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In An Age Of Political Gridlock, New Book Says Look To Local Leaders

Brookings Institution
Bruce Katz, co-author of The New Localism, is the Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Released this week, The New Localism argues that cities and their surrounding communities have become the country’s problem solvers, especially as state and federal governments fail to act. In the book, co-authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak examine how local leaders are tackling issues ranging from economic and social inequities to environmental sustainability.

90.5 WESA’s An-Li Herring spoke with Katz about how Pittsburgh fits his model.


This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


AN-LI HERRING: In The New Localism, you highlight Pittsburgh as an example of this trend. Why is that?


BRUCE KATZ: We think Pittsburgh is a new norm of growth. Pittsburgh was hit with the industrial shock in the late 1970s – the collapse of the steel industry, tens of thousands of jobs disappearing overnight. But the city has diversified its economy and, starting in the late 1970s, began to invest in the future.


And what we think is so special about Pittsburgh is [that] a network of business, philanthropic, university and public leaders came together over the course of decades, literally, and really funded the future, imagined the future.


And we think that is a replicable model. It would look different in different parts of the U.S. or different parts of the world, but the notion of co-governing is really universal.


HERRING: There are concerns in Pittsburgh about the concessions that local leaders might be willing to make to attract companies – for example, Uber and Amazon. [The city] could use things like tax breaks or lighten regulations. In your model, is there a risk that for-profit companies and unelected individuals could wield too much influence over a city's future?


KATZ: I think it's a global competition, and there are certain companies, domestic or multinational, that are looking for these kinds of tax abatements. But I think the high-road economy, which Pittsburgh has practiced for quite some time, basically says if we build the talent, if we build the centers of excellence and fund them at scale over a sustained period of time [and] if we show that we can commercialize research and invent next-generation technologies, the companies will come because they have to come.


And I think that's really the more dominant reason why Pittsburgh, I think, has emerged as really the most interesting post-industrial city of sorts. It still makes things – it just makes different things because if you're a global company you can’t ignore Pittsburgh in certain segments of the market.


HERRING: It sounds like you're saying this has almost kind of flipped what we consider to be that typical relationship between large for-profit companies, or even any, I guess, private sector actor, and a city government that's competing for its business or to have them locate here.


What do government leaders in particular, and even just citizens living in a city or a particular area, need to keep in mind to mitigate any risks that could be associated with that?


KATZ: I think first you have to have a narrative across these different sectors that really paint[s] a picture of your competitive assets and advantages. You need to tell the story of Pittsburgh and what you are distinctly good at and why you're good at that.


Secondly, I think the public sector needs to be co-partners, co-investors in the kinds of things that really matter to corporations – quality schools, safe streets, an effective transportation system. And these are things that the ... private sector is not going to supply. But it will make a difference if they're supplied well, with high quality and over time.


And the last piece is, I think the public sector  –  and I think this is very true about Pittsburgh, and this is why we write about you so much – [there’s little] distance between the mayor, the city council, the county executive, the Heinz Endowments, the Hillman Foundation, [the Richard King] Mellon [Foundation], Carnegie Mellon, University Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Allegheny Conference.


This is a collaborative culture in Pittsburgh. That sends a signal to corporations, who in the end like stability and they like predictability. Instead of taking the short-term tax abatement, what they want to be in is a community that is investing for the long haul. So on message, on critical investments and on collaboration, the public sector can send a very strong signal to private sector business.


HERRING: Something we continue to struggle with is ensuring that these collaborations and the development and growth that that spurs is inclusive, especially for individuals or populations that often are marginalized in these discussions. Do you have any recommendations on shielding against that [marginalization]?


KATZ: That is, to some extent, about schools and skills and making sure each individual is able to realize their full potential. It's also about using the value that's created as cities recover and renew themselves to reinvest in neighborhoods and reinvest in workforce housing and reinvest in smart infrastructure.


And that's not just an aspiration. There are institutions and structures that are mostly used in Northern Europe or in portions of Asia that now need to come into the United States. A large portion of this book is about how the U.S. needs to re-purpose institutions so that we can leverage public wealth, public assets to reinvest in our community.


So, there is the potential to grow an inclusive economy. But it will require us at the local level, city and county, to do things differently. To a large extent, we can't count on the federal government anymore or even states to do a lot of the heavy lifting. We're going to have to grow our economies and grow value, and unlock public capital and organized private and civic wealth, to do what is necessary for our citizenry.


An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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