Across the planet, 2016 witnessed a dramatic rise of new, rightward-leaning political movements, challenging existing orders — and raising potentially serious challenges for cities. Now the electoral changes have begun to pose stark dilemmas for urbanists in many world cities.
Perplexed about the shift and its implications, I turned to Bruce Katz, the inaugural Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution and the founder of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. Katz also authored a book on urban regions and their potentials, a topic I’d long focused on myself — The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (Brookings Institution Press, 2013).
The background for my interview with Katz was a clear political fact: In two major elections — Britain’s “Brexit” vote, as well as Donald Trump’s victory in the U. S. presidential election — the voters in the major cities found themselves on the losing side, often by overwhelming margins. In fact, Katz is now working on a new publication, with long-time urban expert Jeremy Nowak, on what cities can and should do to protect their interests in the age of Trump.
The trend may just be warming up. In lands across the globe, there appears to be a tide of rising right-wing parties ready to take on political establishments. Though they differ widely in their ideological hues, most exhibit a distinctly anti-urban tenor. They include the Alternative for Germany, the National Front in France, the Five Star Movement in Italy and Britain’s UK Independence Party.
Voter discontent isn’t limited to Europe. A May 2016 presidential election in the Philippines was won by Rodrigo Duterte, an authoritarian populist who promised the execution of thousands of drug dealers — a murderous pledge that is not only being fulfilled but also catching many innocents in its crossfire.
In Brazil, historically a Latin American leader in taking steps to bring millions out of poverty, there’s now an ultra-conservative, all-male national cabinet that’s moved to freeze public expenditures for 20 years. Leadership in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo both veered rightward in 2016 municipal elections. In Rio, retiring Mayor Eduardo Paes, a centrist who served as president of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, was replaced by Marcelo Crivella, a conservative senator who is affiliated with an influential megachurch. Overall, the Worker’s Party of the impeached former president Dilma Rousseff lost 60 percent of the contests for control of Brazil’s municipalities.
While national situations differ, two themes seem to underlie many of the new political movements. One is resentment on the part of working-class and rural voters who believe their interests have been neglected, even as urban elites have prospered over recent decades. A second is hostility toward immigrants, especially Muslims — an issue centrist parties have addressed only reluctantly, yet clearly an echo of fierce enmity toward Jews in the Europe of the 1930s.
Reflective of the radical shift, there’s now a distinct possibility that the European Union itself could be in peril if its defenders are defeated in major French and German elections this year.
These trends emerge, ironically, at the very moment that voices such as that of American scholar Benjamin Barber are rising in favor of a world “Parliament of Mayors” that could elevate local powers and in many respects bypass nation-state governments entirely.
The resentments of voters vary by world region. In the United States, for example, the severest economic loss and voter revolt has come in rural areas and small towns and cities with stagnant or very slowly growing economies, including many reliant on a single industry. Meanwhile, large U. S. cities and metropolitan regions have tended to fare much better. In Europe, by contrast, the resentment appears rooted more in emerging fears from a surge in terrorism.
Responses will vary
Katz sees cities as powerful antidotes to the winds of globalization — although the responses from them will differ. In Great Britain, a nation with very few elected mayors, most authority is centralized. That will make it harder for local governments to respond quickly to their own challenges, as opposed to the United States, where local rule — and citizen power — is far greater.
For example, local voters in the U. S. approved $200 billion for local transportation projects on the same day Trump’s Republican Party swept to victory on the national and state levels. And if federal taxes are cut under Republican rule, local taxes will almost surely be proposed — to pay for schools, transit, construction and other pressing needs.
Another major U. S. asset, Katz insists, is on the immigration front — the country’s history “as a more integrated nation” puts it in a stronger position than Europe, where “assimilation is an almost existential challenge.” Plus, he adds, the United States “is used to minorities becoming majorities.” For example, Irish Catholics, once scorned by entrenched Protestant majorities in New England, eventually saw one of their own elected president in John F. Kennedy.
Katz suggests the time is ripe across the world “to invent the 21st-century city.” City agencies are often organized in Balkanized silos, at a time when problem-solving requires multidisciplinary solutions to tackle problems such as housing, transport and land use together. “Economies are so advanced — but governments are still narrowly drawn,” he notes. “The compelling need is for cities to reinvent their governance.”
It’s particularly important, Katz suggests, that the political and economic institutions within metropolitan areas coordinate their efforts to develop advanced economies that can thrive in a competitive global environment.
Katz cites models such as Copenhagen, which pledges to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Copenhagen is innovating in clean, renewable energy at the metropolitan and neighborhood scale, and building a pattern of mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods where biking and transit are the easiest ways to get around. Meanwhile, the city is building an educated workforce with deep technical knowledge. The Copenhagen City and Port Corporation — publicly owned but privately managed — is using the value of publicly owned land to spur the regeneration of large districts, like one known as North Harbour, while providing revenues to finance new transit infrastructure for the entire city.
As a U. S. model, Katz notes the Denver region, where cooperation between the city and its suburbs has raised capital for infrastructure, arts and culture, and downtown revitalization. In 2004, the region voted for an innovative regional transportation plan, FasTracks, financed in large part by a multijurisdictional ballot referendum approving one of the biggest sales-tax increases the region had ever seen. Katz says healthy regions like Denver develop deep partnerships — among government, business, philanthropy, media and higher education — that will help them to form strong strategies to remain nationally and globally competitive.
Room for action
Major urban regions worldwide need to keep learning from each others’ successes, Katz suggests. In the United States, mayors can act creatively, reaching out for alliances with business, labor and nonprofit organizations. But their authority is often limited, with power over essential services like water, housing, seaports and airports controlled by separate public authorities. The pattern poses obstacles in bringing together the varied resources — capital, land, infrastructure and human resource development — to develop coordinated strategies that will lead to more efficient and responsive services and effective growth.
In many countries outside the United States, city governments may be strong but operate more “solo” — exercising their official powers but without a history or culture of engaging the broad range of non-governmental players that could enrich their alliances and outreach.
In Europe, the refugee crisis is prompting the growth of new civic institutions and corporate strategies that innovate on integration strategies. In Hamburg, for example, a new nonprofit called Hanseatic Help set up the largest clothing storage and redistribution system in the city, and developed an app that brings together volunteers and refugees. In Stockholm, LinkedIn has created a platform called Welcome Talent to give every refugee a profile that identifies his or her workplace qualifications and accelerates attachment to the labor market.
Katz’s bottom line: In an increasingly contentious political world, cities should seek ways to expand their scope and effectiveness on every front, from business development to clean streets, and climate protection to advanced educational opportunities. And to look globally, past the ideologically preoccupied national governments, for new models and approaches.
Katz sees the rise of a “New Localism” where “cities become the vanguard of problem solving and social progress in the world, fueled by new norms of growth, governance and finance, and powerful public, private and civic networks.”