"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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