Cities Lead: Recipes for Local Success

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Urban scholar and commentator Neal Peirce released his book Citistates (How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World) all the way back in 1993. The themes concerning successful and globally competitive cities and regions were compelling then and his findings have been borne out by authors including Michael Porter (The Competitive Advantage of the Inner City), Rosabeth Moss Kanter (World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy) and Thomas Friedman (Pick your book: Lexus and the Olive Tree, The Word is Flat, or Hot, Flat and Crowded).

The City-State, or as my former colleague William Barnes referred to it – the metropolitan centered economic region – is the smallest and most essential unit of economic prosperity. As such, all the cities and counties within the larger and interdependent urban-suburban region are connected – or so they should be.

It is with a focus on the strengths and advantages of cities as the dynamic engines of action, innovation and economic prosperity that National Journal author Michael Hirsh offers an updated vision in the August 31, 2013 edition of the magazine.

To read much of contemporary news media, one would be surprised to discover that many cities are in fact thriving places. Important news about a new freight rail bridge linking the United States and Canada between Windsor and Detroit is overshadowed by Detroit’s bankruptcy filing, for example. The local advancement of light rail, street cars and bike sharing in countless cities is drowned out by the hiccups experienced in New York City’s bike share roll-out.

It’s not all perfect in city halls of course. But it’s encouraging to see that while Congress fiddles and federal programs burn, it is city and county leaders who are taking the hard steps to solve problems, find new resources, form new collaborations and get the necessary tasks done.

The keys to success for cities are not hard to comprehend. NLC’s research on resilient regions, looking at places in Michigan and Arizona for example, point to some specific action steps that align with Mr. Hirsh’s summary in the National Journal.

NLC’s findings about the centrality of economic regions points to some very specific techniques and tools that may in fact be winnowed down to three indispensable principles for thriving cities:

  1. Establish an inclusive and creative process of community engagement to assess problems, identify solutions and implement a unified response that holds consistently over time (which in some cases may require decades);
  2. Develop and nurture credible, dynamic and aggressive leadership on the part of local and regional elected or appointed officials and build the capacity of the government departments or agencies to synchronize with that leadership; and
  3. Foster partnerships across city departments, across political boundaries and between the public, private and nonprofit stakeholders in the region.

As Mr. Hirsh points out, “all these factors can breed a critical survival trait for successful cities and their metro areas: resilience.”