November 30, 1997 - From the November, 1997 issue

Brookings Agenda for their Metropolitan & Urban Policy Center

The Planning Report is pleased to present the following interview with Bruce Katz, Director of the Brookings Institution's new Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. The Center was founded to study and advance the growing trend of metropolitan governance and regional partnerships between government and industry. Katz now a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings, was Chief of Staff at HUD until 1996, and served as Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Housing and Urban Affairs until 1993.


“The future of urban and suburban American is interdependent, and our metropolitan areas are not going to be competitive without strong central cores."

TPR carried one of your remarks from when you first opened the Institute, but why don't you summarize for our readers why Brookings reestablished the Center of Metropolitan and Urban Policy and what you'd most like to accomplish.

The primary goal of the Brookings Institution's Urban Center is to assess the impact of large-government policies and private sector actions on cities and metropolitan areas. 

There has been a growing concern among the leadership of the Institution that urban and metropolitan policy was being defined very narrowly in the Washington and state policy debates—and that we have marginalized urban policy to a small set of micro-initiatives. Also, we have failed to assess the impact of much larger flows of capital and federal and state resources—like transportation, welfare and regulatory impacts—on cities and metropolitan areas. 

The Brookings Institution wanted to help fill this perceived gap in today's policy analysis and to lay the foundation for the next generation of urban policy. The Institution wanted to do this in a very nontraditional way for a Washington think tank. We envisioned a network not only of scholars, but of practitioners, as well—corporate, civic, and political community leaders who are experiencing day-in, day-out the effects and possibilities of government policy and private sector action. These are the people who are already doing this type of place-based analysis. That's the niche we're trying to fill. 

You said in your remarks at the Forum you sponsored in May of this year, "I have received almost unanimous confirmation that the driving ideas behind the Center, namely that cities and metropolitan areas matter and federal and state policies, for the most part, ignore these places, arc valid." Would you elaborate on how federal and state policies ignore cities and metropolitan areas today? 

It happens on two levels. When federal and state policy is made, we rarely assess the potential impact of those policies through a  “place filter,” from the perspective of cities and metropolitan areas. We enact welfare reform without any consideration of urban centers, where the influence of the policy is greatest due to the disproportionate concentration of poverty. And when we debate federal transportation reform, there is no mention of the explosive sprawl most jurisdictions experience or how government spending may contribute to that. 

Secondly existing federal and state policies are doing more to contribute to exurban expansion—and decline in central cities and older suburbs—then to help rebuild and sustain these communities. For the most part, these impacts are unintentional and are apparent in existing transportation and infrastructure programs, home ownership subsidies, state economic development incentives, and regulatory regimes that govern environmental and other issues. 

Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Tony Downs, whom we quoted in our December issue of The Planning Report about the future decline of American cities, said, "Should you care whether urban decline continues? Even if you live in the suburbs you should care for several reasons. First, the symptoms of urban decline are spreading outward to suburbs. Two, the future welfare of suburbanites depends heavily on halting further urban decline, although they do not recognize it." Do you support Tony's comments, and how do they play into the Center's work? 

I fundamentally support Tony's comments. The future of urban and suburban America is interdependent, and our metropolitan areas are not going to be competitive without strong central cores. Also, our metropolitan areas aren't going to thrive without thinking about growth and development issues in a way that enhances people's daily lives. Many of the challenges we face as a country—immigration, poverty, economic growth, and education—are concentrated in our central cities and older suburbs. That's where we have the school problem. That's where poverty is concentrated.

At the same time, our cities and older suburbs have assets and strengths that are basically being ignored. We lose incredible opportunities as the government and private sectors fail to tap into the enormous economic potential, not only of these places but also of the people who live there. 

We have not thought about these issues in an integrated way. We have a fragmented and balkanized government system which does not have strong roots at the metropolitan level. And we don't consider how most of these issues and challenges cross jurisdictional lines. The federal and the state government have an enormous opportunity—as they've demonstrated in transportation policy and environmental policy—to help set the rules of the game so that we can think about these issues in a larger context. 

Some suggest that the taxpayer revolt initiatives in California further undermine the capacity of local and metropolitan governments to be a player at the table by centralizing tax collecting authority in the state or at the ballot box. How has this affected your Center's thinking about the future role of cities and metropolitans in shaping their own destinies? 

It's important to realize that we cannot generalize about cities in this country. There are some very disparate metropolitan experiences. Some of those experiences are rooted in the market, where cities have historic economic strengths that differ from other places. They're rooted in corporate and political leadership which might distinguish one place from another. And they're rooted in fiscal, land use and other different types of frameworks within which these cities operate. 

So, one of the Center's challenges is to try to work through and develop a national urban policy that on one level can distill the common urban trends and themes, but on another level reflect the great diversity that exists in our country. The type of issues you describe reflect that diversity, and to act as if the diversity doesn't exist—as if all cities were on a level playing field, with the same governing structure and relationship to their states—is not a helpful mentality and detracts from serious structural reform.

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Well, what is the role or potential role of state fiscal policy in incentivizing or disincentivizing metropolitan or regional governance? 

There are several different avenues that states might want to pursue. One is tax base sharing, the model used in Minneapolis to reduce the fiscal inequities plaguing many cities. However, tax base sharing is not a panacea. For the most part, it does not deal with land-use issues. Also, by itself, it will not curb explosive growth and development. 

One must also look beyond state fiscal policy to federal tax and spending programs to ascertain, in a very measured and objective way, their net effect on growth and development within metropolitan areas. And you can do this without getting hung up on the issue of what comes first: the market, consumer preference, or government policy. We need to understand, in a very frank and honest way, how and where our government money is being spent, and what the impact of our regulatory regimes is. That applies to the federal level as well as the state level. 

In banking and in housing in the mid-'70s, we required financial institutions, most depository institutions, to disclose their lending—by space, race, income, and ethnicity. That type of open access to information does not exist for most spending programs, tax expenditures or obviously regulatory regimes. If we're going to have meaningful conversations about how we enhance equity and attain more responsible growth and development, we need to, at a minimum, uncover the effects of our existing policies. Reforms that are developed in the absence of that information will not have much effect. 

Let me ask you to comment on a quote from Peter Gordon of USC who spoke in Oregon in February regarding the positive effects of sprawl. The quote goes, "Growth gets a bad rap both when it happens and when it stops. In either case intelligent discussions must take place if sound policy choices are to be made. Getting the facts right is a good beginning. So much of the so-called new urbanism and the compact city movement rests on wishful thinking and the arrogance of social engineers who override individual preferences." Your comments, Bruce.

I think Peter is right in that we need to understand what the growth and development patterns are in metropolitan areas around the country. And we need to understand the costs and benefits of those development patterns in an objective way. My sense is that the costs out­weigh the benefits. But again, we shouldn't be making this decision based on anecdotal information or on our gut—we should be basing the decision to the greatest extent possible on empirical analysis that holds muster. 

And there are some studies—they tend to be fragmented and not shared widely—which answer some of these questions, particularly from the cost perspective. Examples include the fiscal unsustainability of continued road expansion and the loss of productivity that emerges from traffic congestion. But as a matter of course we do need to get our empirical ducks in a row. We do need to understand, on a very basic level, the benefits and drawbacks of these growth and development patterns. 

Would you give us an overview of what you hope to accomplish by partnering with the Center for Neighborhood Technology on the Metropolitan Initiative and symposium you're bringing together on November 12? 

There have been a series of regional forums that were held throughout the country to discuss the potential role of the federal government in enhancing metropolitan collaboration and solutions. In Washington on November 12, we are trying to bring people together who participated in those regional forums. We want to understand what actions they believe would be appropriate for the federal government to take or to stop taking—the do no harm option. Also, we wish to begin distilling a consensus on a series of policy options and reforms that federal decision makers can consider. 

Ultimately, the federal government needs to respond to the innovation, creativity and experimentation that is bubbling up all around the country. The federal government should not dictate or come up with a series of responses to regional solutions on its own. It should be in a listening mode and try to derive policy implications from what is already happening out there. That's the hope, that's the goal, that's the mission here—to try to help build a locally generated, community-grown set of policy reforms that the federal government can consider. 

And lastly, if we're talking a year from now, what will constitute success?

Success exists at several different levels. Any of us can conjure up both incremental and systemic policy reforms that relate to governance, information policy, regulatory revision, and so on. At a larger level, success comes when federal and state decision makers begin to understand the place as well as the metropolitan consequences of their actions in terms of existing and future programs and policies. 

We have ignored place for decades. We have nationalized a whole series of domestic issues and have refused to understand their disparate impacts on different cities and metropolitan areas—and we have done that to our detriment. Obviously, we need to move on to a series of incremental and systemic reforms, but ultimately we need to think in a fundamentally different way about these places where we live. 

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