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By 13 June, 2017February 24th, 2020No Comments


In The Metropolitan Revolution Bruce J. Katz describes urban development in the United States as a fast growing movement and force that will change America’s social landscape so extensively that it could be termed a metropolitan revolution. Taking its starting point in the book, Udenrigs has interviewed Bruce J. Katz.

You say that there is a revolution under way in the United States. A ’metropolitan revolution’. What are you basing this on?
The USA’s 100 largest metropolitan areas account for 12 per cent of US territory, two thirds of the total US population and account for 75 per cent of the country’s GDP. Cities and metropolitan areas are increasingly beginning to organize themselves and work strategically. Globally, we are seeing more and more examples of cities as accelerators and powerhouses in developing trade and attracting foreign investments. They do this partly by developing the infrastructure needed to support dynamic economic development and by engaging in close cooperation with companies, universities and other learning and research environments. This gives them visibility and influence in other areas. But it is not only as economic growth centres that cities have great potential and can drive national development. Increasingly they solve the problems traditionally tackled at the federal or national political level. There are many examples all over the world, where we see that cities go in, take responsibility and find solutions in relation to education, integration, refugee issues, climate change and the goal of sustainable development and the eradication of poverty. They do this by taking matters into their own hands rather than wait for politicians at a national political level to come up with political initiatives.

What has brought about this change in the cities’ role?
Both in the US and to some extent in the EU, the federal and national politicians’ attempts to find solutions are not executed. They have even seemed powerless in many areas. This is particularly evident in the US where people have witnessed fruitless conflict and enmity between the federal government and individual states on funding and influence, as well as between Congress and the president. This has contributed to political alienation. It is also symptomatic of the EU. For example, in Spain, where neither the EU, government nor individual regions can solve the problems of high unemployment and the need for economic growth. In contrast to this, cities stand out as interdisciplinary, collaborative and solution-oriented. States are organized in industry ministries, i.e. in isolated sectors that have difficulty in working seamlessly across different fields and skills. Cities have a closer interaction and contact with their citizens and can react quickly to develop solutions involving stakeholders from different sectors to develop the best and most effective solutions to citizens’ problems. They act as a form of ’one stop shop’ for the public. Cities’ ability to find solutions and adapt to a dynamic world is based on the fact that they have a different structure and organization to countries. Their structure is more flexible, they are a kind of living organism. Cities are based on a network that works with networks and in networks. Therefore, it is natural for them to join together, develop plans for cooperation and exchange experiences. Cities differ from countries in that they are better placed to observe, copy and adapt the best solutions and best practices from other cities. There is a great level of information exchange at all levels, and there is less tendency to be protectionist or too proud to learn from what others do. When a city experiences problems such as acute homelessness, youth unemployment and pollution, they are immediately visible. You cannot simply solve them by saying ’let’s make a law’ or ’let’s set up a commission’. The direct line to the public results in an immediate requirement for quick solutions. The time horizon and sense of time is thus quite different for a mayor than for a governor or a politician in Congress. Problems are experienced as acute and requiring urgent action. Take Berlin for example. It received a huge number of refugees in 2015, which the city council had to find homes for. This was an acute crisis and needed an immediate solution. The refugees were installed in containers for the short and medium term. These containers were not bad, and now other cities have copied the Berlin model – and not just cities in Germany. Berlin did not have the luxury of waiting for the state or federal government to come up with a solution. Similarly, a city mayor and politician can better afford to be pragmatic rather than ideological. You will often experience cross-party configurations on tasks in a city council that are inconceivable in the national parliament. In a party system at the national or federal political level, completely different mechanisms are at play. It requires alternative strategies. In the party system at national level, you are rarely rewarded for creating solutions for the public, but instead for winning political and ideological battles.

Is there a special magic formula that characterizes the major cities, that puts them at the forefront of the urban revolution? What is it that characterizes them?
The majority of the metropolises and great cities, which are successful nationally as well as worldwide today, have a number of features in common: they each have a clear profile; brand and knowledge of the city’s comparative advantages; a clear leadership from the city’s elected officials; efficient cooperation with knowledge institutions; sufficient human capital and continued ability to attract good human resources; a collaborative culture; the existence of a well-functioning network across sectors; public-private cooperation and collaboration with charitable foundations and civil society. It is also important that there is a certain amount of risk-taking and that the economic foundation is based on future technologies. It is also essential that the political leadership in cities focuses on general living conditions. If cities are to create innovative areas and universities where start-ups and investors work closely together, they must also be able to offer housing, which can be paid for, internships and apprenticeships, a proper school system and an urban environment.

Is there a difference between the development of cities in the US and Europe?
Both the US and EU have so much diversity that it is difficult to make a meaningful comparison. However, I note that in northern Europe there is a willingness to experiment with different forms of innovative financing of new initiatives. There is a great interest in public-private partnerships, where public funding is combined with partnership with private companies that generates new products and solutions that can then be sold worldwide. A good example from Denmark and Copenhagen is the setting up of CPH City & Port I/S, which is a collaboration between the government and the City of Copenhagen with the principal objective being to develop land in Ørestad and Copenhagen Harbour and undertake port operations at Copenhagen Harbour. It is a really smart design that probably will be copied in both the US and Latin America. The US, by contrast, has an abundance of chaotic private innovation, and companies working in clusters, working with research centres and ’start-up’ companies. In the US, the time horizon for a research product’s journey from development to market is very short and generally investors are very comfortable with risk. This generates a lot of technological innovation in the US, and it is this momentum that skilled city leaders are able to channel. Pittsburg is, for example, the first city that has branded itself as the robot powerhouse and advertises that is the first city with driverless vehicles.

You talk in your book about a particular kind of leadership that characterizes successful cities?
It is now clear that the lasting change and improvements in the US economy following the financial crisis are not primarily from initiatives at the federal political level, as was the case during the Great Depression in the 1930s, but by a network of leadership in cities and metropolises. It is a leadership that consists of politically elected leaders of cities and metropolises, i.e. mayors, but also leaders of companies, universities, industry associations, trade unions, environmental organizations, cultural institutions and private foundations. These leaders are rooted in what gives real economic value: production; innovation; technology; advanced services and exports. The American culture rewards those who act first and move into unknown territory. For example, when Pittsburg becomes the first city to introduce driverless cars, or when Portland develops an actual commercial strategy based on its development as a green city, thus creating Portland’s special brand, which then attracts interest and capital. But cooperation and impatience for results is the core of leadership. This means that the political leadership feels that it is imperative to act, and so risk capital and be entrepreneurial.

With cities’ growing role and influence is there not a risk that the state’s authority is undermined?
If states are to remain relevant to the public in the ’cities revolution,’ it is important that the national or federal government understands its true role and task in relation to cities. The city administration is closer to the public and can therefore better understand citizens’ needs, and how to develop the best solutions. The metropolises’ revolution in the US can only lead to one logical conclusion: the power hierarchy is turned on its head. The top executive and legislative branches should continue to have security, defence and foreign policy as their domain. They should offset or mitigate the consequences of inequality and ensure minimum standards for the disadvantaged and marginalized sections of the population and provide security for these groups. These are the areas where the state at the national political level has an important role to play. But unfortunately, national governments and legislatures often exceed these limits and interfere in local priorities. Countries that understand the cities’ power can free up a whole, great potential in all sectors of society. It’s the new way ahead. I see that Denmark, through its size and by being smart, is reaping the benefits of urbanization by creating an interaction between the two levels: the nation state and the cities. It is happening in and with Denmark’s Ministry of Business and Growth, which has a broad, comprehensive and inclusive approach to promoting exports. It makes itself available as a platform, as well as creating an environment for innovation and collaboration. Both the Foreign Ministry and the Business and Growth Ministry have assumed a clear role in helping to extend and expand the Danish business community and Danish goods abroad. Thus the Ministry has defined its role in relation to businesses and cities. This is very interesting to us in the US. In addition to this, Denmark has taken the political decision to take on the responsibility of being a country with low CO2 emissions before other countries. This makes Denmark a ”first mover” and helps to set the agenda. Based on a political decision, the incentive is created for companies to develop technologies that can ensure growth based on low carbon production.

What is the role played by cities in foreign policy?
Cities exist within the nation or federal state, but sometimes transcend them. For example, when cities act collectively on the global stage as they do on climate targets in the C40 network. Cities do not govern, rather they form networks – i.e. a ’Centre of Excellence’ that connects with another ’Centre of Excellence’ in another city or another country – thereby moving information and knowledge sharing more quickly across borders and so creating the opportunity for innovation and development. In a globalized world, the ability to absorb and transform information through the facility to make network connections defines whether you win or lose. Cities are, by definition, organized and are represented by a wide range of players and are a living organism in their working methods. They are hence open to new knowledge and a desire to identify good solutions. This is also why I am involved in BLOXHUB. I see BLOXHUB engaging with hundreds of development environments, while connecting all the players, perhaps on the other side of the world, that are essential for transforming an idea into a tangible product and solution at the same time. Urbanization is both a problem and a solution, but there is certainly a potential for good business. The Danish approach to designing buildings and developing cities, based on an approach that puts humanity first and with high sustainability standards, is very attractive both for people in Denmark and abroad. It is the potential that we are trying to fulfil in BLOXHUB.

Are we seeing that cities also have an increasing role in developing countries?
Developing countries are not all the same, which means you cannot generalize. But there are cities in these countries where they are working towards creating their own local ecosystems in relation to creating sustainable growth and where inclusion is an absolute necessity. For example, when designing infrastructure so that poor people can easily and cheaply get to work, either on bicycles or by means of efficient public transport, as happens in Colombia’s major cities. Specifically, we can see that there has been a great leap forward in the development of several places in Latin America recently through urbanization. Compared to cities in communities of a more authoritarian character, such as Russia, the problem is mainly that their production and economy is based on industrial production and extraction of raw materials. For them it will be essential to open up their economies to technical innovation and cooperation. In addition, in order to make cities into successful metropolises, the right conditions must be in place in terms of the legal and judicial framework based on legal certainty and the rule of law.

In 2015, the UN global development goals were adopted where sustainable urbanization has its own goal. Does this have a value?
It is, when all is said and done, good to have global development goals. But I think we are in a world that requires specific answers to specific problems, such as refugees, inclusion, integration, climate, health and welfare. Cities are organisms that adapt themselves and find answers and solutions to specific problems. Ideology and politics do not get in the way, because the responsible authorities and politicians are directly responsible to the citizens. It is an entirely diferent way to create solutions. In other words, we are faced with a world that will be driven by cities, in that they have a built-in ability on a much greater scale to take the initiative and move frst, while their solutions quickly spread to other cities, which then adapt these solutions to their own particular needs and circumstances.

What will the cities revolution mean for our democracies?
Cities and metropolises constitute active and participatory democracies. In a city there are hundreds, if not thousands of leaders who collectively take responsibility and lead their fields in cooperation with other entities. National politics are a passive representative democracy in many ways. The public’s only role is to vote at predetermined times. It is important for me to emphasize that what we are witnessing in terms of the powerful emergence of cities is a fundamental social change. A change that is happening from the bottom up, and which will lead to changes in the relationship between the individual and state. When the political capacity for action is decentralized and delegated down to the cities and their highest authorities, there will also be a change in the role of citizens in relation to the state. In cities, there is a wealth of players who have the influence, authority and ability to act. Conversely, at national level it often seems as if there are only a handful of players and they are difficult to access because there is competition for their time. So, the structural change that we will experience when cities become strong players, is a rapid form of decentralization of power, which will give new and many more players the opportunity for influence and a free rein with respect to the impact on their own daily lives. The cities revolution will have the consequence that the relationship between citizen and state will be democratized, which thereby enables much more participation and a participatory democracy. It will probably create a more resilient society with responsible citizens. And thus more room for innovation.


Bruce J. Katz was for 20 years the Vice-President and Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, which he established in 1996. He is a member of the board of BLOXHUB, and co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution (Brookings Press, 2013).

This article was originally printed in the magazine Udenrigs that is published by The Danish Foreign Policy Society. This special issue on global urbanization was published in relation to the conference Urbanization and Exports that was hosted by Realdania and The Danish Foreign Policy Society.