This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE.
In July 2013, Detroit became the largest American city to ever file for bankruptcy. Once the epicenter of American innovation and industry, the city was failing on all fronts. At over16 percent, the unemployment rate was more than double the national average. The city ranked among the country’s most dangerous, and Detroiters waited an average of 58 minutes for police to respond to emergencies. As Detroit’s financial stability deteriorated, so did the city itself. Approximately 40 percent of the city’s streetlights didn’t work in 2013 and 78,000 structures had been abandoned. Even Detroiters had given up on the city. At its peak during the 1950s, 1.8 million people called Detroit home, making it the fourth-largest city in America. At the time of bankruptcy in 2013, Detroit’s population had plummeted to only 700,000 residents.
But Detroit isn’t alone. Many of America’s cities are facing challenges of deteriorating infrastructure, waning (or conversely, overgrowing) population, chronic homelessness, cyclical poverty, broken education systems, government corruption, and inefficient public transit. Cities are either growing too quickly without the infrastructure to support the influx or losing the population necessary to support their fundamental institutions.
While struggling cities see their populations falling, many of the country’s most prosperous cities are struggling with huge influxes of population. In the last decade and especially since the economy began to recover, Americans are moving out of the suburbs and back into cities. The 2013 Census found 2.3 million more people living in cities than in 2012. Though indicative of a stronger economy, this trend has presented challenges for growing urban areas. Jobs are harder to find. Public transportation systems built to accommodate a smaller population must adapt to the newcomers. More cars on the road means more congestion and pollution. Struggling to accommodate the influx of population, cities are growing just to keep up, but have lost a human element.
Ultimately, cities shouldn’t be about skyscrapers or rushing taxis. They should be designed for people. Cities represent a unique opportunity to impact millions of Americans’ lives at once. One in three Americans lives in the top ten most populated cities in the country (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Atlanta, and Boston). By addressing the problems faced by cities, we can address the problems faced by a majority of Americans. A city is the intersection of government, philanthropy, innovation, industry, and human capital. Harnessing the power of each of these players has the potential to create tangible impact.
As new urban challenges have emerged, so have new organizations committed to solving them. These organizations want to build strong urban centers capable of tackling challenges. They are attracting and supporting communities of entrepreneurs. And they are developing strong local leaders who are committed to their cities and upon whom citizens can trust.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) initiative is working to build a resilient urban infrastructure in cities around the world. 100 Resilient Cities is “dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.” So far, the organization has elected 64 cities to its cohort. Each city selected receives funding to elect what 100RC calls a “Chief Resilience Officer” and assistance in developing and implementing a resilience strategy. A resilient city is able to respond to adversity and overcome challenges, be it a natural disaster, an economic recession, or a change in demographics.
Even with a resilient infrastructure and support for entrepreneurs, no city can excel without the guidance and commitment of strong and effective local leaders. It is no secret that city leaders have long held a reputation for corruption. Developing strong, trustworthy leaders is the challenge that organizations like Cities of Service are taking on. Cities of Service focuses on implementing citizen-driven volunteer service projects, but it begins by recruiting and training mayors to be strong leaders and advocates in their communities.
Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville is a founding member of the Cities of Service coalition. Soon after bringing on a chief service officer for Nashville, Mayor Dean was faced with extensive flooding throughout Nashville. As a leader committed to citizen engagement and resiliency, Mayor Dean, along with Nashville’s chief service officer, was able to quickly mobilize thousands of volunteers from around the city to clear debris. Cities of Service aims to equip every city with a leader like Mayor Dean, someone who can both perform their job competently and motivate communities to take an active part in improving their cities. Cities of Service has proven the importance of strong local leadership, but also of engaging citizens to be active in their local communities and empowered to make change.
New Orleans, Louisiana was among the first cities selected as a Rockefeller Resilient City. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005 it left a ravaged and broken city in its path. In addition to the 1,833 lives lost during the storm, Katrina left 80 percent of New Orleans under water, resulted in a population decline of nearly 30 percent, and eliminated some 190,000 jobs. Many thought the city could never recover, but New Orleans has proven that it can rebuild — and is now stronger than ever.
At the heart of the recovery in New Orleans is a burgeoning community of entrepreneurs, who, attracted by the challenge the broken city presented, have come to call the city home. One organization that has long been at the forefront of the entrepreneurial movement in New Orleans is The Idea Village. The Idea Village is an incubator for new entrepreneurs, but is also working to develop leaders in the New Orleans community. Since 2009, organization has provided support to 3,411 entrepreneurs in New Orleans and their alumni have generated more than $105 million in economic impact in the area.
While The Idea Village has supported entrepreneurs who have created incredible economic value for the city, Tim Williamson, co-founder and CEO of The Idea Village, says that the organization is about more than just that: “The Idea Village was founded on the belief that entrepreneurship is an agent of change and creates the leaders that actually make communities strong.” In 2000, Williamson and his cofounders realized that New Orleans had lost “the type of leaders who knew how to build a resilient, innovative city.” They set out to shape an organization that would develop strong leaders who could take on the enormous challenges New Orleans faced.
Since Hurricane Katrina, Williamson says the attitude of New Orleanians has changed. In a way, he says, “The day after Katrina, everyone became an entrepreneur.” With the old political and business structures fractured, New Orleans had the opportunity to become a laboratory, equipped with the talent to solve even its most deeply rooted problems.
Tim Williamson believes that the key to resiliency in a city is a deep sense of place. To motivate people to be engaged in their communities and to want to improve their cities will require that we reconnect the city to the people and the people to the city. A resilient city is made up of people who feel a certain sense of ownership of that city and would do anything to keep it alive. They feel they have a stake in the future of the community. Williamson calls this a “culture of resilience.”
Yuval Levin, founding editor of National Affairs and one of the foremost leaders of the burgeoning reform conservatism movement, said it best: “The premise of conservatism has always been that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy—and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.” Cities are unique because they represent the entirety of that space. As conservatives, refocusing our efforts on cities not only aligns with our most basic values, it allows us to shape cities that actually work for the American people.
For much of recent electoral history, the left has dominated cities. In the 2012 presidential election, 27 of the 30 most populous cities in the country voted Democratic (the outliers: Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Fort Worth). But the growth of new, often market-driven urban reform organizations reveals that conservatives shouldn’t be so quick to cede cities. There is a place for conservatives in advocating for cities, and it is at the intersection of philanthropy, government, and business. Those on the right believe in promoting entrepreneurship, empowering leaders, and engaging a vibrant citizenry. The urban environment, more so than any other, provides a laboratory in which to test the innovative and restorative power of these concepts.
Conservatives already understand and appreciate the building blocks of a flourishing city. It’s time that we contribute our time, talents, and principles to the growing movement to revitalize America’s urban areas. The city-dwellers of this country — a growing population — deserve nothing less.
—Sophie Giberga is a senior studying economics and political science.
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