What’s Your City’s Mood?

Bruce Katz & Jeremy Nowak · May 1, 2018


In the final chapter of The New Localism, we recommended that each city and metropolis needed to ask the simple question “What’s Your City’s Edge?” as part of pursuing a growth strategy with inclusive, innovative and sustainable outcomes. This question appeals directly to the rising demand for data — and evidence-driven decision-making among constituencies that lead urban economic development. It is also a central question for those concerned with social mobility and neighborhood investment.

Yet we have become increasingly struck over the past several months by how much we need to ask a separate question – “What’s Your City’s Mood?” — to discern whether a city’s stakeholders are ready to do the heavy lift of designing, financing, and executing transformative strategies.

A book tour is, if you listen well, a series of focus groups. You can tell a lot — by who comes to forums, the questions they ask, and the questions they don’t ask.

As urban psychologists — albeit practicing without a license — here is what we are sensing.

Some cities are more complacent than we would have expected. Eight years of recovery and a remarkable resurgence in their downtowns and midtowns have given leaders a sense that they are “back” and that the need for any dramatic economic development move is not warranted. This obviously lessens the willingness to do the hard organizing and civic risk taking required for major initiatives. But that complacency does not always square with data regarding global competitive advantage, income growth, and fiscal condition. Yes many cities that were in decline for decades are now growing in terms of population and jobs, but they are still nowhere near where they need to be. And many other cities have either very uneven growth, or continue to decline, despite their prevailing narrative.

Many of the highest growth cities in terms of real estate values are nervous about the cost of growth with respect to quality of life and inclusion. In Denver, we heard the phrase entitled to describe the growing mood of residents – native or new – tired of the externalities of growth – congestion, affordability, loss of special places. This is understandable and yet there is a short path from entitled to NIMBYISM and the calls for “no growth” measures that inevitably exacerbate some of the very issues (e.g., housing affordability) that have precipitated the mood in the first place.

In many communities we witness a remarkable hunger to step up and take responsibility for the hard issues that they face — opioids, homelessness, housing affordability, early childhood education. In some cities leaders are rising to the occasion to capture the pent-up demand for action and local sacrifice. This was clearly evident the other day in Pittsburgh when Mayor Bill Peduto released a draft Social Benefits Fund that seeks to raise $3 billion over the next 12 years to tackle some of that city’s hardest and long-ignored challenges, with resources primarily raised locally. It is of course easier to take on those issues if you have a strong and growing fiscal base, an engaged civic and business community, and economic tailwinds.

Across all cities, we have encountered a growing anxiety about the fast pace of change, the uncertainty about the future of work and the disappearance of higher levels of government as trusted, predictable allies. There is a clear recognition that cities are increasingly on their own and are often without the tools and resources necessary to get stuff done. In some places this anxiety leads to increased civic innovation and in other contexts it leads to inaction. We wrote this book with the strong sense that as a society we have gotten good at problem identification but often trail when it comes to solutions. You can tell a lot about a community if you are being challenged more by problems than potential solutions.

Of course, every city and metropolitan community is a complex organism. If you speak with different groups of stakeholders from different geographies you experience a continuum of “mood swings” that reflect the magnitude and complexity of the challenges. A group of entrepreneurs and a group of affordable housing developers view the world differently.

Moreover cities are not isolated islands. There is a national urban mood that sometimes seems to defy the reality of a particular place. Thus the rising price of housing in places like Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle — which are also tech and media hubs — have affected the perception of leaders in all cities that they do too have a raging gentrification issue; when, in fact, most cities primarily have a poverty challenge. As we said in the answer to one question at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Metropolitan Planning Council (https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/event/new-localism-how-cities-can-thrive-age-populism) — “We can’t let the heat of an issue obscure the light of the evidence.”

As New Localism continues to evolve as a philosophy and practice, it is apparent that meaningful progress extends way beyond the realm of technocratic expertise and into the world of group psychology. And the psychology of growth and development sometimes needs to be challenged by facts.

Urban therapy anyone?