportation, nourish innovation and modernize community college systems to ensure that students are trained for the jobs of the future.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Think here of Boston's Mayor Tom Menino. Polls have shown that half or more of residents have stated that they have shaken hands with him during his 20-year leadership. And no city is more enterprising than New York, which has seen the future and is making it work. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognized that, for all the city's fine universities, it was outmatched by Silicon Valley in digital innovation as well as Boston, with MIT. On Roosevelt Island, where once stood the New York City Lunatic Asylum and a smallpox hospital, now there is rising a 2 million square foot science and engineering hub to rival the most prolific such center, in a collaboration between City Hall, Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa that is supported by a city land grant and $100 million. It also has received $350 million from Chuck Feeney, an octogenarian Cornell alumnus who became a duty-free entrepreneur. Bloomberg personifies a new brand of metropolitan leader who puts dual emphasis on receptivity to business and quality of life through measures to create a safer, healthier, cleaner, more civilized environment. This has meant overcoming political obstruction and vested interests, but he has done it.

So it is mayors who are focused on delivering the goods rather than just promulgating rules and laws. Their leadership is reflected in action and not just in rhetoric. They possess the knowledge and the instincts to build on their distinctive strengths and to leverage their assets and advantages.

[See the 10 Metro Areas Where Unemployment Is Falling Fastest.]

Their orientation to problem-solving and progress came at the right time, for the federal government has been caught up in partisan rancor and paralyzed by weak leadership focused on short-term politics rather than long-term progress. They know that they have to live every day with the visible consequences of their decisions. Congressmen go back to homes scattered across the country.

However, mayors cannot do it alone. Katz and Bradley point out that federal and state governments are powerful and control substantial funding as well as regulations necessary for economic rebirth. But they remain agonizingly slow at restructuring our economic platforms and re-setting basic strategies, particularly those that involve innovation in science and technology and addressing our educational lacunae.

It is cities that have demonstrated the capacity to develop into centers of excellence, and that now offer a model of an effective package. Their leaders know that the best performing will be those with the highest levels of educational attainment and college grads, with higher levels of knowledge workers, and particularly with large clusters of talent in science and technology, business and management, the arts, culture and entertainment. It is not an accident that the high-technology economy centers are in places like Silicon Valley, Austin, Raleigh, and Washington, D.C., as well as Boston and San Francisco. It is critical that our leaders in Washington wake up to the potential of the city and shake off the bureaucratic and political paralysis that sadly disables them these days.