How New York City Turned Into Michael Bloomberg's Test Tube

What will he leave behind when it becomes someone else’s laboratory?

Reuters

In one month, New York City voters will pick a new mayor. On the left, Bill de Blasio has campaigned as the anti-Bloomberg, promising to change current policies on schools and policing. On the right, Joe Lhota has alternately praised and criticized the current mayor, expressing support of certain policies while at the same time trying to distance himself from the current administration's middling approval rates. No matter who gets elected, New York’s next mayor will run a city that has changed a lot in the last 12 years. While Michael Bloomberg’s successor might be able to rewrite certain policies, many of the mayor’s efforts will have a lasting effect on the city.

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But there are higher stakes for Bloomberg’s legacy beyond the five boroughs. Looking ahead to CityLab, The Atlantic’s summit on local-level innovation to be held in New York City from October 6-8, it seems important to ask whether this is even possible: Can one city’s experiments affect the way cities are run across the world?* A growing number of scholars and theorists seem to think so.

In fact, Bloomberg's effort to expand the power of cities may be his most lasting legacy. He has used his influence and billions to promote the idea that cities are the best places to get things done. As he said during an event at MIT in 2011, "The difference between my level of government and other levels of government is that action takes place at the city level. The cities and mayors are where you deal with crime, you deal with real immigration problems, you deal with health problems, you deal with picking up the garbage." Though he was once considered a potential presidential candidate, Bloomberg publicly declared that City Hall can make more of a difference than the White House — not a small thing for a billionaire with a national reputation.

And Bloomberg has personally spent millions amplifying that influence. U.S. mayors have been trading ideas since at least 1932, when the United States Conference of Mayors was chartered. But Bloomberg has personally sponsored major collaboration efforts, including a "mayors challenge" that rewarded Providence, Rhode Island, with $5 million to work on closing the literacy gap among its preschoolers. Four other cities — Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Santa Monica — each won a million dollars. And in 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies spent $24 million creating "innovation delivery teams" in Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Memphis, and New Orleans; over the next three years, these consultants will work on issues like homelessness and handgun violence.

When he wasn't bankrolling innovation efforts in other cities, Bloomberg focused on making New York the "first city to do X," breaking new ground on everything from technology and sustainability to crime-fighting and counter-terrorism. In his 2008 "state of the city" address, he announced PlaNYC, framing it as a "strategy for creating the world's first truly sustainable city." In the same speech, he boasted about New York's information technology, promising that the city would begin creating a "comprehensive database of firearms evidence — something no other city in the country has done." And "in a first for any municipal government," he crowed, "we will link the computer systems at more than a dozen City agencies."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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