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News & opinion

11 APR 2018

Future for cities: ‘It’s not the hierarchy, it’s the network!’

Bruce Katz a former Director at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank on matters urban and governance, was in London earlier this week. Railing against populism and the sclerotic nation state he declared that from an early age he was ‘brainwashed to believe in hierarchy’.

He now believes that the systems and structures we have devised since the nineteenth century to govern our countries and cities have closed people out of government. A new 21st-century urban governance architecture is required to put the citizens at the centre and recover the trust mistakenly invested in the current institutions to function in the citizens’ interest – a city-state type architecture.

Part of the problem as he sees it is that city governance structures have grown up to replicate national government structures with compartmentalised functions responding to a hierarchical version of the world. In reality the city is the networked society par excellence. We operate in networks both formal and informal; not hierarchies. New technologies are constantly breaking down barriers.

Recalling exasperatedly, his time as a government adviser, he referred to the difficulty of breaking down national government silos. “It can’t be done – just no co-operation”. This entirely reflected a response I received to a suggestion made to the UK Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) about combining a planning measure with a tax measure to stimulate regeneration –  it would require talking to the Treasury a non-starter for DCLG at the time.

The city is the networked society par excellence. We operate in networks both formal and informal; not hierarchies.

‘New Localism'

Katz advocates a much more devolved way of governing our cities, curiously for UK stakeholders characterised as ‘New Localism’, the title of his new book jointly authored with Jeremy Nowak. It is networked, collaborative and cross-sector.

The problems need to be resolved by multiple stakeholders using the soft power of citizens combined with the power of the city to convene. This he admitted could appear as a messy vision of complex overlapping interests and stakeholders but it responds to today’s reality.

He also referred to cities working as a collective when working with global institutions – exercising aggregate, collective market power. Another preoccupation was how to make sure the public assets and wealth created by the city stays in the public realm. Pittsburg, Indianapolis and Copenhagen were three cities referred to as having lessons to convey particularly the latter in relation to Public Asset Corporations (PACs) publicly owned, privately driven corporations managing public wealth for the benefit of the public. Katz has worked with Luise Noring a Danish academic looking at Danish and other European models for regenerating cities.

Challenged in a recent interview by Richard Florida about how these local initiatives would stand up in the face of big structural forces which are anti-city and anti-urban the authors responded that economic networks are no longer confined to the nation state. They cross national boundaries responding to global flows of knowledge, capital, people and climate change.

The 'Trump effect'

It is easy to evidence the different scales at which power operates since at the same time as the US President declared he was pulling out of the international climate change agreement, many US city mayors particularly those in cities which have recently experienced extreme weather events declared they would not be changing their policies.

In closing Katz referred to a recent ‘Trump’ measure geared towards urban regeneration  the Investing in Opportunity Act 2018 as having significant potential. The act contains a bundle of capital gains tax deferral incentives applying to distressed urban areas which have been identified by state Governors.

The UK has been engaged with concepts of Localism for some time now. Additionally, the country is going through a devolution programme where more powers are being devolved to cities with the election of new mayors.  It is much too early to assess how well these initiatives will deliver but devolving power from the centre must be a necessary step to stimulating local initiative.

The RICS World Built Environment Forum Summit being held in London from 23-24 April addresses many of the issues raised here and provides an unrivalled opportunity to network with leading thinkers on the opportunities arising in the 21st Century City.