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Why Cities Lead

November 21, 2013

Cities illustration
Washington, DC is a transient city.  At least it feels that way to me, a transplant.  I moved to DC a little over two years ago, after spending a couple years in Chicago, and before that, Louisville.  When I meet people here, their first question typically is, “what do you do?”  But what quickly follows is, “where do you come from?”

For a lot of people, the answer to the latter question is a city.  Whether it’s Saint Paul, Omaha, Hartford or Phoenix, people often define themselves in terms of their community.  They take pride in the cold winters they survived in Chicago, the hot, humid summer days of Houston, or the mountains that frame their memories of Denver.

In identifying with a city, people show that they see their values reflected in that place – whether it’s their community’s unique emphasis on equitable transit and affordable housing; its renowned music scene or cultural amenities that leave residents proudly proclaiming: keep my city weird; or a national reputation for entrepreneurship and thought leadership that instills a persistent pursuit for the next big thing.

Responding with “New York” might invoke thoughts of cheap food from anywhere in the world, at any time, while “Cleveland” might bring back memories of the small-scale urban farms popping up across the city.  For me, “Owensboro, KY,” my hometown, speaks to my appreciation for mutton, college basketball and lazy summer days on the banks of the Ohio River.

These attachments to place reveal that city design, culture and reputation are fundamentally intertwined with how we perceive ourselves and what we care about.  However, if we peel away those layers, what unites all cities is what actually makes them home.  Cities host our aspirations and our struggles.  They are the setting of our unique personal stories. They are where we have families, make friends and form community.  They are where we rally for justice, and where we celebrate our most tightly held beliefs.

Last week, at NLC’s annual Congress of Cities Conference in Seattle, we heard Bruce Katz, Vice President at the Brookings Institution and founding Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, talk about what he has dubbed the “metropolitan revolution.”

He described how the pragmatic and resourceful leaders that govern our cities are taking on the big issues, ones that Washington refuses to solve, and helping to reshape our economy and fix our broken political system.  This national movement that Katz so aptly described resonated with our members.

Cities and towns, large and small, are continuing to tackle the tough issues that they always have—poverty, unemployment, fiscal challenges and aging infrastructure to name a few—with a renewed sense of urgency needed to address current national and global crises.

“In the absence of federal leadership, cities are stepping up,” said Katz.  “In this century, cities will lead and the states and federal government will follow.”

I like that idea – the leadership that will define our future will be the leadership closest to our communities.  The mission of cities is very much about getting things done, not bickering about ideology and being bogged down by politics.  Our members work hard every day to make their communities better places.  After all, their city is their home.  Their constituents are their neighbors. And that’s why cities lead.

In future posts on this blog, we’ll highlight the ways in which cities are tackling our country’s most urgent problems.  I hope you will join the conversation.  Let us know how your city leads on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #CitiesLead.

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