“We could be interrupted at some point,” Bruce Katz said during a phone conversation last week, his voice pitched above the din of Manhattan traffic. As if on cue, a siren howled in the near distance for several moments. Katz let it pass, and then turned his attention back to talking about the challenge — and the opportunity — facing cities and metropolitan areas in the wake of the Great Recession.
“You’re on your own,” declared Katz, who is vice president of the Brookings Institution, the influential public policy think tank based in Washington, DC. He also is the founding director of the institute’s Metropolitan Policy program and, with his Brookings colleague, Jennifer Bradley, the co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.
“At the federal level, you have absolute partisan gridlock,” Katz continued. “Many state governments have become essentially irrelevant. Some cities and metros are getting the message that if they don’t step up and find ways to innovate and collaborate and build their approach to economic growth around transformative initiatives, it ain’t gonna happen.”
As the title of his book suggests, Katz is optimistic that cities with strong leadership and a metropolitan perspective can take advantage of shifts in demographics and market dynamics that are changing what he calls “the geography of innovation.” Katz sees that geography “collapsing back” from the exurban research parks that proliferated in the 1980s and 90s to urban centers, where “innovation districts” centered on the presence of research institutions are attracting clusters of start-ups, incubators and accelerators taking advantage of close physical proximity not just to each other, but to technology, housing, retail and commercial development, and mass transit.
In some respects, Katz said, the “pushing down” of responsibility from federal and state governments to local ones is a good thing, providing opportunities for more efficient allocations of resources. Meanwhile, the development of innovation districts establishes a strong foundation for economic growth and social progress over the long haul — while also reversing urban sprawl and reducing the accompanying environmental degradation, promoting denser residential and employment patterns, and contributing to implementation of better mass transit solutions.
In the book, Katz and Bradley point to a number of places — New York, Boston, Portland, Houston, Miami, Denver, Los Angeles, and even Detroit — where substantial and strategic investments in infrastructure, housing “schools and skills,” and sustainable development are laying the groundwork for long-term prosperity that will outpace that of the nation as a whole.
“I don’t really think there is an American economy,” said Katz. “It’s become a network of metro economies.” There are 381 metropolitan statistical areas in the United States, he pointed out, with the top 100 of those (the Birmingham-Hoover MSA is 49th) accounting for roughly two-thirds of the nation’s population, three-quarters of the gross domestic product, and “a good portion of our innovative growth.” But, absent the key ingredients of communication, cooperation and collaboration, even some communities that seem well positioned to thrive will find themselves falling behind.
“If you’re going to compete globally,” Katz asserted, “you have to be metropolitan in form.” That is, to put it mildly, a heck of a message to be bringing to Birmingham, which has been the home office for metropolitan dysfunction for over a century — since roughly 1910, to be exact, which was the last time the boundaries of the city proper were expanded substantially.
But Katz is doing just that. He will be in the city on October 22 and 23, “kicking tires,” in his words, to see how the emerging metropolitan model can be applied to Birmingham. His trip here is being sponsored by Leadership Birmingham, the UAB School of Public Health, and the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, and includes two events that are open to the public — the Leadership Birmingham Annual Event on Thursday the 22nd, and the School of Public Health’s annual Carole Samuelson Lecture in Public Health Practice on Friday the 23rd.
“I’m hoping that he gives us a call to action,” said Leadership Birmingham executive director Ann Florie. “We’ve been talking about how to function better as a metropolitan area for 15 or 20 years, but we haven’t seen that happen to any real extent. It’s a conversation that needs to involve a lot of people — business and civic leaders, elected officials, philanthropists, universities, nonprofits, community and neighborhood groups. If we’re going to build on the assets we have, we need a lot of leaders coming from a lot of places.”
After joking (I think) that he expects Katz “to solve every problem we have in Birmingham,” School of Public Health dean Max Michael said that Katz’s trip here represents “a great opportunity for our community.” Getting our act together is essential, he added, if Birmingham wants to be competitive with other growing cities in the years ahead.
“I think Bruce is absolutely correct that metropolitan regions are the economic drivers of the future,” Michael declared. “We have not been very good in Birmingham at either recognizing and addressing the needs of the urban core, or promoting a more metropolitan perspective in general. What Bruce is going to say to us is important.”
Among the tenets of the policy solutions Katz and Bradley highlight in The Metropolitan Revolution is the notion that, while the basic ingredients of success are identifiable — livability, affordability, sustainability — the key to actually finding that success lies in the distinctive strengths and weaknesses of a given community. That, and ensuring that the broad-based leadership structure to encourage, promote and drive growth and progress is in place.
“It requires a very hard focus on your competitive position,” Katz told me. “What is the advantage that you have over other cities, and how do you leverage it? That’s really what it boils down to. That’s the challenge.”
Bruce Katz has two speaking engagements in Birmingham. The Leadership Birmingham Annual Event is scheduled for Thursday, October 22, at The Forum Theater, located on the second floor of the Forum Building, 950 22nd Street North in downtown Birmingham. Katz will speak at 5:00 p.m., with a cocktail reception to follow at 6:00; tickets are $40. Katz will deliver the Carole Samuelson Lecture at noon on Friday, October 23, in Lecture Hall A at Volker Hall, on the UAB campus; admission is free.