Now is the age of cities

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

We are witnessing the rise of the cities, according to this week's Freakonomics podcast. Massive metropolises dot the globe. Supercities attract talent and ambition. Extraordinary power, fame, and wealth are the spoils of success in these urban arenas. The inhabitants of these cities are not so much American as they are New Yorkers, not so much British as they are Londoners, not so much French as they are Parisian, not so much Indian as they are Mumbaikars, not so much Chinese as they are Beijingers. The modern man is a uniquely urban animal.

In the United States, the 100 largest metropolitan areas are home to two-thirds of the national population and generate three-fourths of this nation’s annual gross domestic product. They house this many millions and produce this much economic output while occupying only 12 percent of the country’s land mass.

In an era of extreme partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C. and in state capitols all across the country, the city hall is emerging as an energetic and innovative forum for tackling pressing political issues. Mayors across the country are amassing greater political prominence at the expense of the esteem once commanded by state governors, federal legislators, and the American president. City governments are proving far more nimble than state or federal institutions in addressing a variety of public policy questions.

Mayors are institutionally pragmatic. They are charged with solving problems, not stoking partisan fires. They get things done because they must, unlike our increasingly sclerotic national government. As legendary 99th New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia once put it, “There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage.” Such urban pragmatism extends to policing the streets, educating our children, and building next-generation modes of transportation. Pragmatism trumps the reflexively ideological nature of our national politics. Cosmopolitan cooperation between cities will one day trump parochial nationalism. Entrepreneurial mayors, whose constituencies are more united and less ideological than those of state governors, federal legislators, or the president, are the most potent force for new ideas in American politics.

Unlike state governors and federal legislators, mayors are fiscally and legally constrained in serious ways. Their zeal to make a deep impact on national issues is contained by the limited scope of their regional offices. The limited size of the revenue streams they control limits the scope of their policy platforms. However, these limitations must be kept in mind only so that mayors can efficiently marshal their time and efforts. Public-private partnerships, facilitated by City Hall, can greatly expand the range of options available to an entrepreneurial mayor trying to resolve long-term and deep-seated political problems in his or her city. Purposive cooperation with other cities can develop regional norms of governance that could produce visionary public policy without abusing the geographic boundaries of a mayor’s constituency.

Political power is devolving to the site of the real action — the city. Political energy is gathering in these cities, where social change must necessarily happen. They are replacing the nation-state as the engines of political progress. They are the newest stars on the political stage. The polis gave birth to democracy, and the cosmopolis will renew it. We are living in the Age of the City.