Even as American center cities slid into decline and decay in the second half of the 20th century, precious little scholarship and national policy addressed urban problems. But since 1997, Bruce Katz and the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program has been the leading scholarly advocate for urban policy reform. TPR was pleased to speak with Dr. Katz about his latest research and the prospects for American cities in the 21st century.
How has the focus of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program changed with the election of Democratic majorities in Congress and in the states? Have research priorities changed for your program?
I think the democrats appetite for policy innovation is quite high. Our agenda has been fairly consistent. We've always tried to chronicle the dynamic change in this country-demographic change, economic restructuring, and the shifting attitudes and imperatives around the environment. We've tried to articulate the kind of policy reforms that are necessary to respond to these challenges and leverage new opportunities.
For a period of time, particularly at the federal level, the government has been almost on hold or in retreat. A lot of the issues that have been emerging at the local and state level have not been addressed in Washington. Whether it's infrastructure, housing, the general competitive challenge facing the nation, the anxiety in the middle class, or the perennial issue of how to lift people out of poverty, I think there is an enormous appetite across the parties for smart ideas, set off by the competition for ideas in the presidential race.
Has policy innovation and experimentation, as you suggest, moved to the state houses, and the governors' offices? What is emerging from these public labratories?
The states are performing their traditional role as laboratories of democracy. That is partly because states have always had certain powers. That is also because the federal government has devolved so much power to them-to basically run major federal programs on infrastructure, workforce, welfare, housing, and so forth. I would say that in the past half-decade or so-and it has definitely accelerated-the states are innovating in several ways.
Number one, they are the prime agents for reinterpreting how this country competes globally going forward. They are making major investments in research and innovation. They are pioneering the kind of cluster-led growth that most places need to succeed. On the sustainability front, California and others are, both through regulation and incentive, trying to address the challenges of global warming. Since the mid- to late-'90s, the states are the places where smart growth and the integration of housing, land use, and transportation was pioneered. And, finally, many of the states are pioneering new approaches to health care and child care as well as embracing increases in the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit.
So, the action has been at the state level for some time. I think the question going into the '08 election and beyond is similar to what happened in the late '80s moving into the Clinton administration: Which of the state innovations ultimately needs to be scaled up to national policy? I would say that with every issue I've mentioned there is a federal connection of some kind that the next Congress and the next president will be responsible for unveiling and enacting.
Your program has published extensively on the 2000 Census and its implications for American cities. You have a book, Taking the High Road, about the transportation challenges that cities face. Elaborate on your research priorites at Brookings?
All the work that we have done around demographic change and economic restructuring convinces me of essentially three things. Number one, metropolitan areas, particularly the top-100, are the engines of national prosperity in the United States. They are driving and dominating the economy. They're the immigrant gateways; they're the ports of entry; they're the centers of knowledge and innovation.
Unless metropolitan areas succeed-unless they're healthy and vital-this nation won't compete. That means that the federal level and the states need to arm metropolitan America with what I call the "rules and tools" to compete in the global economy and grow in sustainable and inclusive ways.
Number two, I think this change has revalued the assets of cities and urban places. The urban form-density, the proximity to waterfronts and riverfronts, and natural resources-has been revalued by a shifting economy. We are seeing a rebirth of american cities (and even signs of revival in many older industrial cities) despite the continued impediments of older, conventional policies. I feel bullish about cities in the United States.
The third major change, I think, is the impact on the people who live in cities and metropolitan areas. I think there is enormous concern that wages and incomes in the United States are not sufficient to keep pace with the rising cost of housing, health care, transportation, child care, and other necessities of daily living, and we're going to have to have a different compact between the government, the employment sectors, and individuals if people are going to be rewarded for work. Those are the three major things that I think about every day and that should ultimately animate national discourse and policy change.
A recent newspaper headline following the Supreme Court's decision upholding US EPA's power to regulate emissions, reads, "Bush Splits with Congress and States on Emissions." What is the significance of that story?
I think the states are trying to out-compete each other, to be frank. This is why the Unites States is such a fascinating place. My shop has tended to do more work over time in Britain and Europe, and what sets the United States apart is the inherent entrepreneurial spirit in the public sector because of our devolved system and our federal system.
The president, obviously, has the prerogative to think what he thinks, but we also have 50 states, 50 governors, and 50 state legislatures that have enormous power. They will continue to innovate and experiment because I think, increasingly, people understand that sustainable growth is fundamentally related to and the groundwork for economic prosperity.
Your center has studied Europe and Britain's environmental policies, most specifically their greenhouse gas emissions approaches. California is clearly attempting, with the passage of AB 32, to emulate Europe. How are the other states dealing with climate change?
That's right. I think-as with all these very complicated issues that have such a dramatic effect on sectors of the economy-that there has been a general tendency to do the low-hanging fruit first: to work with incentives and take small steps.
The interesting thing about the energy and environmental areas is how much cities have participated-and to a lesser extent, counties as well. I don't know if states will race to emulate California, because California has such an enormous impact on the marketplace both national and global. But there is a clear sense that the political winds and public opinion have shifted. And so you are going to see an inventiveness arise around the country.
I would like to see people and policy makers connect land-use patterns ultimately to the energy and environmental challenges that this country faces. There are enormous differences between energy use within dense, compact cities or older suburbs and energy use and environmental impact in some of the lower density peripheral areas that continue to grow.
Policymakers have not made that connection yet, and I think that is the next wave. Hopefully the states will be in the forefront of that, and as we get to 2009 and 2010 and begin to consider major national infrastructure policy and related policy, by then the federal government will have a better sense of how they can act in strategic ways.
In your last TPR interview, you focused a much of your center's attention on the Midwest states, thinking that they would be the political battlegrounds for the national election of 2004. Looking ahead, what region, and what issues will dominate the urban agenda of 2008?
I think there are two regions of the country that will dominate the election, and they are almost on polar extremes of economic growth. The first will continue to be the Great Lakes. We just put out a report on the Great Lakes called "The Vital Center," where we tried to discern the assets and the liabilities of that part of the country-liabilities mostly deriving from their industrial past-and then set forth a fairly ambitious national agenda around innovation, environmental remediation of the lakes, rejuvenation of the cities and older communities, a new social compact for health care, and major issues like that.
I think that the Great Lakes-Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri-offer an enormous opportunity to focus national attention on a series of competitive, environmental, and innovation issues that we need to grapple with.
The other part of the country that will have enormous effects on the election is the inter-mountain West-Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. They are the fastest growing part of the country, and they face enormous sustainability challenges because of the way they are growing. Some of them, like the Denver metro area, are responding to it and are not waiting for the feds to fund transit. They're doing it themselves; they're realigning land use along transit, densifying corridors, and growing more smartly.
We've also seeded a regional research effort comparable to the Great Lakes effort in the inter-mountain West. I would say that by the end of this year we will be able to articulate, in the states that ultimately will decide this election, the kind of national policies that, in collaboration with smart state and local policies, can help this country compete economically and grow in sustainable and inclusive ways.
Last year you won the Heinz Award for you efforts to "advocate for the reinvigoration of American cities." What is the agenda and challenge for America's cities in the 21st century?
On one level the challenges are not that different from what they were 15 or 20 years ago, which is to fix the basics. At the end of the day people and families live in cities because there are good schools, safe streets, competitive tax regimes, and services that get delivered effectively and efficiently. You just have to look to New Orleans or to Washington, D.C., in the '80s to see what happens when a city can't deliver the basics. That part of city governing remains the same.
A second aspect, as the economy has changed, the country has grown, and our demographics have diversified, is that cities need to understand that they have assets that are highly valued by the marketplace and by consumers. "Cityness"-which is this mix of diversity, density, and complexity, things that really mark cities as apart from suburban or rural areas-is now valued and requires, in some respect, a different lens and a higher degree of ambition with regard to not just growing economic clusters but transforming the physical landscape, rethinking the role of neighborhoods, and so forth.
I think we need to go through in the United States a period of re-imagining cities given this new economic potential, given the new environmental imperative, given the fact that cities are, as Henry Cisneros said, "The instruments of social policy." I think we need to re-imagine how cities function given their critical roles.
You look around the country, I'm always buoyed by examples like Denver, again, building out its transit line, to New York with its new sustainability initiative, to even some of the older industrial cities, now finally thinking about tearing down obsolete freeways.
What about California?
I think California has been the place that, more than any other place, has tried-with benefit agreements and those kind of inventions-to figure out how, in a growing market, prosperity can be shared and, particularly, how you can use real estate development to bring more people who have been sidelined by the economy into the economy, into decent jobs, decent wages, and decent benefits. That's what the California cities-with L.A. leading-can teach.