When we look back on the final years of Obama’s 8-year presidency, it will appear obvious that America’s political landscape was in revolution. There is rising anger at injustice and inequality, covering a range of concerns including labour market regulation, policing, housing affordability and social mobility. But the US Federal Government is close to impotent in its ability to deliver the changes citizens are demanding.
Consider that to get through the President’s major policy initiative of healthcare access and affordability, Federal Government was forced to shut down for 16 days while politicians slogged it out in the Capitol Building. The militarised policing of Ferguson has served to draw attention to a federal programme of hand-me-downs: hardware designed for war given for free to local police forces on condition it is deployed within a year. Even the normally mundane business of making debt repayments has been turned into a game of brinkmanship, animated by activists from a group named after the famous tax protest of 18th Century Boston.
Critics of American politics are increasingly vocal. In a damning critique of the impotence of national politics, Umair Haque asks whether America is fixable: “Is it broken like a fence—which can be mended? Or is it broken like an egg—which can’t?”. In this context it is US city governments, many burdened with their own challenges and pressures, that are surging to the front line to attempt to tackle major issues.
It has been clear for several decades that America’s sprawling metros would power economic growth - home to “edge cities”, repurposed downtowns and dense innovation districts. City Growth Commissioner Bruce Katz has highlighted the support for city growth coordinated by business, politics and civil society, calling it a metropolitan revolution. Across the US, cities are also now driving efforts to renew the function of government - to modernise and lead a modern democracy.
Start in Detroit, and you’ll see a political system in need of drastic change. One year on from the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, the path to a sustainable economic future is narrow and contentious. Residents behind on bills are currently fighting a programme of disconnections by the city-owned water utility, which the UN called a human rights violation. New investment in downtown Detroit, and a celebration of the city’s grassroots activism (as in the new Apple ad), is welcome. But as well as better city management, “a new urban social compact is desperately needed” to connect residents to economic opportunities in the city-region. Car manufacturers still employ 130,000 in Detroit’s suburbs, and were successfully bailed out by the federal government - loaned $81bn in 2009 to survive through the recession. As I’ve argued before, it was political geography which bankrupted Detroit, in the failure to grow political constituencies to match evolving economic geography at the metro scale.
In Seattle, legislation passed in June this year approved a rise in the city-wide minimum wage (incrementally over the next few years) to $15 per hour, more than double the federal legal requirement to pay $7.25 (£4.34). A broad movement in the city has campaigned for this several years. A month earlier in the US Congress an initiative to raise the federal minimum wage - or, more precisely, restore its declining purchasing power in real terms - was blocked by filibuster by Republican opposition.
As KPMG highlighted recently, even in conservative states such as Oklahoma City, residents have voted for tax increases to fund civic infrastructure to halt decline. In the UK, such responsiveness is stifled: local authorities operate in a financial strait jacket. They can’t borrow to make investments; they must balance their books in each financial year. 90% of taxes are collected by central government, with complex formulae to determine local grants. And UK government recently made it illegal to raise Council tax by more than 2% without a local referendum.
Last week, 30 US cities, including 4 of the 5 largest US cities, decided to more formally orchestrate action, committing themselves to a shared policy agenda. The Cities of Opportunity Task Force commits them to address income inequality, provide better early years education and childcare, and ensure inclusive principles apply to fibre-optic broadband cables. According to a member of the Seattle team developing minimum wage proposals, “the cities of the United States are beginning to web up into an archipelago of policy experimentation and problem-solving.”
Such moves counter concerns that while the US economy is growing in aggregate, growth industries are not delivering inclusive growth at the local level. Clashes in the San Francisco Bay Area have become more common, as old city neighbourhoods feel the vast wealth of Silicon Valley’s tech employees is having negative impacts. Richard Florida, champion of the “creative class” theories that prompted “culture-led regeneration” of the last ten years, has conceded that:
“The knowledge economy powers growth and generates class and geographic inequality at the same time...while less-skilled service and blue-collar workers also earn more money in knowledge-based metros, those gains disappear once their higher housing costs are taken into account.”
Protests in and around San Francisco have focused on private bus networks established by tech companies (source: Siliconbeat)
In the UK, the debate on “good growth” has - tellingly - played out at a national scale, and often boils down to a question of whether London’s growth is good or bad for the UK’s other cities. This prompts several oversights - most notably the limited policies and powers, unique in the developed world, that local authorities have at their command.
As my colleague Ben Lucas has highlighted, city leadership on public policy in the UK is also taking on a new collaborative dimension. Ascendant groups include the Key Cities and the Cooperative Councils Innovation Network. Looking to 2015 and beyond, the new UK government will be disempowered by some form of devolution for Scotland, while likely needing to govern (again) with slim party majorities and through coalitions. It’s an opportunity and a necessity for cities to step up.
In the US, it will take truly epic leadership in 2016 for a new president and congress to restore faith in national government machinery, following the faded excitement over Obama, his ambition stifled. America’s citizenry are increasingly vocal about inequality and injustice, but it is doubtful that federal politics will be able to enact change. The reason the current urban uprising is so potent is because movements from Ferguson to Wall Street are taking on fundamental and structural issues, and thereby questioning the implicit ‘social contract’ which has long underpinned US political economy: it’s population is often led to believe it has the world’s strongest social mobility when it is in fact among the worst. Levels of inequality are far beyond what people perceive, aspire to, or are even capable of measuring.
Income mobility is variable between US cities (source: The New York Times)
For now, citizens may well look to the United Cities of America to drive progress. And so we may have passed a tipping point of the metropolitan revolution: the most ambitious and effective politicians will pursue city government careers rather than head to the nation’s capital.
In both the US and UK, achieving inclusive city growth - the apparent goal of this generation of revolutionaries - will require adopting a new scale of focus, redistributing powers and responsibilities between national and local governments.
Jonathan Schifferes is research lead for the City Growth Commission hosted at the RSA (@JSchifferes).
This article was originally published by the City Growth Commission. Follow the Commission's work on Twitter @CityGrowthCom