This article appears in its entirety at In These Times.
At a time when federal lawmaking is at a near standstill, with Republicans in Congress blocking any bold responses to economic stagnation, cities appear to be the last remaining places where innovative policy-making can still occur. This is something progressives have long recognized—since the 1990s, community-labor coalitions have increasingly focused their attention on metropolitan regions. Now, the potential of cities is also catching the eye of neoliberals.
For the neoliberal camp, the future of the American city is clear: In the coming decade, mayors, business elites, philanthropists and university presidents must build metropolitan economies based on innovation, competitiveness and growth. Unfortunately, something is missing from this picture: working people, and the labor unions and grassroots community groups that advocate for them. This omission is consequential. Absent their voices, the chances are slim of creating urban growth whose benefits are broadly shared.
A debate about the future of the metropolis has been kindled by Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Brookings Institution and co-author, with Jennifer Bradley, of a recent book titled The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy. What Thomas Friedman has done for globalization—promoting a new world order bullish on corporate innovation but blind to the perils of runaway inequality—Katz and Bradley do for urbanism. They offer a neoliberal path forward that puts elites in the driver’s seat and does little to ensure that metropolitan economic development will allow for a robust and expanding middle class.
The question is not whether we need economic growth in cities. The question is whether Americans will grow together or grow apart. In failing to bring grassroots interests to the table in imagining a new urban future, Katz and Bradley—as well as cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia that are already rushing headlong into that future—miss a key lesson that has emerged since the 1990s, when metropolitan regions became a part of the economic planning discussion. If the benefits of a given metro region’s economy are to reach beyond a narrow elite, a broad spectrum of participants must be involved in shaping urban policy.