Breakout Cities

Bruce Katz: The promise of America’s Breakout Cities

Bruce Katz: The promise of America’s Breakout Cities
A conversation between Bruce Katz, Co-Founder of the New Localism Advisors and Director at Drexel University, and CityAge on how America’s smaller cities can punch above their weight to lead our urban future.

CityAge: What’s a Breakout City?

Bruce Katz: We are on the cusp of one of the most pivotal decades in the history of this country, which relies on cities actually being able to design and deliver transformative investments and initiatives.

Cities that can organize for success, set a vision, design well, plan well, move towards concrete strategies that are specific and costed out, as well as understand the ways to blend capital from the public, private, and civic sectors, are going to be quite successful. Those will be Breakout Cities.


CA: You helped make The New Localism a buzzword. Where is it today?

BK: Well, Jeremy Novak and I wrote The New Localism in the age of Populism…we're now dealing with the New Localism in the age of a pandemic. That has reinforced how much the nation state relies on the city state to deliver effectively, efficiently and equitably.

The 20th century model of someone who sits in Washington and writes a program or promulgates a rule and then everything is solved, doesn't really relate to the kind of complex challenges we face in the world.


CA: How does the New Localism impact climate change?

BK: It's not like someone at EPA is going to write a rule and, “well ah, we've dealt with climate change” is the outcome. We're going to have to change our transportation sector, we’re going to have to change the building sector, we're going to have to change behavior - it’s going to have to be fundamental, radical changes in how we live our lives and how our economy evolves. I think the New Localism has been reinforced, validated, justified, made necessary by all this, in ways that I don't think are quite understood because we wake up every day, we turn on the news and it's like, what's going on in Washington?


CA: How can cities get ready for the stimulus funding that’s coming?

BK: I think cities need to organize for success and take a look and see if we are ready. Do we have any plans around infrastructure investment that fit the post pandemic environment? Do we have any plan whatsoever about a path towards zero carbon green energy? What is the landscape of institutions and intermediaries that can help grow Black and Brown business, or equip workers with the skills they need to succeed?


CA: What differences do you notice between cities that seem prepared for the funding, and those that don’t?

BK: Our focus in the New Localism is on Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, places that were really quite good at collaborating. They built organizations that were nimble, agile, able to deal with stresses and challenges as they emerged, but also able to stick to a 20-year plan. Now, these were places that were beset by crises: the collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh, the collapse of the core of Indianapolis. They had leaders who were just dead set to respond to these crises.

In some respects no place has a plan for everything but once you begin to set these strategic networks in motion, it becomes the gift that keeps on giving, and you can begin to adapt and apply them to other stressors in your system.


CA: Are mid-sized cities in a unique position right now?

BK: If you go to Erie, Pennsylvania today one of the most interesting things you'll see is the almost organic movement around local investors, not people residing in Philly or New York or LA or San Francisco. Local investors buy a building in the downtown, renovate it, begin to think through different companies, some tech driven companies, some amenity driven companies, to literally bring the city back.

I think some of these smaller places are actually better positioned than larger places to get their arms around the federal funding, and around the challenges and the opportunities…but there's no substitute for just getting organized…if you’re waiting for Washington to send the perfect dollars you'll be waiting for a long time.


CA: So you’re saying mayors have real power?

BK: Mayors have hard power and then they have soft power. Hard power is running Agency X or Agency Y and you try to do that as effectively, efficiently and equitably as you can. Soft power is the ability to call anyone and say, “Hey, come down to City Hall, we’ve got to talk about this…let's get everyone in the room.”  Soft power is given to you by both the legitimacy of being elected by the citizens of your city, but also your personality and your ability to use it.

I think that's going to be tested now, more than hard power. The public sector in the US, at the local level, is not one thing. You have City Hall, general purpose local government, then you have the schools, convention center authority, stadium authorities, parking authorities, port authorities, airport authorities, water sewer authority. The list just goes on and on and on. The role of the Mayor is to try to bring some order and cohesion to this fragmentation.

I think the role of Mayors is even greater today, because they have to corral all that public sector power, in addition to private and civic sectors.


CA: What trends do you predict we’ll see in mid-sized cities, in the next 10 years?

BK: They've a lot more agency than they think. I feel a lot of their future is in their own hands. Capital is not the constraint anymore - we have more public and private capital than we've ever seen.

Organizing that capital is the binding constraint. Can you envision a future where there's growth, but also inclusive growth and sustainable growth? Can you unlock the innovative assets you have? Be the best 21st century version of who you are? It's not about outside forces that are going to predict what happens to you. You are going to have more effect on your future than you understand. Get organized, that’s the bottom line. I think the small and medium sized cities are as well poised to grab the moment as anyone else.




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