From left: New York deputy mayor Robert Steel, Houston mayor Annise Parker, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, and Atlantic Media's Linda Douglass. Elena Olivo

America's metro areas generate 80 percent of the country's GDP. But so far, that economic reality has not generated a proportional amount of political clout.

“We’re being strangled by the lack of action at the federal level. That’s why mayors are where the action is.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed uttered these words during a panel discussion titled "Cities 2012: Are Cities the New Global Building Blocks?" at the New York Ideas forum Tuesday, co-presented by The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and the New-York Historical Society.

Reed and his fellow panelists, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and New York Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, talked a lot about the new report from the McKinsey Global Institute, which shows that 259 of the largest cities in the United States are responsible for 10 percent of global GDP. That economic significance, they argued, means that American cities merit way more clout than they get in the current political environment.

The mayors talked about the multitude of challenges facing American cities today – unemployment, pension and health care costs, outdated infrastructure, education, social inequity. All three emphasized that municipal government is more accountable, more innovative, and more responsive than federal government.

“I hope for the good of the country, cities continue to lead on these issues,” said Reed, whose hard-nosed pension reform deal attracted national attention last year. “Because if we wait for the federal government to move on issues like immigration and real job creation, then I think we’re going to be waiting for some time.”

New York Ideas bug
Conversations and debates on the big issues of the day.

Reed pointed out that a huge proportion of the nation’s GDP is generated in cities, but that mayors still have a hard time getting the feds to pump money back into them. "If you look at the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, less than 10 percent of those dollars went into cities, where 80 percent of GDP occurs," he said. "We’re going to have to shift national politics, and we’re going to have to shift state politics. Governors have a better lobby than mayors do. That’s why they got 90 percent of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, when that money should have gone to cities. Because we deploy it faster, we’re more creative, and we’re more representative of the majority of the United States of America."

Steel concurred, noting that city governments operate with "a very short feedback loop" and can’t afford to spend a lot of time in theoretical policy debates. "I’ve worked in federal government," said Steel, who served in the Treasury Department during the George W. Bush administration. "There isn’t a lot of time spent discussing the Federalist Papers in city government.""

“Cities are more nimble," said Parker. "They’re 24/7 operations. I have to pick up the trash, and the toilets have to flush."

All three mayors conceded that tough economic times have made their jobs more difficult. But they also emphasized the inherent appeal of urban life, and the urban potential for opportunity and innovation.

"Cities have people, and they have possibilities," said Parker. "And whether you want a mate, or an education, or a job, or just new ideas, cities attract you."

That advantage should be fostered if the U.S. is to remain competitive in the world economy, said Reed.

“We are no longer in a position, globally, to have massive investment in rural areas while cities struggle,” he said. “That’s the paradigm we’re going to have to face up to."

Top image, from left: New York Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Atlantic Media's Linda Douglass. (Elena Olivo)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Maria Romano stands behind one of her three children, Jennifer, 10, as she gets something to eat in their Harlem apartment in New York Thursday, June 3, 2005
    Equity

    Why HUD Wants to Restrict Assistance for Immigrants

    A proposal by Ben Carson’s agency would eject immigrant families from public housing to make way for the "most vulnerable." Housing advocates aren't buying it.

  2. a rendering of the moon village with a view of Earth
    Design

    Designing the First Full-Time Human Habitat on the Moon

    SOM, in partnership with the ESA and MIT, wants to accommodate research and maybe even tourism on the moon.

  3. a photo of a Metro PCS store in Washington, D.C.
    Equity

    What D.C.’s Go-Go Showdown Reveals About Gentrification

    A neighborhood debate over music swiftly became something bigger, and louder: a cry for self-determination from a community that is struggling to be heard.

  4. Solar panels on a New York City rooftop.
    Environment

    New York City Passes Sweeping Climate Legislation

    The Climate Mobilization Act lays the groundwork for New York City’s own Green New Deal.

  5. How To

    Against Little Free Libraries

    Does that birdhouse filled with paperbacks on your block represent an adorable neighborhood amenity or the “corporatization of literary philanthropy”?