Our Towns, A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America

TitleOur Towns, A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America (2019)
AuthorJames & Deborah Fallows

Visiting towns across America by plane, the Fallows found communities confronting local problems head-on with hope, candor, compromise, pragmatism & determination, a story of regions, cities & towns transforming themselves in spite of toxic national politics.

Relevant trends:

Traditionally, federal government offered the best vehicle for solving intractable challenges (e.g., civil rights, public education, health care, clean air & water & interstate highways). However, the growing gap between federal dysfunction & faith in local governance is causing local leaders & governments to seize the initiative in confronting civic problems.

Local progress:

Shows, sports, tragedies & tweets have masked exciting progress in unexpected places. Like Louis Brandeis’ “laboratories of American democracy,” local governments have long served as civic labs for testing ideas, reforming institutions & achieving tangible civic progress (e.g., Cleveland’s Mayor Johnson in the early 20th Century). Localism offers real hope for overcoming national inertia on many issues (e.g., as demagogues fuel national divisions over immigration, many communities quietly welcome immigrants as assets).

Criteria for success:
  • Leadership – strong, energetic, creative, continuous & prominent local leadership with a deep sense of place, ownership & local patriotism
  • Collaboration – a proven commitment to working together, overcoming national political differences & building effective public-private partnerships that cut across bureaucratic barriers to leverage local assets & get things done
  • Vision – bold plans that inspire communities & offer tangible results
  • Civic narrative – clear, compelling & widely-accepted civic stories that help citizens grasp how today’s efforts support tomorrow’s vision
  • Openness – commitment to preventing brain-drain by attracting & engaging new leaders & residents, including immigrants
  • K-12 schools – distinctive, innovative K-12 schools
  • Higher education – strong, agile research university or community college playing greater roles in local civic affairs (e.g., economic development & K-12)
  • Downtown – Vibrant core areas with controlled car access, narrow streets, accessible retail, ample residences & appealing amenities (e.g., brewery, restaurants, coffee shops, bike trail, river walk, festivals, farmers market & baseball parks)
Sample success stories:
  • Columbus OH – focused civic leadership, clear vision, strong civic narrative, engaged university, vibrant downtown & voter support for government
  • Greenville SC – continuous local leadership, openness to emerging leaders, research university capacity, elementary engineering school program & impressive downtown
  • Fresno CA – openness to immigrants, appealing quality of life & joint computer training program (tech start-ups, local governments, colleges, schools & libraries)
  • Sioux Falls SD – strong civic narrative, appealing quality of life, openness to immigrants & vibrant downtown
  • Bend OR – strong civic narrative, appealing quality of life & effort to attract OSU branch
  • Burlington VT – openness to new people & vibrant downtown
Our Take:

With this book, the Fallows have given us a powerful antidote to our national dysfunction & an important contribution to civic progress. It not only chronicles the oft-unheralded efforts of optimistic local leaders driven to improve their communities, but demonstrates the exciting promise of local leadership, cooperation & action. Shifting our focus to local issues will free us to tackle problems & attain progress in more civilized, pragmatic ways.

The New Localism, How Cities can Thrive in the Age of Populism

TitleThe New Localism, How Cities can Thrive in the Age of Populism (2018)
AuthorBruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, The Brookings Institution
Defining features of new localism:
  • Global – continually promoting global perspectives, links & competitiveness
  • Self-reliant – relentless use of local leadership, institutions & resources to solve problems
  • Pragmatic – committed to focused, innovative & feasible problem-solving
  • Entrepreneurial – courage to reform institutions & leverage assets to seize opportunities
  • Futuristic – disciplined focus on long-term vision, strategies, investments & results
  • Collaborative – participatory, interactive & open civic dialogue & problem-solving
Relevant historical trends:
  • Though most of 20th Century, our reliance on federal & state government increased
  • During 1980s & Reagan’s New Federalism, federal government’s role began to wane
  • Since then, burgeoning federal debt has limited federal fiscal flexibility
  • In recent years, nationalization & toxicity of politics created need for new approach
Factors creating fertile conditions for New Localism:
  • Big socio-economic changes (e.g., demography, equity gaps, urbanism & globalism)
  • Fiscal stress & hyper-partisanship undermining faith in government top-down solutions
  • Rising anger toward global elites, civic institutions, immigrants & other groups
  • Growing embrace of faux populism & simplistic, short-sighted solutions
  • Countervailing search for new approach to governance & problem-solving
Sample New Localism success stories:
  • Pittsburgh – informal civic, business, labor, charity & university alliance spurred big civic investments (e.g., $1.5 billion via Pittsburgh Regional Asset District over 20 years)
  • Chattanooga – dynamic public-private collaboration produced tangible benefits (e.g., 140-acre Innovation District, high-speed Gig City network & smart energy grid
  • Indianapolis – networked governance model—city-county merger (Unigov) + formal civic group (Central Indiana Corporate Partnership)—provides regional platform for assessing problems, tapping assets (e.g., pension funds), crafting solutions & selling initiatives
  • Cleveland – Greater Cleveland Partnership (successor to foundation-funded Cleveland Tomorrow) has provided strategic leadership for region since 2004
  • St Louis – 501c3 entity created by academic, health & cultural entities to develop 200-acre innovation district (Cortex) with state & city support
  • Philadelphia – after 1990s Naval Yard closure, created public-private Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation to acquire Naval Yard, issue tax credits & tax-exempt bonds & spur renewal (e.g., over $1 billion in investments & 12,000 employees)

Copenhagen – created publicly-owned, privately-managed public asset corporation to acquire urban core area, update zoning, borrow funds, build transit line & other infrastructure & raise funds for future phases (e.g., harbor renewal & transit expansion)

Outlook for New Localism:
  • Populistic anger could increase pressures for replacing or reforming civic institutions
  • Outdated, top-down ways could give way to new, localized models of governance & finance sharing power & responsibilities across civic networks
  • Metro areas that modernize structures, build new civic networks, monetize assets & unlock capital could provide models for other areas
  • New Localism could offer most radical restructuring of federalism since New Deal
New Localism best practices:
  • Organization – create formal, well-funded civic network structure to facilitate networked local governance across boundaries (e.g., region, metro, city, CBD & district)
  • Governance – restructure government, unify public asset management, create new structures to finance & carry out initiatives & strengthen public-private partnerships
  • Collaboration – organize diverse stakeholder group, build community engagement mechanism & develop neighborhood service agenda & initiatives
  • Diagnosis – Assess current situation & local institutions, prioritize problems to be solved, define risks & identify potential improvement opportunities
  • Planning – forge ambitious vision based on risks & opportunities, define measurable outcomes & adopt long-term investment strategies
  • Marketing – build community-wide consensus for change, nurture collaborative culture & aggressively promote initiatives, locally & globally (e.g., innovation districts)
Our Take:

For anyone who cares about government & community progress, we urge you to read this important & timely book. It provides a great foundation for understanding the forces contributing to New Localism as well as best practices & proven strategies for implementing New Localism as a governing philosophy in your state, region or community.

Our View of Localism – Part 1

Since 2016, conservatives and liberals alike have championed the promise of “New Localism” or “Localism.” David Brooks, Stephen Goldsmith, Richard Florida, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, to name a few, have extolled its virtues. What is it? The New Localism (also Localism) is a practical data-driven strategy for solving civic problems from the ground up.…