Saturday, February 17, 2018
Many of America's cities are struggling. Once-strong communities have experienced post-industrial collapse, rampant unemployment, and brain drain. Crumbling infrastructure, the opioid crisis, and a host of lesser pathologies have contributed to instability and frustration among citizens and leaders. In the face of these challenges, the available policy solutions often seem unsatisfactory. Some people say we need a new federal fix -- a renovated set of Great Society programs, perhaps, or a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. It may be that fresh answers can be found among the "localists" -- intellectual and wonkish conservatives and liberals who have found, at least when it comes to problems, some common ground. Inspired by such writers as Wendell Berry, Jane Jacobs, and Wilhelm Röpke, localism generally asserts that federal oversight is usually too heavy-handed, uniform, and cronyist to serve local communities well.
Organizations like Smart Growth America, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and Strong Towns have advocated for a small-scale renewal of urban communities and the built environment. In books like Why Place Matters, on websites like Front Porch Republic and CityLab, and in magazines like Yes! and the American Conservative, journalists and academics have explored how localism can help solve social ills and empower citizens.
For some of these thinkers, localism is a decidedly libertarian idea: a means for individualism and innovation to flourish. For others, such as Berry, a novelist and farmer, the idea is more conservationist and traditional -- localists ought to preserve and protect their communities from abuse, unbridled change, and federal hubris. Still others suggest that localism is truly the new progressivism: They believe that real power and progress can only be achieved through autonomous localities, as local governments working in tandem with private philanthropists and powerful CEOs draw their communities into the increasingly globalized economy.
The New Localism, a new book by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, fits best in the last category: They present a variety of city-building strategies that emphasize the grassroots and small-scale, advancing broadly conservative principles of subsidiarity but giving them a progressive spin. Katz is a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former co-director of its program on metropolitan policy; Nowak is a fellow at Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and the creator of the Reinvestment Fund, one of the largest community investment institutions in the nation.
Katz and Nowak counter the top-down, federally run approach to governance we've become so accustomed to over the last half-century or more, suggesting that cities do not need the feds and Washington politicians to save them. With D.C.'s deadlock and hyperpartisanship come an opportunity: "The ability to get things done has shifted from command-and-control systems to the collective efforts of civil society, government, and private institutions."
The book covers a great many subjects -- housing, finance, jobs, community renewal, and more -- but several themes remain constant. First, the authors argue that local government allows for flexible, fluid interactions between private and public institutions, thus creating a more fruitful method of governance and reform than our current top-down model. They put great stock in the mediating institutions and spirit of volunteerism that Alexis de Tocqueville once saw as integral to the American experience.
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