The Embarrassingly Obvious Barriers Holding Back Our Cities and Suburbs

The authors of The Metropolitan Revolution explain why it's so hard for civic leaders to talk to each other.

The New York City skyline at sunset is seen from across the East River in the Queens borough of New York on Monday, July 4, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek) (National Journal)

In their new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program make the case that real power in the U.S. is shifting from the federal government to cities and metropolitan areas. They do this by first noting, astutely, that federal gridlock amid economic stagnation has basically forced city, metro, and regional leaders to get really, really creative about how to solve their own, local problems. The bulk of the rest of the book is then spent laying out case study after case study, from New York to Houston to Portland to Northeast Ohio, based largely on their experiences traveling around the country as de facto consultants through their think-tank work. So by the time you reach the concluding chapters, which consist of a sort of how-to guide aimed at local civic leaders looking to apply some of these lessons, it's easy to believe that the advice therein is probably worth a great deal.

But after reading it, what struck me about Katz and Bradley's more practical advice is just how basic it seems, or really, stunningly obvious. They spend page after page promoting concepts like "building your network," "setting your vision," and even, in their worst moment of succumbing to consulting jargon, "finding your game changer." Combined, Bradley and Katz have arguably spent more time meeting with city and local governments, regional business leaders, and influential community groups than any other two humans on the planet. So I sat down with them recently to get to the bottom of whether their best advice is really as simple as it seems, or if the current state of affairs at the local leadership level is really just surprisingly bad. Edited excerpts of that conversation follow.

In the last chapter in your book, you talk a lot about how the No. 1 thing local leaders should be doing is "building a network." Which seems, well, really obvious. Except somehow it's not?

Jennifer Bradley: When we go around the country, whether it was all the mayors in the Denver metropolitan area, or the philanthropies in Northeast Ohio, they would say, "We never got together." In the Denver chapter, we tell the story of how former Mayor Pena called the county commissioner in Adams County when he needed to do a land deal for the airport, and he went to Adams County to have dinner in a restaurant there. It's the most simple thing, and you do feel like a dork the first few times you tell people, "No really, just get everyone in a room," but over and over again we heard that that was a huge step. And I think it has to do with the fact that people are so busy doing what they think of as their day-to-day job, they forget to step back and look laterally and think about what somebody else might be doing. That simple process of just asking a question and not feeling like all the answers are in your own zone gets overlooked. And it's almost because it's so easy that we start there and then we say it's so important. Anybody really can do this.

Bruce Katz: The United States, and a lot of mature economies, became obsessed with specialization in the late 20th century. And we began to think of problems as being compartmentalized, as separate, rather than requiring integrated thinking and solutions. So you have a whole bunch of people who have been trained, really as specialists, and have been expected to really stay in that lane. The transportation people hang out here. And then the educators hang out here. And then the housing folks hang out there. And in way what we're basically saying is the tough challenge and the important opportunities require these sort of cross-sectoral, cross-disciplinary, cross-jurisdictional engagements. And so we have to now rethink, not just how you think, but who you engage with. Even electeds, they're elected to a boundary, a bounded place therefore they think within. They don't really think across.

There's got to be some element of territorialism too, especially when you're talking about people who represent or serve or work with specific communities. You know, they think about their mission very much as this is us, and everybody else is them.

JB: Nobody initially thinks they're going to get reelected based on their relationship with the jurisdiction across the boarder. Overtime, as in Denver, people can teach citizens to expect that and what the benefits are. But yeah, everything is boundaries, right? Whether it's by jurisdiction or department or silos.

BK: And I think that applied to these disciplines, because we do have a guild system really going in the United States. So, I've been trained as an engineer, I've been trained as a lawyer or as a demographer, or a social worker.

Well, and a lot of professions don't speak the same language.

BK: Exactly.

JB: And you learn to feel good in your profession about having a more specialized language.

So there's an ego element to it. Like, I know how to solve these problems in my area.

JB: This is lawyers, right? Basically we go to school for three years to learn how to speak lawyer language. It can easily be translated into people language. But, we spend a lot of money and a lot of time learning how to speak lawyer language, so my gosh, that's what we're going to do.

BK: You try to protect the guild. We just had a breakfast this morning around infrastructure finance. And we had a bunch of people in from state DOT's and some of the investment banks and all that, and a good friend of mine is in for the week in Germany, just visiting and such. So they asked him what's happening in Germany. And he started the conversation by not talking about public-private partnership stuff, but talking about infrastructure in the service of competitiveness and how to think about skills and capacity. And people looked at him like he was from Mars or something. It was a case of a generalist and a narrative about, why do we even have this stuff before we even start getting into the technical conversation.

So is there more to it even then than just getting people in the same room? Do there need to be rules or formats that people need to think about when they're building their networks? Is it really just setting up lunches and coffees?

BK: The most important thing from my perspective is, what's the goal? Where do you want to head with this? Because if your network is about social inclusion versus commercialization or innovation or something, you're going to end up with a different network. Initiators of networks are probably motivated by either challenges they're trying to solve or opportunities they're trying to leverage. So that will, to some extent, dictate.

JB: I think that what we find is that networks learn how to be networks, and certainly among civic networks of peers it can be a little tricky. If the mayor of New York City is calling in saying, I need your help with a problem, it's clear that he has an agenda, and you're buying into it, and you want to help him solve that problem. In a situation when it's more of a peer-to-peer thing, whether it's a mayor's caucus or a city manager's or philanthropies, it can be very off putting if one entity looks like it's trying to lead the network too aggressively and try to come in with an agenda and rule. It's like playing with a tyrannical 4-year-old girl. Everything has got to be that way.

Collaboration isn't all that simple.

JB: Yeah, and they really do have to learn how to work together.

BK: Some of this stuff about networks can sound abstract and non-personal.

And the tangible benefits of it are so theoretical.

BK: Yeah, at some point this is about people and you know, particularly if you talk about leaders of institutions sort of dialing up your listening mode, your learning mode, and dialing down your managing mode. So you really have to hear people and say, "OK, now I'm getting a better sense of where they're coming from." You know, I really find a lot of times, I feel like a therapist. You sort of go into places, I'm a '60s/'70s kid so there's a lot of that permeated our culture, but I feel like a lot of it is first the power of positive thinking, but also, this is what different places or sectors bring to the table, and how to you put the puzzle together so that it has a significant effect? That's a different kind of thinking. As opposed to bureaucratic, you know, we have a tool box, and here's the problem and we hack at it.

JB: Or we're going to tell you what to do or why you're the problem. Or we're going to do something that you haven't bought into.

Well, in individual communities you've got histories. You've got people who have butted heads. I've got to imagine that's part of the obstacle too. I don't know if I want to work with this other city, or this other group.

BK: It's a grudge match.

Yeah, it's personal.

JB: Building trust is a really important thing. And it sounds so low tech. Don't we need an app? Don't we need a lot of money? Yeah, you do, you will need those things. But if you don't have trust among the people in that network, it's not going to work. And building trust is an old, slow, hard human skill.

Alright, so the next piece of advice is "set your vision." Is that at all cross purposes with the idea of building a large network? You've got all of these individual people trying to network with each other with different visions.

BK: Our view of vision is not "I got up on Tuesday, I had a vision." Or "I hit my head on a rock, I had a vision." This is about evidence and fact, this is a Brookings kind of view of visions. These places really do have distinct assets and advantages whereas the other challenges might be somewhat different from whatever the norm is. So you really want to have people start with a unified set. I do think that there is a view that the facts will set you free, but they will also get everyone on same page.

So vision has to come out of evidence?

BK: Absolutely.

JB: As Bruce likes to say, there's no Metropolitan Super Computer that's going to spit out the automatic answer.

Isn't that what Brookings is?

JB: We can give you the data, but then the choice is when the network says, "All right, what are the choices we're going to make based on this data?" And sometimes the strength of a place like Brookings is that we can come in with, I don't want to say clean data, but we can come in with data that nobody else got to first and say, "All right, this is the picture. If you can agree on this, what do you do to move forward?"

BK: And again, I really like to believe that in 10 years, less, five or seven years, I really sort of envision that cities and metros will have networks of leaders. Where you're sitting down on a regular basis, and you're almost like in a corporation, you're looking at the quarterly returns or something, and you're really finding out, "are we making progress?" Let's set a group of metrics, not just set a vision, but sustain it, measure it, keep the progress going. I love the notion of everyone just like, let's just stick to it together. And then, overtime, it's a natural sort of human, you know, friendships form, the trust factor, a sense of accomplishment. So much of this is about feeling good about what you do as an individual and feeling good about what a collective can accomplish. There's so much pride that comes into play. Here comes the '60s stuff again.

JB: It turns out that if you use that same data, motivation plus data, is a really powerful combination. And we are at a point where I think people recognize the power of both. Not just one or the other.

BK: There are so many hard questions about this book. And in a way, what you hope for, you sort of know when people are taking you seriously when they really start pushing back. And basically saying, in a given place or for the country as a whole, there are some real serious barriers to the ideas in this book. Barriers to forming networks. Barriers to having people set visions that are really evidence driven.

And barriers from the federalist system of our country.

BK: So there's a lot of barriers.

That's not going to change anytime soon.

JB: Right, so, get over it. What are you going to do? Are you going to stop, are you going to wallow? These people are in public life for a reason. Show me that you can fix something. We're seeing inventiveness, that's why it's so great that Detroit is in the book. Right, because if we can say, "There's even stuff happening in Detroit, it's not at a massive scale yet, we're not denying the billions of dollars in deficits that Detroit has." Meanwhile, 700,000 people still live in Detroit. That's a lot of people. Kids are going to Detroit schools every single year.

And it takes 53 minutes for an ambulance to show up.

BK: One thing we're doing with the governor [of Michigan] is that, you know, you've got the river, you've got the downtown, you've got the transit corridor, and you've got midtown. This is a relatively small part of the landmass. Four percent of the landmass, 40 percent of the jobs, which actually turns out to be the same as Philly's downtown, it's really interesting.

But for the governor, you have a certain amount of federal funding, a certain amount of state funding. Then you've got the private and city. And there's going to be a gap. So why don't we come up with some investment vehicles? In this country, I think quite a few people invest, get a tax deduction, but have patient capital. Put a billion dollar fund together, two billion dollar fund together, around flexible capital. Right? So that you can fuel the researchers. And you start getting return in year seven or ten or something like that. We came up with some of the most sophisticated financial instruments in the world over the past few years.

JB: Why can't we use our powers for good?

BK: But really, I think that's what we've got to figure out. Because this country is designed to do good. To me, this is like a totally real proposition. But, I'm not an investment banker. Let's get that talent in the room, and figure this out. What the fuck, I mean, you know? What the fuck, what else would we do?

JB: People will say, "Oh but you know, that's a lot of private capital, and don't you have to worry about taking over the public realm by private capital?" But our response is: Compared to what? I've got to tell you, Detroit is not suffering from too much private capital.

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