On a cold day in February, just a couple of weeks after George W. Bush began his second term, I sat down with a dozen men and women from across the country to talk about what government could do to clean up the environment, provide workers with a living wage and fight discrimination. This was not some gripe session to coincide with the opening of another dismal four years of federal policy-making; the people who had gathered at a conference center on the shore of Lake Michigan were mayors who have the power–and the desire–to create a progressive alternative to the constant claim that government cannot be a force for good. And, as the enthusiasm that characterized the February gathering to forge a “New Cities” coalition of progressive mayors illustrated, they are not going to let the conservative interregnum at the federal level prevent them from leading the way in the cities, which remain the engines of American economic and social advancement.
Unfortunately, most Americans, even most American progressives, do not always think of cities when they consider where the antidotes to the right-wing politics of the moment are being developed–let alone where the models for the next progressive era are taking shape. In most nations, cities are a big deal–the mayor of Mexico City is likely to be his country’s next president. But in America, cities are the neglected stepchildren, exploited and abused when not simply ignored. Often they are portrayed as rank collections of pathology, modern Gomorrahs deserving destruction, and often enough they get it, with the aid of racist and destructive policies. American indifference to the death of our cities regularly astounds foreign visitors: After wandering the desolate streets of Detroit on a tour of America, French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy pondered the “mystery of these modern ruins” and wondered whether, instead of sharing Europe’s love of cities, America finds the concept of such love “perhaps foreign to it.”
It is time for progressives to reconsider and realign our views on cities–the most productive and most sustainable centers of our economy, the most vital and generous centers of our culture and, potentially, the most democratic and forward-looking of our many units of government. It is time to recognize that properly organized and empowered metropolitan governments–which link cities and suburbs in pursuit of goals that cannot be achieved separately–may hold the key to rebuilding an American economy of broadly shared prosperity. And it is time, above all, to understand that these perspectives are not unduly optimistic; indeed, they are the sentiments being expressed by the mayors and City Council members who have come to refer to themselves as “new urbanists,” and who are beginning to coalesce in the burgeoning New Cities and Cities for Progress movements.
Cities matter to America, and they matter especially to progressives, for three basic reasons.
The first is that, notwithstanding population loss and disinvestment, most of our population and economy is still located in our urban centers. Even narrowly defined by their central city limits, cities account for about 25 percent of the total US population. Add their adjacent suburbs to mark out what you might call the “metro core,” and you get a majority of the population. Add the suburbs connected to this core and each other–what the Census describes as “metropolitan statistical areas” (MSAs)–and you get upwards of 80 percent. And since metropolitan areas are on average richer and more productive than nonmetro ones, their share of the economy is even greater than their share of the population. The metro core contains more than half the population but about two-thirds of the national economy; the broader MSAs account for close to 90 percent of the economy. Worth emphasizing is that, within metropolitan areas, the economic interdependence of suburbs to one another and the central city is high. They share common infrastructure and largely common labor and product markets. About 80 percent of the economic value these regions produce is consumed within them. Our national economy is largely and simply their aggregate. If you want to do anything about the American national economy, particularly anything constructive, it follows that you must do it with cities.