The Return of the City-State?

Are cities becoming states again?

As national and state governments become increasingly gridlocked by partisan politics, lack of consensus and massive budget cutbacks, cities have been assuming an increasingly important role as engines of national economic growth. This is a fascinating trend. Cities are:

  • teaming with surrounding municipalities; forming “metropolitan alliances” to craft joint strategies for economic development and promote investment,
  • collaborating with private industry, academia and community groups to put into action projects and smart investments that will enhance their cities’ global economic competitiveness,
  • fostering innovation to develop creative solutions to their economic challenges and create economic competitive advantage, and
  • in some instances, assuming greater powers and responsibilities – often as a result of negotiations with their national governments.

Cities have achieved remarkable transformations, particularly after the devastating recession of 2008.

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) titled “Local Economic Leadership” profiles four European cities – Amsterdam, Hamburg, Manchester and Stockholm – and the results they have achieved through partnerships, peer to peer learning and multi-stakeholder engagement.

Within the United States, the Brookings Institution teamed with JPMorganChase in 2012 to form the Global Cities Initiative – a $10 million, five-year project aimed at helping the leaders of US metropolitan areas strengthen their regional economies by becoming more competitive in the global marketplace. At present, 28 metropolitan areas are participating in GCI’s Exchange Program that helps cities “develop and implement regional strategies to boost global trade and investment, forge partnerships between U.S. and international metropolitan areas, and advocate for state and national policy changes.”

So what does it take for a city/metropolitan area to succeed? According to Bruce Katz, co-director of GCI and Vice-President at the Brookings Institution: “Cities and metropolitan areas have important roles and responsibilities—land use, zoning, managing our children’s education and housing our institutions of higher education as well as our biggest private companies and leading-edge entrepreneurs. All that taken together is the innovation ecosystem that drives economies forward… Cities and metropolitan areas are succeeding because they have the assets that the economy requires and the infrastructure to move people, goods, energy, services and ideas. They’re home to incredible innovation — not just idea generation but also production, advanced manufacturing and skilled workers.”

So, who knows? As legislative bodies, particularly in the United States, continue to be mired in dysfunction and inaction – totally oblivious to the needs of their constituents and the nation – might we see the re-emergence of the city-state?

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