Bruce Katz. Networked cities and urban leadership in the face of global challenges

Retrat de Bruce Katz. © Marc Javierre

Bruce Katz defines himself as an interdisciplinary urban planner, and is a great advocate of cities’ problem-solving capacity in the face of today’s global challenges. Classified by his thinking as an urban optimist, he defends cities’ capacities – pragmatic, transversal, collaborative and action-oriented – to make their way through the crisis scenario that he calls “the new disorder”.

Bruce Katz is director and founder of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University in Philadelphia, a centre specialising in financial innovation for cities and metropolitan areas. He is also a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and co-author of several books that have made him a point of reference who advises governments and local and metropolitan leaders in institutional innovation processes. He has held different positions of responsibility in the United States Government, both in the Senate Committee on Housing and Urban Affairs and for the Housing and Urban Development Secretary during the Obama Administration. Previously, and for more than twenty years, he was vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, one of the most influential think tanks in the world.

Last March, Katz was one of the speakers at the Economic Reactivation Conference (REACT 2022) organised by Barcelona City Council. A few days later we had the opportunity to talk to him about his views on cities and urban governance, and we shared some reflections on the city of Barcelona.

Katz would fall into a category of authors that we could call urban optimists. In line with other influential thinkers, such as Benjamin Barber (If Mayors Ruled the World, Yale University Press, 2015), Katz sees cities and metropolises as being pragmatic, transversal, having the capacity for collaboration and cooperation, action-oriented and problem solvers. He contrasts this vision with that of dysfunctional states, highly compartmentalised and suppressed by political polarisation, incapable of responding to the global challenges of the 21st century and the complex crises and threats of our time. And from what we have witnessed in the 21st century, there has been and there will be no shortage of crises and threats.

We can get a good grasp of his ideas by following the evolution of some of his latest publications. In 2013, against a backdrop of global economic and financial crisis and growing political polarisation in the United States, which led to a continuous institutional impasse during the two presidencies of Barack Obama (2008-2017), Katz published, together with Jennifer Bradley, The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy. In the first book, he defends the capacity of cities and metropolitan areas as the great economic and innovation engines of the United States, and calls for rethinking North American federalism and recognising metropolises as “new sovereignties”, in a new process of political and financial decentralisation towards local government.

In 2018, he published, this time alongside Jeremy Nowak, The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism. His main motivation in this new book is what he calls rising populism, culminating in the presidency of Donald Trump (2017-2021). Transversal and networked cities, the collaborative capacity of public, private and community agents, and distributed leadership allow political and financial stalemates facing states to be overcome to tackle today’s global economic, social and climatic challenges.

On 31 March 2022, during his presentation in Barcelona within the framework of the REACT 2022 conference organised by Barcelona City Council, he outlined his vision of cities’ potential at the present time. In a context that he calls the “new disorder”, determined by the multiple crises arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, geopolitical repositioning – which has one of its starkest and closest manifestations in Russia’s war to occupy Ukraine – and above all the climate crisis, cities can mobilise resources, advance towards innovative financing sources and instruments, and processes of reindustrialisation and relocation of advanced industries. Faced with the various – socioeconomic, political, complex – crises that have occurred in the first quarter of the 21st century, cities are the “spaces most capable of making their own way”.

However, he recognises that his reflections must necessarily be understood in the North American context. On the one hand, there is a common conception among North Americans that “cities are at the end of the political system”. Despite the federal nature of the United States, political decentralisation does not reach the lowest tiers of government, so the local level, and specifically the local welfare state, is weak, especially when compared to local governments in Europe. By the same token, unlike European countries, institutionalisation processes and metropolitan governments are still uncommon in the United States, where cooperation networks and associations between municipalities and sector-based instruments are more common, focused on specific policies such as mobility or the environment. Furthermore, Katz sees in the tradition of North American democracy a differentiating factor that fosters “shared responsibility” and the cooperation of public powers with private actors, philanthropists, universities, as well as community and grassroots movements.

At the heart of all his reflections are two core elements: advocating for collaboration and networked governance and the need for active and distributed leadership. In Katz’s words, “cities are more than governments, they’re networks”, and he underlines their collaborative capacity and transversality. Following in the footsteps of theorists on local democracy or municipalist movements, he recognises the value of proximity in decision-making processes, which he turns down as a “low entrance barrier into local governance networks”, unlike state processes and institutions. As regards leadership, and particularly public leadership, he emphasises soft and transversal power – soft power –, and the “ability to bring very different stakeholders together” and mobilise resources in the face of shared challenges and objectives.

In the case of Barcelona, Katz reflected on the assets and potential that can be leveraged and on the city’s role in the metropolis environment. Furthermore, Katz believes that exercising metropolitan leadership and capital status is key – as well as Catalan and Mediterranean leadership –, but while seeking challenges, opportunities and clear and specific objectives, shared with the territory’s broad and diverse group of agents. Therefore, he is committed to seeking broad consensus, despite the tough time when it comes to finding common projects and maintaining broad consensus in the country. Initiatives such as the Barcelona Metropolitan Strategic Plan (PEMB) or the recent Fòrum Social Metropolità (FSM) [Metropolitan Social Forum], which have already taken the plunge from regional level, would be heading in this direction.

Moreover, he believes that the role that higher levels of government can play in building metropolitan geographies must be developed, for example, through financing instruments that foster cooperation between local stakeholders. Here we can mention the potential of the Urban Agenda for the EU and the necessary metropolisation of European funds, but also shedding our fear and calling for a change in the long-term neglect of metropolitan matters by the State and the Government of Catalonia’s policies.

Admittedly, in a context of growing inequalities, reactionary political movements and climate emergency, the urban optimism that Bruce Katz conveys in all his books, papers and presentations is not the only story that we can tell about cities and metropolises in the 21st century. In addition, in a world that will be increasingly more urban, we will not be able to confront major challenges without major cities and metropolitan regions taking resolute action, both locally and globally, and unleashing all their economic, political and social potential.

Publicacions recomanades

  • The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of PopulismBrookings Institution Press, 2018
  • The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile EconomyBrookings Institution Press, 2013

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