Urban Evolution

Back when he was in college, Bruce Katz says, the big movie was Blade Runner with its theme of apocalyptic escape from the city. Decades later in the '90s, he says, "the most popular TV shows were Sex in the City, Friends, Seinfeld and Frasier that characterized cities as hip and cool places to live. It was a 180 degree turn."

It's a trend that has only gained force, and that's good news indeed for urban policy expert Katz who has spent his career on revitalizing cities.  

"The art of policy is to build places that are livable and distinct and special," says Katz. At the same time, he said, cities need to maximize the potential of people as well. As the founder of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, Katz recently received a prestigious award in Pittsburgh, the Heinz Award, for his work in advocating for cities through smart growth, innovative housing and transportation, green space preservation, better schools and good jobs.

At a time when the suburbanization of America was in full steam, a young and trend-bucking Katz was growing up in Brooklyn, New York. The urban setting would serve him well, giving him a passion for cities and shaping a career path leading to senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and to his current position at the Brookings Institute.

"Perhaps better than anyone, Bruce Katz understands the importance of thriving urban centers in America," says Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation, which bestows the annual awards in honor of the late Senator John Heinz.

While vibrant cities are the lifeblood of prosperous economies, "through the last half-century, many older cities and suburbs have withered as resources were poured into new developments, which have sprawled across the rural landscape and, in doing so, harmed the natural environment and isolated communities from one another," says Heinz.

To combat sprawl and a multitude of other sins committed against cities over the years, Katz argues for reform. "Our policies need to change. We've made progress in fits and starts," he notes, citing the demolition of elevated freeways along waterfronts and failed public high-rise housing built in the '50s.

Katz was the architect of Hope VI, a federal program to demolish and redevelop public housing.  But even as we begin to make progress undoing the misguided policies of the past, "for the most part federal and state policies still tend to have a fairly significant suburban and exurban tilt and they haven't been revised to reflect the new competitive potential of cities. The whole country to some extent is paying a price for this not just economically but also environmentally," he says, adding, "We have a long way to go." As go the cities, so goes the country.

The Great Lakes initiative

The day after Katz accepted the Heinz Award, he continued his body of award-winning work with a trip to Detroit to participate in the Great Lakes Economic Initiative, a regional policy agenda to support economic growth in the industrial Midwest states.

Katz asked John Austin, a nonresident Brookings Institution Fellow, to head the effort from his home base in Michigan. Says Austin, "Bruce, saw as I did, the opportunity to develop solid economic analysis and policy recommendations to inform the agendas of the region's governors, Congressional delegation and, in particular, to provoke attention to the real economic needs of the region, during the run-up to the 2008 Presidential elections."
Katz, says Austin, worked to make the Great Lakes Economic Initiative "a powerful project that is already shaping the discussions in the region and nationally regarding smart economic policy."

Impact on the economy

While the Great Lakes project represents a major regional focus, Katz is best known for his extensive work on cities. "The idea that I most focus on is that cities matter and the country is going through enormous demographic, economical and cultural change," says Katz. "All the changes put together revalue cities. We've tended to treat cities as anachronistic places that were built for a different era and different kind of economy. As we move more toward the knowledge economy, we see that cities have an enormous economic and fiscal value."

One highly positive sign is the shift in thinking about cities among senior policy makers and youth. "Most importantly there's a shift among young people because the attitudes of cities have changed among youth," says Katz. And while cities have become cool again, some are cooler than others such as Portland, Ore. "In terms of smart growth, where there's more reinvestment to the city and less sprawl, Portland is the poster child of smart growth in the U.S.," says Katz.

The key to its success? Continued growth in the periphery and a whole set of policies for reinvesting in cities. "Very few places have gone that route. Maryland and Michigan and Pennsylvania have begun to focus on transportation policies that 'fix it first'," he says, which include measures such as stopping expansion at the periphery of cities that fuels excess sprawl.

And cities have done a good job of getting their own act together, notably in the reduction in crime which has had a dramatic effect on cities and the delivery of basic services.

On the verge of big changes

As an example of his advocacy, in a report Katz authored called "Seizing City Assets: Ten Steps to Urban Land Reform" he argues for a citywide approach to reclaiming vacant lots, citing examples that breathe new life into cities instead of fueling growth in the exurbs. "Sprawl," Katz says solemnly, "is unconscionable for environmental and other reasons." Pointing to the "classic lag between change on the ground and policy change", he argues for greater acceleration of reform particularly at the federal and state levels.

But the time may be right for a change in direction. "We're on the verge of big changes," says Katz who names a list of recently elected officials, including Eliot Spitzer in New York and Virginia Gov. Tim Kean. Both Democrat and Republican, these leaders, are focused on city revitalization and smart growth. "If they've been mayors, all the better," says Katz. "Those who have been mayors are a step ahead of the game. Mayors just intuitively understand the value of cities and adjust policies."

Cities today and in the future require more density, transit and mixed use to be successful. Over the next 50 to 75 years, American cities will look more like European cities, he predicts. "Environmental issues are going to reward denser, smarter, more environmentally-friendly urban and metropolitan development," he says.

European cities, he points out, also went through industrial shocks in the '70s and the '80s just like Detroit in recent years. On the upside, these cities have generally revived quicker and sprawled less, containing growth by investing heavily in waterfronts and city transit to channel development.  

Each city of course is unique in its assets and liabilities. "Detroit is in many respects the big city in the U.S. that is most dramatically affected by its success," says Katz. He refers to the sprawl that is so evident now that the city has halved its population, and the "vast space that is unpopulated or under-populated."

"Detroit must think about pockets of strength to focus on. It has to manage its decline better. Detroit has a future, but has not had the discussion in the past 30 years to deal with disinvestment. In some ways the economic shock has been exasperated."

And yet, he adds, "Go downtown today. Compared to even five years, things are happening that are incredibly positive," he says. "A lot of signs of recovery along the waterfront and downtown are very heartening." That, says Katz, "reflects the underlying strength of cities. In spite of all the policies that hurt cities, cities still survived."

Tracy Certo is the editor of Pop City, Model D's sister publication in Pittsburgh.


Downtown Detroit skyline at night from Windsor

Bruce Katz, Copyright Jim Harrison

Campus Martius Park

Bruce Katz, Copyright Rocky Raco

The GM Renaissance Center, People Mover and pedestrian walkways to the Millender Center in downtown Detroit

The renovated Kales Building with the People Mover and new lighting on Washington Boulevard

Photographs of Detroit Copyright Dave Krieger

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