In the nation’s increasingly powerful cities, a need for serious thinking

There's a revolution afoot. Have you heard? If you have and happen to be totally geeked about the new book, “The Metropolitan Revolution” by Brookings Institution rock stars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, you're probably the same flavor of nerd as I am.

You don't have posters of Brookings fellows in your locker? OK, I'll back up. What Katz and Bradley have written is more than a book; it's an official announcement that the world as we know it has changed. They posit that state and federal governments are no longer the economic drivers of our country; cities are.

How serious are they? Well, they're not using the word “revolution” lightly, that's for sure. Here's a excerpt from the video on the front page of MetroRevolution.org:

“While Washington and our states bicker and delay, cities and metros have emerged as the vanguard of policy innovation and action, taking transformative steps to grow jobs and remake their economies for the long haul. …It's time to remake the flag to reflect how our nation really functions.”

Remake the flag? Those are some invigorating, racy words, which are (trust me) not normally heard in policy discussions. State and federal government: who needs 'em? Not New York City. Not Northeast Ohio. Not Houston or Denver. “The Metropolitan Revolution” uses these examples and more to explain how metros are taking control of their own economic futures. It also includes handy, actionable steps for other cities to do the same thing.

This is important. Like Tom Friedman's “The World is Flat,” this book isn't a suggestion. It's a mirror held before us, and it's up to us to get on board or be left behind. And this presents the true question for us in Michigan: What are we doing to get on board?

We are officially in local election season in Michigan, with many communities already having voted. “The Metropolitan Revolution” wakes us up to the reality that if we want any real positive action in our lives, it must start happening in our city halls and regional networks, and we absolutely must take these elections seriously.

As a former city employee and current writer often covering municipal issues, I have worked with and for a number of local governments and their elected officials. Many of those officials are passionate, well-trained, hardworking, thoughtful individuals who are appropriately matched with the task of reinventing their community's economic future. Others are elected along the same criteria as a high school homecoming court.

We don't have the luxury of casually electing the most popular person in the neighborhood any longer. Being a city council person is no longer a baby step toward a “real” governing job; it is a real governing job. Their assignment has become complex, requiring forward thinking on economic development issues and making tough decisions based on long-term visions.

As citizens, we also don't have the luxury of maintaining an “us vs. them” mentality with regard to our local officials. Katz and Bradley are adamant that this revolution isn't just about city hall. It can't happen without business and thought leaders, associations, universities, non-profits and regional partners coming together. If we elect smart, capable leaders, we then have to take ownership of the fact that we elected them. It's that whole “government of the people” thing in action.

Local elections have always counted, but now, they count more than ever, because the inaction of state and federal government is leaving it all up to us. As Katz and Bradley put it, “Cities and metropolitan areas are on their own. The cavalry is not coming.”

Cities across the U.S. are succeeding under this model, and we can do the same here in Michigan. We have to raise the bar for our elected officials' qualifications, as also for ourselves as active citizens who are not just constituents of, but partners with, our local governments. We have to offer our input, not our criticisms, and work with not around our local officials. We're all in this revolution together.

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Comments

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Sat, 08/10/2013 - 8:42am
Turnout for a primary election just this week in Lansing had a voter turnout of around 9%, getting people to care is not easy.
Barry Visel
Sun, 08/11/2013 - 9:28am
I thought businesses were our economic drivers? And I'd like to keep it that way!
Gwen
Sun, 08/11/2013 - 1:55pm
Actually, consumers drive the economy. If they don't have money in their pocket to spend, businesses don't make a profit.
Charles Richards
Sun, 08/11/2013 - 5:47pm
Natalie Burg and the authors of "Metropolitan Revolution" are all victims of the "design illusion." None of them believe in evolution. They cannot accept the idea put forth in Ronald Coase and Ning Wang's excellent book "How China Became Capitalist," that societies evolve rather than being planned. The authors say, "The story of China is the quintessence of what Adam Ferguson called 'the products of human action but not human design.'" As policy wonks at Brookings, Messrs Katz and Bradley are doubtless wedded to "plans, policies and programs." They are, however, right when they say, “While Washington and our states bicker and delay, cities and metros have emerged as the vanguard of policy innovation and action, taking transformative steps to grow jobs and remake their economies for the long haul. …It’s time to remake the flag to reflect how our nation really functions.” Competition between cities, counties and provinces for economic growth is what propelled China's remarkable transformation. Ms. Burg is definitely right when she says of local officials that, "Their assignment has become complex, requiring forward thinking on economic development issues and making tough decisions based on long-term visions. - But I am troubled by her statement: "We have to offer our input, not our criticisms, and work with not around our local officials." It may be that what she says of local officials, "Many of those officials are passionate, well-trained, hardworking, thoughtful individuals who are appropriately matched with the task of reinventing their community’s economic future." is true, but we shouldn't accept it on faith. As she acknowledges, not all officials fit this description. Communities cannot be left to run on autopilot - witness Wayne County and Robert Ficano - insightful, cogent criticism is always needed.