'Crowd-Sourcing Can't Build Bridges': Looking Beyond the Rebuild Era

Cities and citizens are working together to rebuild communities and grow jobs. What comes next?

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The Atlantic Cities is exploring America's rebuilding efforts in a four-part series. This is the final installment. Don't miss parts one, two, and three.

Thus far in this series I've documented a few Rebuild Era trends: reverse migration to urban cores, many of which are seeing significant revitalization; an explosion of citizen engagement and DIY planning and renewal; and signs of a shift away from the mass industry that doomed so many American cities and toward a more regenerative economy.

But is this creating a new post-industrial metropolis, in which strong, effective leadership can sustain job growth and foster local engagement? Most urban governments remain too weak to deal with poverty and environmental degradation.

Many of the hardest-hit cities no longer have the tax base or density to provide adequate services – precisely when the demand for those services has increased. And a recent report from Urban Affairs Review found that cities "have experienced an erosion of authority at the hands of their state governments."

Yet Ester Fuchs, director of Columbia University's Urban and Social Policy program and former adviser to New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, sees what she thinks is a promising trend. "Cities that are experiencing turnaround have mayors and city councils that have essentially pushed the envelop and grabbed the authority to deal with their problems," she says.

Some have gone to the state legislature and gained legal authority, others have taken it via extra-legal governance structures. Detroit's Dave Bing, Chicago's Rahm Emanuel, and Newark's Cory Booker, among others, have implemented bold initiatives like geographic consolidation and innovative financing.

Add this to the DIY urbanism and citizen engagement we're seeing nationwide, and you have some real momentum. "Communities are finding a way to rebuild," says Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “We're seeing in U.S. cities a move to try to open up planning and decision-making and come up with new ideas.”

This helps locals appreciate the impact of government on their daily lives, which has been a major challenge. Such efforts are key to the future of these cities. "It's similar to business incubators, with groups working together, pooling resources to grow and create," says Fuchs, author of Mayors and Money: Fiscal Policy in New York and Chicago. "It's essentially building these places up from the bottom so they are once again viable from the view of city government. They don't just energize, they become the engine that leads to better city governance."

Of course, there are limitations. "Crowd-sourcing can't build bridges," adds Fuchs. "This idea that you can bring in a nonprofit and build an efficient solution and then magically bring that to scale, that's a pipe dream. We need the people to shake things up, but nothing can really be brought to scale without government."

Theodore has been on the look-out for what he calls urban solidarism, wherein city officials and citizens at all levels work together to foster economic growth. This DIY movement and the people-public partnerships we've seen in a handful of cities has some of the elements of his vision, says Theodore.

But what's missing is a collaborative network between cities, with Detroit residents and officials learning from their counterparts in Cleveland, say, or people in St. Louis gaining insight from New York. "That's a much taller order," says Theodore. "It involves some form of redistribution and an agenda for how we grow together."

Many analysts have called for regional networks and metropolitan governance structures, in which a handful of bodies and municipalities work together, across city, county, and state lines. Fuchs believes few suburbs are interested in taking on the problems of the city, and that the political will is just not there.

Most global cities, the nodes of our 21st century economy, have adapted to the changes wrought by globalization organically. It's the smaller, harder-hit cities that could use a leg up. “The real issue is what kind of economy can these cities develop for the 21st century,” says Fuchs.

We've seen some leaders shift to more sustainable efforts like technology and small-scale manufacturing. New hubs and clusters have begun to appear: craft beer in Chicago, water tech in Milwaukee, Internet startups and innovation in Detroit.

Even these efforts need a boost. "We see little investment from the federal government in the parts of the urban economy that they should be investing in: infrastructure, innovation and the green economy," says Fuchs.

President Barack Obama seems to agree. "There's now an emerging consensus," he said from Camp David after hosting G8 leaders this past weekend, "that more must be done to promote growth and job creation."

For now, the onus remains on the city and its residents. UIC is set to launch a three-year study backed by the MacArthur Foundation analyzing how city governments can respond to recessions and plan for sustainable growth. Theodore has been looking at an issue little-discussed in this series and oft-neglected within planning and urbanism circles: how to help those hardest hit by the downturn.

In Chicago, a $23 million city-backed initiative called Opportunity Chicago aimed to place 5,000 public housing residents and other hard-to-employ people into jobs in five years. The program exceeded its goal by several hundred, placing participants in security, healthcare, IT, customer service and skilled labor positions.

Theodore says it worked in large part because of its embrace of temporary, transitional jobs to help participants gain experience and improve work records. “It's an idea that's captured a lot of people's imaginations,” he says. “It's still in the experimental phase, but it's something people are going to be looking at.”

It's one promising effort among many. Another good sign is that today's younger generation – tech-savvy, connected, engaged, eco-conscious and fundamentally aware of the devastation of economic hardship – seems well placed to appreciate what's at stake, shoulder the burden and extend the rebuild.

Photo credit: 1971yes /Shutterstock

About the Author

  • David Lepeska is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.