“New Localism” or How Washington “…is essentially a health insurance company with an army”

Patronicity by Rob St. Mary · February 26, 2018


Interview with Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution about his new book, co-authored with Jeremy Nowak, “The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism”.

Have you felt like your leaders at the Federal level are a bit disconnected from what you might need locally?

You’re not alone.

Bruce Katz agrees and says it’s been almost 40 years in the making.

The self-proclaimed “urban obsessive” with the Brookings Institution is co-author, with Jeremy Nowak, of the new book “The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism”.

Katz says we are living in “an era when national government, and many state governments, have left the building”. In the U.S., he pegs it to the Reagan era and says it has continued to accelerate ever since.

“…really starts with Reagan in the early 1980s where the message then out from Washington, for a whole range of domestic activities, cities and counties were going to have to take the lead. Whether it’s around infrastructure, whether it’s around housing, whether it’s around early child education, whether it’s around climate… cities for a large extent fund the future because the national government tends to fund the past. The federal government in the United States is essentially a health insurance company with an army.”

As this new paradigm has been developing, Katz says it leaves cities — like it or not — to be the innovators, the place where the future will be made in terms of infrastructure, economy, and inclusion while the Federal and State governments continue to deal with issues of the past.

“New Localism… we’re observing the reality of how the world operates today, it’s not an aspiration, it’s an observation.”

Katz says the U.S. needs to build a 21st century model of government — one that is more from the bottom up than top down as methods shift from less bureaucratic to interdisciplinary.

“If you go back to the 1980s when many cities realized that were on their own, there was the focus on quality placemaking, business improvement districts, downtown regeneration, and cities evolved from focusing on place, safety and security to focusing on innovative economies they are focusing on “cradle to career” in education, they are focusing on environmental sustainability. We’ve seen this incredible evolution of cities as learning organisms. They focused in the 80s on the crisis at hand which had been massive decentralization and sprawl of people and jobs had left many cities desolate without a tax base or a jobs base so they began to focus on placemaking, and economy shaping, now they have really just moved up the ladder to talent preparing, sustainable growth, etcetera, etcetera.”

Katz adds that communities should seek out new structures around financing to help capture value and expand it on the local level.

“The most interesting models are less about tactics and techniques and more around structure, mechanisms. You know, cities have to fund the future… they need to find financial instruments and new kinds of institutions that enable them to capture value. The models we look at… in the United States which are how cities tend to organize private and civic wealth.”

A recent column in CityLab took the concept of “New Localism” to task by making the point that if you want strong and competent local government, you need a strong and competent federal government as well. Katz responds, in CityLab, that’s nice talk, in theory, but… “(national governments are) broken, their dysfunctional, they’ve been hijacked by partistanship… ideological polarization. Let’s get a reality check here about the abilities of national governments to really deliver” and communities can no longer wait for help that might never arrive.

“I think that we have been too reliant on the federal government and what that has done with many areas of domestic policy is infantalize cities because everyone is waiting for the federal government to do something — whether it’s on housing or whether it’s on infrastructure — that’s just not how the world works anymore… Look, I think cities need to accept the fact that national governments are only going to play a certain kind of role going forward and what we really need to do is put the innovation of financial techniques and structures on steroids. We can’t wait for national governments anymore.”

Meanwhile, Katz says there are several places creating best practices around “New Localism” including Indianapolis, home of our program with IHDCA’s CreatINg Places, as well as communities in Europe.

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