BOSTON — It’s easy to despair about the American project. Washington is broken; the economy is still struggling to emerge from the Great Recession.
But in their new book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution argue that the city — dense, networked and more interested in accomplishment than partisan bickering — is emerging as a catalytic force for change.
Cities, they write, were once clients of Washington — building housing and infrastructure and human capital in line with the requirements of federal grantmakers. But now, they say, urban America is taking the lead, driving the discussion.
“The metropolitan revolution,” Katz and Bradley write, “has only one logical conclusion: the inversion of the hierarchy of power in the United States.”
WBUR caught up with Katz, this afternoon, for a Q&A on the rise of the American city — and Boston, in particular. The interview is edited and condensed.
DS: You suggest in your book that the metropolitan revolution is driven, in part, by the failure of our state and federal governments. “Cities and metropolitan areas are on their own,” you write. “The cavalry is not coming.”
Bruce Katz: I think cities and metropolitan areas understand fairly well that we’re living through a pivotal decade. In part that’s because of the recession and the wake-up call: we have supersized competitive and economic challenges. We’ve got, as a country, to grow 10.1 million jobs to make up the jobs we lost [and] keep pace with population growth. As troubling, we’ve seen poverty and near-poverty rise from 80 million in 2000 to 107 million in 2011.
So we’ve got this challenge as a country to grow more and better jobs. And to do that we really need to focus on those sectors of the country that are productive and innovative and technology-driven and globally oriented. And in theory, it would be great to have a national government to help fuel this restructuring and to fuel this job growth. But Washington is mired in gridlock. No one expects them to do anything anytime soon.
So what we see around the country is cities and metropolitan areas have absorbed that lesson. They’re stepping up and they’re doing the hard work to grow jobs and make their economies more prosperous. They’re investing in infrastructure, they’re making manufacturing a priority, they’re equipping workers with the skills they need, they’re linking small businesses with global markets.
We see this obviously in Denver and Los Angeles, Houston and Portland, Cleveland, northeast Ohio and New York, even in Detroit. Our sense is that we’re going through a structural shift in the United States where, for the forseeable future, change is going to happen where people live and innovation really is going to bubble up from these cities and metropolitan areas.
And one reason why we are basically optimistic about the ability of cities and metros to do this is they are very powerful economically — and I think you understand that well in Boston. We focus in our book and at Brookings on the top 100 metropolitan areas. They sit on only one-eighth of the land mass, [but] they’re two-thirds of the population, they’re three-quarters of the GDP, and on every single indicator that matters — whether it’s skilled workers and human capital or patents and innovation or freight flow and infrastructure — they’re 75, 80, 85, 90 percent of the national share. So there is really not an American economy. What we really have in the United States — it’s what makes us so powerful — is a network of metropolitan economies.
The United States may be one of the few countries in the world, when the federal government leaves the building, where you really do have a default proposition. And we think it’s not just a cyclical event, it’s structural. This is more and more the way the country is going to operate.
DS: Is the city, in all of its density, simply better tuned to our networked, entrepreneurial moment?
BK: You know, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, if you went looking for innovative firms, you’d probably go out to a science park along Route 128 or [to] Raleigh-Durham and there you would see companies in isolated corporate campuses. Because the notion is that you really had closed innovation — they were protecting their secrets. They didn’t want their workers to share what they were working on with workers at other firms.
That’s shifting. What you see right now in many sectors of the economy is companies want to be closer to other companies in high density, they want workers to be closer to other workers. That revalues cities. It revalues downtowns. It revalues waterfronts. And it’s happening at the same time people are looking for a higher quality of life in the places where they work and live. They want transportation alternatives — biking, walking, transit. They want housing to be near retail and other amenities.
These are major shifts. And I think that policy, many times, tends to follow these market and demographic dynamics.
DS: You write about “innovation districts,” including two in these parts — one sprouting around MIT and one on the long forlorn South Boston waterfront. But there were two very different models for getting there.
BK: I think the Cambridge model is one people are more used to in the United States. We have these very powerful anchor institutions — research institutions, medical campuses. And we have large resources of public R&D and private R&D that allow them to be a platform for small business growth, entrepreneurial dynamism, and then all this place-making that happens around that — mixed-use development and so forth.
You already see that happening around Georgia Tech in Atlanta, you see that happening even in places like Cleveland and Detroit, around the Cleveland Clinic and around Detroit’s suite of Wayne State and Henry Ford Health System and the College for Creative Studies. Interestingly enough, I think the U.S. was developed with our downtowns and our midtowns, in many of our cities and older suburbs, really being the place where we concentrated many of these eds and meds — these anchor institutions. So they’re really being revalued by the economy.
The Boston waterfront is a little bit of a different story. It’s partly due [to the fact] that it’s in the Boston metro — you’re a T ride away from Cambridge and Harvard and Longwood Medical. But there I think what you’re seeing is a mix of tech and creative firms. Very interesting experimentation with housing, with shared facilities, with spaces for creative networking. I mean it’s really the growth of creative industry in the United States. But still close to these other centers of talented workers and entrepreneurial firms.
So, you know, once you have a city and metropolis as vibrant and vital as Boston — and I think the mayor has smartly done this with the Innovation District — you can really guide and channel some of the growth. Remake portions of the city that really had very different uses five or 10 or 15 years ago. I mean Seattle can do this, Boston can do this, San Francisco can do this. Not every city can do this.