The excerpt below is reprinted from “The New Localism,” by permission of the publisher, the Brookings Institution Press.
Cities and counties are solving problems because they can. The knowledge-intensive industries that increasingly dominate the U.S. economy seek the convergence of assets that many U.S. cities and metropolitan areas naturally possess: anchor research institutions and collaborative ecosystems of firms, entrepreneurs, investors, and intermediaries. The emerging economy is revaluing proximity, density, authenticity, and the solid bones — historical buildings, traditional street grids, access to waterfronts, cultural institutions — that can be found in the traditional downtowns and midtowns of communities large, medium, and small.
Increased technological innovation has also enhanced the role of cities. As the basic science and applied research conducted in universities, hospitals, and companies reach commercial markets, cities have accelerated the invention of new technologies. Such progress in recent years is giving cities new ways to grow firms, value, and jobs. Some examples are Chattanooga’s efforts to create the smartest energy grid, Pittsburgh’s decision to be a living laboratory for testing driverless cars, and Chicago’s decision to open up public data for use by entrepreneurs and technology firms.
Technological advances, more broadly, have sped up a city’s ability to change and evolve, sharpening the contrast with sluggish legislative processes. As national and state governments have grown more sclerotic, the ability of traditional governments to act with agility and discretion has been lost. Cities, however, can accumulate public, private, and civic wealth to create alternative paths for the design, financing, and delivery of solutions rapidly. Localities are the test bed for a dizzying array of innovations — charter schools, smart meters, mobility apps, social enterprises — based on the simple premise, hubristic in some cases, that “I can do that better.”
The nature of problem solving is also changing, further reinforcing the growing preference for local responses. Tackling complex issues such as climate change or social mobility or the deployment and employment impact of disruptive technologies should work toward solutions that are integrated and innovative rather than dictatorial and prescriptive.
Cities that are characterized by multidisciplinary and multisectoral networks rather than by the narrow, specialized silos of federal or state bureaucracies can think outside the box. A national transportation agency tends to address challenges — say, traffic congestion — with transportation solutions, often widening a road. To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A city is more likely to bring other solutions to bear — based in, say, housing or land use or technology — to solve the same problem.
A cultural affinity for public purpose and volunteerism is deeply rooted in localities. Cities are home to tens of thousands of mediating institutions — churches, community organizations, business associations, philanthropies — that play a critical role in addressing the most difficult challenges faced by families and neighborhoods.
To be sure, the issues that many cities face — from deep-seated poverty and aging infrastructure to legacy liabilities that crowd out needed items from public budgets — are difficult to overcome. But the most creative solutions will come from local initiatives in the places where schools are managed, jobs are created, budgets are designed, contracts are negotiated, and infrastructure choices are made.
Cities share another advantage over the nation-state in their ability to respond nimbly and flexibly to challenges and opportunities. The federal government has very little discretion to make investments that respond to non-natural crises such as the Detroit bankruptcy or the Ferguson and Baltimore disturbances, or to adjust to broader demographic transformations or technological disruptions. The uninterrupted growth of entitlement programs and the proliferation of highly rigid programs have created a government that, like a fossil, is inflexible and stiff. Incredibly, a small city or regional philanthropy has more discretion to make smart, aligned investments than distant federal agencies do.
Problem solving close to the ground rather than policymaking from a remote national or state capital has the tangible benefit of customization. A local solution can be a more efficient use of resources since it is more aligned with the distinctive needs of a particular place. A weak-market city such as Detroit needs to demolish blighted housing in order to boost value; a hot-market city such as Boston needs to build and preserve more housing to meet demand. National and state legislatures, but contrast, tend to enact one-size-fits-all solutions and, for political reasons, prefer spreading public resources evenly, like peanut butter across a slice of bread.
New Localism is thus a brake on national uniformity. It allows places to focus on the challenges they actually have rather than on the issues du jour favored by national governments or national constituency groups more broadly. It recognizes and celebrates the differences between regions. The country draws its strength not only from being “one nation” politically but also from having multiple nodes of energy, innovation, and experimentation.
Finally, cities reflect a new circuitry of civic innovation, the ability to adapt, tailor, or replicate an innovative practice invented in one city in other cities. All cities, whether developing or developed, face similar challenges. The fact that multiple cities in radically different circumstances are simultaneously trying to solve challenges makes them more likely to innovate than hyperspecialized national agencies.
And when cities join together to commit to common quantifiable outcomes, as is now happening with the response to climate change, the drive toward new replicable solutions and routinized financial mechanisms is accelerated. The commitment of hundreds of cities to the climate goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement illustrates the growing power of New Localism. Collective accords and campaigns will inevitably engage such challenges as early childhood education, crime reduction, and transportation choice.