When Localism Works

The Weekly Standard by Gracy Olmstead · February 12, 2018


Many of America’s cities are struggling. Once-strong communities have experienced post-industrial collapse, rampant unemployment, and brain drain. Crumbling infrastructure, the opioid crisis, and a host of lesser pathologies have contributed to instability and frustration among citizens and leaders.

In the face of these challenges, the available policy solutions often seem unsatisfactory. Some people say we need a new federal fix—a renovated set of Great Society programs, perhaps, or a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. Others believe, as Kevin Williamson wrote in National Review in 2016, that “dysfunctional, downscale communities . . . deserve to die.”

It may be that fresh answers can be found among the “localists”—intellectual and wonkish conservatives and liberals who have found, at least when it comes to problems, some common ground. Inspired by such writers as Wendell Berry, Jane Jacobs, and Wilhelm Röpke, localism generally asserts that federal oversight is usually too heavy-handed, uniform, and cronyist to serve local communities well. Organizations like Smart Growth America, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and Strong Towns have advocated for a small-scale renewal of urban communities and the built environment. In books like Why Place Matters, on websites like Front Porch Republic and CityLab, and in magazines like Yes! and the American Conservative, journalists and academics have explored how localism can help solve social ills and empower citizens.

For some of these thinkers, localism is a decidedly libertarian idea: a means for individualism and innovation to flourish. For others, such as Berry, a novelist and farmer, the idea is more conservationist and traditional—localists ought to preserve and protect their communities from abuse, unbridled change, and federal hubris. Still others suggest that localism is truly the new progressivism: They believe that real power and progress can only be achieved through autonomous localities, as local governments working in tandem with private philanthropists and powerful CEOs draw their communities into the increasingly globalized economy.

The New Localism, a new book by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, fits best in the last category: They present a variety of city-building strategies that emphasize the grassroots and small-scale, advancing broadly conservative principles of subsidiarity but giving them a progressive spin. Katz is a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former co-director of its program on metropolitan policy; Nowak is a fellow at Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and the creator of the Reinvestment Fund, one of the largest community investment institutions in the nation.

Katz and Nowak counter the top-down, federally run approach to governance we’ve become so accustomed to over the last half-century or more, suggesting that cities do not need the feds and Washington politicians to save them. With D.C.’s deadlock and hyperpartisanship come an opportunity: “The ability to get things done has shifted from command-and-control systems to the collective efforts of civil society, government, and private institutions.”

The book covers a great many subjects—housing, finance, jobs, community renewal, and more—but several themes remain constant. First, the authors argue that local government allows for flexible, fluid interactions between private and public institutions, thus creating a more fruitful method of governance and reform than our current top-down model. They put great stock in the mediating institutions and spirit of volunteerism that Alexis de Tocqueville once saw as integral to the American experience.

Katz and Nowak also emphasize the ability to see, test, and tweak theories at the local level, a method that allows for variation, specialization, experimentation. Washington’s one-size-fits-all attitude ensures the “proliferation of highly rigid programs” administered by government that, “like a fossil, is inflexible and stiff.” Cities, by contrast, can “respond nimbly and flexibly to challenges and opportunities . . . a small city or regional philanthropy has more discretion to make smart, aligned investments than distant federal agencies do.” This allows (at least hypothetically) for less waste and greater accountability.

Finally, the localist approach plays to different cities’ identities and strengths: The people who actually live and work in a given place know what they do best, where their greatest assets lie. Rather than trying to replicate Silicon Valley or New York, each city must discover and determine its own ingredients for success. “Solutions are often more likely to succeed because they are customized to place,” the authors write. Instead of trusting in (and waiting on) some “omniscient central power,” which often infantilizes cities, localism empowers and animates.

Katz and Nowak draw their localist inspiration from example cities: places that have experienced bankruptcy, rampant unemployment, even nuclear disaster, and found a way forward. Some, such as Chattanooga and Philadelphia, are referenced in anecdotes throughout the book. Others get their own chapters. In a chapter on Pittsburgh, we learn that that city’s revival stemmed from the efforts of Carnegie Mellon roboticists, the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical Center, an entrepreneurial local government, and robust local philanthropy. In another chapter, we’re told that Copenhagen created a development corporation to measure the value of its land assets and to begin rezoning and redeveloping these assets to bring in needed funds. Once struggling with an annual budget deficit of $750 million, Denmark’s largest city is now one of the world’s wealthiest.

In the chapter on Indianapolis, the authors describe how the city suffered in the 1970s and ’80s from the effects of sprawl and deindustrialization. But in the 1990s, a new mayor, a small group of business leaders, and local philanthropists began working to turn things around, aiming to (in their words) “support a vigorously entrepreneurial, high value-adding, knowledge based economy.” Their efforts resulted in the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP), made up of regional CEOs and company presidents, philanthropic foundations, and universities. The organ-ization is doggedly nonpartisan: Elected officials are not allowed to join, and the partnership does not receive public dollars. Over time, the CICP devised initiatives focusing on life sciences, information technology, advanced manufacturing and logistics, clean and alternative energy technologies, and agriculture-related innovation. Now, Katz and Nowak report, the state of Indiana is home to a $63 billion life sciences industry that employs some 56,200 workers in nearly 1,700 companies. The industry pays an average salary of approximately $99,000 in a state with an average private sector salary of $44,000.

The success of the CICP, Katz and Nowak argue, is a powerful argument for networked local governance—for teams that cross industries and sectors, using both public and private resources to solve difficult dilemmas. Cities can “tap hidden strengths by aggregating public, corporate, philanthropic, and university stakeholders into networks that work together to tackle hard challenges and leverage distinctive opportunities.”

The New Localism is a pragmatic book, focusing on the many down-to-earth ways in which localism seeks to address desperate needs in our society, such as insolvent governments, rampant unemployment, and social unrest and division. Katz and Nowak call for a healthy fusion of public and private efforts; the book is filled with examples of successful partnerships between businesses, local philanthropy, and city governments.

But in many ways The New Localism offers a progressive vision—one that, while focused on a local sphere of action, has its eye on the future, the global, and the technological. While the authors see the importance of local community and city identity, they’re less worried about the collapse of national trust—and not worried at all about the effects of globalization on our cities. To the contrary, they see globalization as a net benefit to struggling cities, arguing that with the right sort of reinvention, cities will flourish in a global society.

Looking abroad, Katz and Nowak seem almost to be arguing for a rebirth of the city-state over the nation-state—a reawakening of the Athenses and Spartas of our world, in response to the collapse of strong or reliable national governments. They even write at one point that “an ethnic or regional group” unhappy with its economic or political status within a country could choose to detach from its country, especially “if there is a global substitute or alternative.” In such a situation, the ethnic or regional group

may either try to exit or, at the very least, try to negotiate substantive autonomy from the center. That is why some federalist systems may be more resilient: they have the potential to hold the nation-state together by providing greater levels of governmental authority to the subnational parts.

Katz and Nowak aren’t arguing for secession within the United States, of course, and they don’t explicitly endorse it as a strategy for any other country. Their apparent aim, in this somewhat radical short section of the book, is to show that strong localities are better able to hold national governments accountable and protect their own citizens from corruption and authoritarianism.

In a sense, this idea harks back to the federalist principles embodied in our constitutional structure at the founding. But originally, the preponderance of power in the federalist system lay with states, not cities. And the authors’ suggestion raises questions about the toll that efforts to strengthen urban centers could have on less wealthy communities. Some key disparities between urban and rural America—average incomes, educational opportunities, political inclinations, cultural preferences—seem to be growing, and if cities hold all the power, that may not bode well for rural areas outside their reach.

Many of the strategies Katz and Nowak describe are really best suited for larger cities and metropolitan areas. They emphasize economic and social growth through knowledge-based industries—medicine, robotics, information technology, and the sciences—and university investment. But what of communities that have built their identities around older, more conventional sectors of the economy, such as agriculture or manufacturing? In the book’s Pittsburgh chapter, the authors allege that that city’s transformation began when the city left the Rust Belt and joined the “Brain Belt.” But of course, with a food economy that is already struggling, we don’t want all of America’s farmers to get STEM degrees and leave their fields behind. The authors address this, at least slightly, in their Indianapolis chapter. They point out that CICP based its plans for growth on what Indianapolis had done best in the past rather than attempting to start over from scratch. It could be that some manufacturing and agricultural communities could act similarly, encouraging new disciplines and principles within their rooted traditions of work—reforming the old rather than discarding it entirely. But an even more locally focused discussion of “New Localism” is needed to build strong and innovative towns, and not just flourishing cities.

In their book’s opening and closing chapters, Katz and Nowak attempt to separate localism from populism and explain why the former ought to supplant the latter in our national conversation. “Populism has reenergized a politics . . . that is nostalgic in focus, nationalistic in tone, and nativist in orientation,” Katz and Nowak write. New Localism is better suited to our modern age, they argue: It is forward-looking, pragmatic rather than ideological, and diverse rather than ethnocentric. But of course, pragmatism and an appreciation for diversity do not arise ex nihilo from within innovative localities; they have to be intentionally fostered within any community. And tribalism and elitism can be as much a problem for localists’ hopes as for those of statists and populists.

This makes the last chapter particularly fitting. In it, Katz and Nowak call for localist leadership that is bipartisan, creative, and compassionate. “The more angry and shallow and leaderless our national politics and culture become,” they write, “the deeper and more intentional and affirmative and leader-rich our cities must be.” In a society that often encourages its best and brightest to pick up and leave, to pursue the biggest promotion or most glamorous locale, some will have to choose to stay and stick, no matter how difficult it might be. Despite all the book’s TED Talk jargon, this closing idea is classical: Katz and Nowak seek a virtuous citizenry to build new cities from the ashes of decaying communities.

The book would have benefited from a deeper and lengthier exploration of this idea—a departure from the wonky policy-writing to flesh out localism’s ethos and philosophy, to put all the details in the holistic context of human well-being. Localism might be just what’s needed to resurrect dignity for the cities and towns that have come to feel gutted in recent decades. Properly applied, localist principles can bring inspiration and meaning. They can help to foster community and connectedness. Ultimately, localism is about more than just trying to reinvigorate local economies; it has as its aim not just prosperity but the possibility of broader human flourishing.

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