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Bruce Katz: L.A. Is Coming Into Its Own

You could say Bruce Katz is an expert on cities—all cities. The vice president of the Brookings Institution is the founder and co-director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and a contributor to The Atlantic Cities, which explores the ways in which neighborhoods shape the global economy and culture. He’s also recently written a book with Brookings Fellow Jennifer Bradley called The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile EconomyIn it Katz argues that metro areas retain enormous power—both political and financial—and that city governments can solve problems the federal government today cannot. Curious what he had to say about Los Angeles and our position in this bigger picture, we called his Washington D.C. office to find out.

In a Global-everything world, why do you think real power exists at a local level?
As the world becomes flat, what we’ve done in some respects is revalue places where assets and advantages are concentrated. Cities have always had an economic function going back millennia, but in today’s world they are even more important because they are the mash-up of the institutions and innovative firms and talented workers that drive economies forward. Cities are more connected than ever been before but what that has done is really reinforce the power of place and the importance of proximity.

Thanks to our city charter, the office of the mayor of Los Angeles is not as powerful as that of other cities, like New York. How might that affect our ability to follow the civic trends you’re seeing elsewhere?
Well cities are not just governments, they are networks of leaders. I’ve worked with mayors who were “weak power mayors” and I’ve worked with mayors who were “strong power mayors” and frankly, the most important thing today for many mayors is not just how you deal with the city council or how you deal with city agencies, but how you deal with a broader network of institutions and leaders that help produce your economy and in many respects co-govern your place—heads of universities, heads of metropolitan associations and chambers, philanthropies, unions. Successful mayors or elected officials at the local level really need to use their informal power to convene and have multiple stakeholders coproduce solutions and co-execute initiatives.

It sounds like you’re a big fan of private-public partnerships.
That’s how cities prosper and thrive. A lot of times we talk about private-public partnerships as if they are just financing mechanisms to get a deal done, but actually they are the way in which cities operate. It’s why when the federal government shuts down as it basically has now because it is completely mired in gridlock, cities still function.

Speaking of our mayor, in his first month in office, Mayor Eric Garcetti held public office hours, created a Mayor’s Help Desk inside City Hall, asked city managers to reapply for their jobs, called for an investigation into the LADWP’s sick-pay policy, and hosted a Government 101 session to bring community activists into the fold. What do you make of his early moves?
Well the other early move that you didn’t mention is he said he intends to name a chief sustainability officer, which is really important because sustainable growth and economic competitiveness go hand in hand. It’s very important to have an open, transparent, inclusive government because for many people, government is far removed and they don’t understand the role it plays, so I commend him on those moves. I think those are the kind of 21st century moves that we need.

Are there other things Eric Garcetti should be doing to maximize his political power and the growth of Los Angeles?
New mayors have just been through a political campaign, so they need to take a breath and they need to get their staff organized and set the broader strategies for their tenure. He’s obviously been doing those things. I think the bottom line for American cities is, if you want to thrive you need to pay attention to several things: Is your work force skilled and educated for the jobs that actually exist? There’s still a lot of manufacturing in Los Angeles and still a lot of technology jobs in Los Angeles. Are your high schools and your community colleges supplying workers to those forces? Also, infrastructure: [Former Mayor] Villaraigosa made I think enormous strides on infrastructure, particularly around transit with Measure R. Can you build on that success? Roads, transit, port, airport, energy distribution, water and sewers—those are the infrastructures that make cities move and thrive. Lastly, innovation: Are you an innovative economy? Are your research institutions and major sectors of the economy constantly pushing the envelope? If not, someone else will, either in the United States or abroad. My sense is Mayor Garcetti and the other business civic leaders understand that. The question is what will be the game changing initiatives that evolve in Los Angeles over the next several years that looking back 30 years from now, folks will say really helped put us on a new course.

What about everyday citizens? What can we do to keep L.A. competitive like the thriving cities you’re studying?
Individual citizens can do many things. They can voice their support or opposition. They can participate, not just in elections but between elections, and become informed and energetic citizens. At the neighborhood level they can be a major part of growing livable, walkable, quality communities. So much of what we want in the United States today, particularly with our demographic shifts, is to build communities where we’re not spending an hour-and-a-half in the car, which isolates us from our family and undermines our economic competitiveness. The laying of a backbone of transit in Los Angeles, which is one of the most residentially dense metropolitan areas in the country, I think creates an opportunity to grow a very different physical space in Los Angeles. But this is not jus the work of planners, it’s the work of citizens. I tend to think of Wilshire Boulevard and other corridors as the main corridors of Los Angeles. So what does Wilshire Boulevard look like 25 years from now?

I was going to mention that L.A. is also unlike other cities in that, while it does have a downtown, it lacks a traditional city center. Some argue our corridors are the city’s center. But what does that mean for our future?
Well in many ways you’re polycentric. Many places are becoming like Los Angeles in that way, frankly. Think of Washington D.C. area—we have our downtown, but we also have these suburban nodes with employment and residents and retail. Having a polycentric, corridor-driven development pattern supported now by transit is a sign of things to come. That will change how your nodes develop. If the city uses transit well as it has been used in other places like Arlington, Virginia, you can grow a development pattern that’s more competitive, sustainable, and even inclusive.

Speaking of transit, extensions of our metro’s purple and expo lines are in the works. In addition to that, the new Broad contemporary museum is slated to open downtown in 2014, there are plans to revitalize the Los Angeles River under review, and more. It seems the city is in many ways on the verge. Is this something you see as well?
Los Angeles is constantly reinventing itself. You’re a global city with a global brand. You have a whole set of innovative sectors. There’s so much connectivity in Los Angeles. It’s one of the most demographically diverse metropolitan centers in the United States. There’s just a constant sense of formative energy in Los Angeles, so what you are now seeing with cultural institutions and the infrastructure projects—the reimagining of the physical development of the city—is Los Angeles coming into its own. I think it’s an enormously exciting time for the city, which is not to say there are not challenges. You have a lot on your plate in Los Angeles, but things are moving forward and game-changing initiatives are getting done. That’s critical.


You mentioned our challenges. Traffic is a big one. So is our poorly funded public education system. What do you think is L.A.’s greatest weakness?

I think the greatest challenge that every metro is facing in the United States is how to educate our young so they can participate fully in the economy and realize their own individual potential. That means we need a broader vision of what education is in this century. If we were smart, we could reorient a portion of our high schools so that kids going through those schools would come out with skills necessary to participate in the economy right away. We need a much bigger, more ambitious focus on what we used to call vocational education. This is Job Number 1, and it’s not something you delegate to your school system. It’s something all institutions and leaders need to engage in.

In a column in our August issue, architect Frank Gehry says “It’s easy from outside to portray us as La-La Land.” In actuality, we’re a leader of exports and home to many industries. What can Los Angeles do to be taken more seriously?
Maybe you should have a national public service commercial saying we’re no longer La-La-Land. Listen, there is always this misperception about cities. In the book we have a chapter partly about Portland, and everyone thinks of Portland as Portlandia—weird and crunchy. Well Portland doubled exports in the last decade because they are so proficient at computers and electronics and have created a platform for sustainable products and services. In the global economy today cities and metros need to think carefully about their brand and marketing, and to some extent you need to go counter to the conventional wisdom. You have unbelievable assets in Los Angeles, and that has been masked by the dominance of Hollywood and the reality of the location where you are situated. But that gives you an opportunity to have a contrarian brand and to begin to send a signal to the world: here’s the Los Angeles you don’t know.

Time to put you on the spot, then. How would you brand Los Angeles?
It is the land of production, innovation, and 21st century community.