There is an inherent difficulty in writing about the increasing strength of cities: The movement is decentralized, with thousands of varied initiatives across different states and even countries. Not every city needs grass-removal rebates; not every city needs an aggressive vacant-property-registration program. This variation leads to two opposing pitfalls in discourse about cities: getting bogged down in details about individual programs, or speaking so broadly that it amounts to nothing but vague pro-urban cheerleading. Thankfully, in their new book “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy,” Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley (from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program) consistently strike the right balance.
The book’s strength comes in identifying emerging trends in city governance, and backing them up with solid examples. The last half of the books does this explicitly, discussing three ideas: (1) the creation of “innovation districts” formed by clustering companies to spur economic growth (chapter 6); (2) the growing importance of U.S. cities engaging with cities in other countries, as Portland has done by selling eco-friendly products, and Miami has done by attracting business from South America (chapter 7); and (3) the need for support and freedom, rather than resistance and constriction, from federal and state government (chapter 8).
The book is littered with other useful tidbits about the “metropolitan revolution.” One general theme for the book is the advantage metro-leaders have in seeking pragmatic solutions to ground-level problems, and the increasing ability for successful solutions to spread because of advances in communication technology. Katz and Bradley also highlight some specific solutions. In chapter 5, which discusses Houston, they underscore the value of community centers in assimilating immigrants. Other chapters describe the importance of regional cooperation. Chapter 3, for example, discusses how metropolitan Denver came together to support the arts, plan more-efficient public transportation, and compete for business as a region rather than as individual suburbs. And chapter 4 covers efforts in Northeast Ohio to build a coalition of businesses to kickstart the region’s economy.
Another example I found particularly interesting is the book’s emphasis on the need to create science and technology jobs. The authors note the conclusion of economist Enrico Moretti that “each new high-tech job in a metropolitan area leads to, over the long term, two additional professional and three additional nonprofessional jobs.” They then showcase efforts in New York City to build tech colleges to attract talent to the area (chapter 1), and attempts to build hubs for tech companies in Cleveland and Detroit (chapters 3 and 6).
The book is refreshingly up-to-date, at least in regard to Detroit, the city it covers that I follow the most closely. The book was published this summer, yet the authors managed to squeeze in the March 2013 appointment of Kevyn Orr as an emergency manager, and the January 2013 federal grant to support a new rail line connecting the suburbs to downtown.
I caution that Katz and Bradley don’t always avoid the pitfalls in writing about cities that I mentioned earlier. They occasionally slip into careless politicking, filling up paragraphs with buzzword-laden stump speeches for urban living (as with the example I’ve noted before about the “new growth model and economic vision” that will “build an economy that works for working family,” p. 2-3). Other times, they get lost in the details of documenting stories, albeit compelling ones, about the communities they write about, at the risk of readers glossing over the trends the authors seek to identify.
Nevertheless, for a frontline analysis of the growing strength of cities in the United States, this is the book to check out.
(I originally posted this review on my blog: http://datadrivencity.com/review-metropolitan-revolution/)