Reuters

Washington's dysfunction gives them a chance to talk up their operational prowess.

Half a decade ago, politicians from both sides of the aisle were urging New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for president. Today, Bloomberg's distaste for the federal government couldn't be more pronounced. During the opening session of The Atlantic’s CityLab summit, he showed off a new communications strategy for city-level leaders: us vs. them.

“We certainly aren’t waiting for national governments to lead the way, because we would be waiting for a very long time,” he said. “In cities, people are working across party lines to solve problems; in Washington, the partisanship has gotten so bad that the two parties can’t even agree on how to keep the lights on. We are pioneering new ideas; they are paralyzed by dysfunctional politics. The fact is, Washington is increasingly unresponsive to the needs of our country, and cities are filling the void in a very big way.”

Some scholars are also signing on to this idea. The federal government may be gridlocked, they argue, but municipalities are more functional than ever. Bruce Katz, the director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, echoed Bloomberg’s criticism of Washington.

“The federal government has literally left the building, not just figuratively,” he said. “Cities and metropolitan areas are stepping up and doing the hard work to grow jobs and make their economies more prosperous in resilient ways.”

But Katz also conceded that cities aren’t insulated from political chaos at the national level. In particular, the country’s broader financial standing in the global economy could affect how well cities can do business. “We do have a default proposition here as the national government goes on a frolic and detour,” he said.

Carol Coletta, the lead on community initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, doubted that Washington will provide a sufficient safety net for the poor moving forward, but she was also skeptical that cities have the financial means to support a growing number of people in poverty.

CityLab 2013
Exploring urban solutions to global challenges
See full coverage

“If you look at the jobs that are predicted to be the fastest growing of the next 20 years, six or seven of the top 10 categories do not pay a living wage,” she said. “Health care workers, food workers – what do we do about those jobs? The federal government is going out of business, so then what – are the cities are going to subsidize all of those people?”

Karl Dean, the mayor of Nashville, offered something of a free market solution: If a city’s economy is strong, he said, there will be better opportunities for everyone.

“If you look at a city like Nashville, which has done pretty well over the last few years, it’s not so much what the government did. The real excitement is created by young entrepreneurs… and people feeling that they can earn a living and still have disposable income and a higher quality of life. That’s why they come there – [not] because I’ve announced some program,” he said.

There seemed to be a consensus in the room that a new era of growth is happening in cities, even as the federal government proves itself increasingly non-functional. The mayors weren’t afraid of crowing about it, either.

“Ironically, it was Washington policy that helped fuel the age of the suburb,” said Bloomberg. “But the urban renaissance we’re experiencing is happening despite Washington, not because of it.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. An aerial photo of downtown Miami.
    Life

    The Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Aren’t What You Think

    Looking at the population and job growth of large cities proper, rather than their metro areas, uncovers some surprises.

  2. a map of London Uber driver James Farrar's trip data.
    Transportation

    For Ride-Hailing Drivers, Data Is Power

    Uber drivers in Europe and the U.S. are fighting for access to their personal data. Whoever wins the lawsuit could get to reframe the terms of the gig economy.

  3. Smoke from the fires hangs over Brazil.
    Environment

    Why the Amazon Is on Fire

    The rash of wildfires now consuming the Amazon rainforest can be blamed on a host of human factors, from climate change to deforestation to Brazilian politics.

  4. Transportation

    When a Transit Agency Becomes a Suburban Developer

    The largest transit agency in the U.S. is building a mixed-use development next to a commuter rail station north of Manhattan.

  5. a photo of a BYD-built electric bus.
    Transportation

    A Car-Centric City Makes a Bid for a Better Bus System

    Indianapolis is set to unveil a potentially transformative all-electric bus rapid transit line, along with a host of major public transportation upgrades.

×