Five New Year’s Resolutions for Cities

by Bruce Katz · January 2, 2018


The coming of a new year is a time for reflection and focus. While New Year’s resolutions are traditionally the province of individuals, 2018 requires collective thought and purpose at the communal level.

Populist spasms in the United States and Europe and the abdication of responsibility by higher levels of government have devolved new burdens to cities, often without the concomitant delegation of capacity or resources. The complex nature of economic, social and environmental challenges today have also elevated cities because their leaders think and act across disciplines and sectors rather than in bureaucratic compartments and specialized silos.

If cities are going to survive and thrive during this tumultuous period, they need to embrace both a new philosophy and practice of problem solving, what Jeremy Nowak and I call New Localism. (Our book of the same name is scheduled to be published a week from today).

Here are my five resolutions for cities in 2018.

Resolution #1: Reimagine Power

Conventional wisdom tells us that cities are powerless, “mere creatures of states,” subordinate political units of nations. In this view, cities have no natural powers, only governmental powers devolved by higher levels of government.

Yet power in the 21st century is not what it used to be. It is less confined to the authority of government alone and more fueled by the market potential that comes from the concentration of economic, physical, and social assets in real places. It is less defined by scales of influence distributed across layers of government and more derived from sources of civic strength that come from collaborating across sectors.

To be successful, cities must strive to identify and then unlock the multiple sources of government, market and civic power that they possess.

Resolution #2: Redefine Leadership

Cities are neither vertically integrated companies nor governments that act via command-and-control structures. They are rather networks of public, private and civic institutions that co-produce the economy and co-govern critical aspects of city life.

The essence of a successful city leader, therefore, is the ability to leverage the networked reality of urban power by bringing groups of people together to solve problems and do grand things that they cannot do by themselves. City leadership thus comes from the deployment of “soft” as well as “hard” power.  Soft power requires the ability to convene, cajole and even shame private, civic, university and community leaders to come together and collaborate to compete and solve problems. This is community organizing at the highest level and it requires mayors and others to lead disparate actors towards common visions, tangible actions and sustained commitment.

Resolution #3: Repurpose Institutions

Leadership excels and thrives when it has the right institutional base and support. In a period when responsibilities have been radically devolved, the nexus between power, leadership and institutions is stronger and more necessary than ever.

Our book explores a group of institutions – the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership and the Copenhagen City & Port Development Corporation – that are designed to leverage their city’s market and civic power in ways that are financially generating, economically impactful and socially inclusive.

Cities need to assess whether the institutions they inherit from prior generations are sharp enough, strong enough and connected enough to get the job done in today’s changing climate. Some cities will look at our stories and determine that existing institutions – public, private, civic or some combination – need to be repurposed. Others will decide to create new institutions that fit their economic moment and cultural realities. The bottom line: New Localism will not succeed with the current mix of legacy urban institutions. A refresh is needed city by city.

Resolution #4: Recognize the Real Value of Public Wealth

Conventional wisdom tells us that cities are poor. This perception stems, in part, from the notion of cities as governments rather than networks and the reality (in countries like the United States) that many municipal governments do have serious pension and other liabilities.

Yet the focus on what government owes fails to take account of what government owns, a source of public wealth. As Copenhagen, Hamburg and other European cities show, cities own substantial real estate and other assets and smart public asset management can not only spur large scale regeneration (usually in downtown cores and along waterfronts) but apply the resulting revenue to the financing of major public infrastructure like transit.

Cities also have the ability to organize civic and private wealth to reshape economies and remake places. Corporations in Cincinnati are using their own capital to revitalize whole sections of the city. Philanthropies in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis are now the go-to source of risk capital for investments in critical intermediaries like business incubators and technology clusters.

Resolution #5: Catalyze Multi-Urban Action

Cities reflect a new circuitry of civic innovation, the ability to adapt, tailor, or replicate an innovative practice invented in one city in other cities. All cities, whether developing or developed, new or old, large or small, face similar challenges. The fact that multiple cities in radically different circumstances are simultaneously trying to solve challenges makes them more likely to innovate than hyper-specialized national agencies.

And when cities join together to commit to common quantifiable outcomes, as is now happening with the response to climate change, the drive toward new replicable solutions and routinized financial mechanisms is accelerated. The commitment of hundreds of cities to the climate goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement illustrates the growing power of New Localism. There is now a movement to in the United States to craft a Children’s Accord, whereby cities would commit to measurable developmental goals for children and young adults.

We can expect that 2018 will witness the continued drift of many nation-states, creating an even stronger imperative for city-states to step up and power their countries forward. This requires clear intent and purposeful action, the hallmarks of New Localism.



Bruce J. Katz is the inaugural Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution, where he focuses on the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization. He is co-author of two books The Metropolitan Revolution, and The New Localism, which focuses on the shift of power from national governments and states to cities and metropolitan communities.