The news this year has often featured stories of cities on the brink of collapse, with rising crime rates, homelessness, empty offices, failing schools, and shrinking tax bases. This phenomenon, called the “urban doom loop,” is not new to those who lived through the 1980s or post-9/11 era. Breaking free from this cycle requires extraordinary effort, and success is not guaranteed, but it is possible. I have seen it firsthand.
The stakes are high because we are living in a time of unprecedented global urbanization. Over the last 50 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in cities has increased from one-third to over half, and it continues to grow rapidly. This means that global progress on major issues — including poverty, public health, education, and climate change — will increasingly depend on the actions of cities and their local governments.
The growing importance of cities also means that national governments are increasingly reliant on city governments to achieve their goals. In the United States, for instance, Congress is directing a historically large amount of funding to cities through spending bills like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. However, the success of these bills depends on the ability of cities to access and utilize this funding effectively, which requires expertise, innovation, and collaboration.
As cities continue to grow, they also become increasingly complex to govern. Local governments must provide more services to more people while also dealing with a broad array of complicated challenges, including disruptions caused by climate change. Mayors are setting ambitious goals to address these challenges. Unfortunately, however, too often they are falling short of their own aspirations. There are three major obstacles blocking their progress.
The first is pre-emption. Conservative state legislatures, often with encouragement from special interest groups, are increasingly passing laws that limit local autonomy. This pre-emption push undermines mayors’ ability to effectively address issues that impact their constituents’ lives, like public health and safety, even though mayors are held accountable for making progress on those issues.
A second limitation facing cities comes from the left, in the form of well-intentioned regulations and requirements that end up creating overly burdensome obstacles that block progress on crucial priorities, such as building affordable housing, mass transit, and renewable energy. Public input is essential to government action, but proceduralism has run amok — and the public is paying a heavy price. It is imperative to have rules and regulations that allow projects with broad public benefits to proceed, without being subject to years and even decades of legal review roadblocks. Similarly, city governments need the ability to be flexible in situations where there is no antecedent. The past few years have underscored that fact, with the unprecedented local challenges posed by the pandemic and the accelerating climate crisis. State and national laws should be adaptable to changing conditions, especially as city leaders increasingly take the lead in addressing pressing issues. They can’t afford to have their hands tied by overly rigid laws and court decisions that don’t permit practical solutions.
The third primary limitation affecting cities has nothing to do with laws and budgets and everything to do with capabilities. It’s one thing to have the authority, funding, and approvals to undertake a project. It’s another to execute it successfully. That requires building strong teams based on merit and competence. It requires giving civil servants the tools and power to innovate. It requires holding them accountable for success, using data and rigorous evaluations to determine what works and what doesn’t. And it requires fostering partnerships with businesses and communities to solve shared challenges.
At Bloomberg Philanthropies, we’re working to help cities tackle all of those challenges, by empowering mayors, building up the capacity of city governments, and helping them to act boldly. The Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University plays a central role in this effort, bringing together a range of resources for cities, including executive training for mayors and senior staff. In more than half of the 100 largest U.S. cities, the mayor is a graduate of or currently enrolled in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. We’re also supporting city leadership through the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins University. The center leads programming and research to help city governments grow more creative, agile, and effective.