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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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Urban Views: Bruce Katz

Back when Bruce Katz was in college (Brown '81), the big movie was Blade Runner with its theme of apocalyptic escape from the city. In the 90’s, he says, “the most popular T.V. shows were Sex in the City, Friends, Seinfeld and Frasier that characterized cities as hip and cool places to live. It was a 180 degree turn.”

It’s a trend that has only gained force as cities grow in both stature and  population--and that’s good news for urban policy expert Bruce Katz who has spent his career revitalizing cities. 

“The art of policy is to build places that are livable and distinct and special,” he said during an appearance in Pittsburgh in October to accept the 2006 Heinz Award for Public Policy. At the same time, he said, cities need to maximize the potential of people.

As the founder and Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, Katz received the Heinz Award for his work in advocating for cities through smart growth, innovative housing and transportation, green space preservation, better schools and good jobs.

It's a fitting tribute for a man who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, at a time when the suburbanization of America was in full force. The urban setting served him well, inspiring a lifelong passion for cities and shaping a career path leading to senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and to his  current position at the Brookings Institute.

“Perhaps better than anyone, Bruce Katz understands the importance of thriving urban centers in America,” says Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation which bestows the annual awards in honor of her late husband, Senator John Heinz, in five categories of interest to him. The others are Arts and Humanities, Environment, the Human Condition, and Technology, the Economy and Employment. 

While vibrant cities are the lifeblood of prosperous economies, “through the last half-century, many older cities and suburbs have withered as resources were poured into new developments, which have sprawled across the rural landscape and, in doing so, harmed the natural environment and isolated communities from one another,” says Heinz.

Setting Policy

To combat sprawl and a multitude of other sins committed against cities over the years, Katz, who earned his law degree from Yale, argues for reform. “Our policies need to change. We’ve made progress in fits and starts,” he notes, citing the demolition of elevated freeways along waterfronts and failed public high-rise housing built in the 50’s.

As the architect of Hope VI, a federal program to demolish and redevelop public housing, Katz is encouraged by the progress in undoing the misguided policies of the past. And yet. "For the most part federal and state policies still tend to have a fairly significant suburban and exurban tilt and they haven’t been revised to reflect the new competitive potential of cities," he says.

In a 2006 report, The State of Cities, Katz blames rigid zoning and building codes developed ages ago that now inhibit necesary redevelopment in cities, and state and federal subsidies that support expansion of housing and roads at the metropolitan fringe. "The whole country to some extent is paying a price for this not just economically but also environmentally," he says. "We have a long way to go."

Changing with the Times

For the scholar who recently declared the 21st Century as the Urban Age, he's got his work cut out for him. "The idea that I most focus on is that cities matter and the country is going through enormous demographic, economical and cultural change,” says Katz. “All the changes put together revalue cities. We’ve tended to treat cities as anachronistic places that were built for a different era and different kind of economy. As we move more toward the knowledge economy, we see that cities have an enormous economic and fiscal value.”

One highly positive sign is the shift in thinking about cities among senior policy makers and youth. “Most importantly there’s a shift among young people because the attitudes of cities have changed among youth,” says Katz. And while cities have become cool again, some, such as Portland, are cooler than others. “In terms of smart growth, where there’s more reinvestment to the city and less sprawl, Portland is the poster child of smart growth in the U.S,” says Katz.

 The key to its success? Continued growth in the periphery and a whole set of policies for reinvesting in cities. “Very few places have gone that route. Maryland and Michigan and Pennsylvania have begun to focus on transportation policies that ‘fix it first’,” he says, which include measures such as stopping expansion at the periphery of cities that fuels excess sprawl.

And cities have done a good job of getting their own act together, notably in the reduction in crime which has had a dramatic effect, and the delivery of basic services.

Seize the Dayton

 As an example of his advocacy, in a report Katz authored called “Seizing City Assets: Ten Steps to Urban Land Reform,” he argues for a citywide, collective action approach to reclaiming vacant lots. Katz cites two model examples in Pittsburgh: the Pittsburgh Technology Center built on the former site of the J& L Steel mill; and Cool Space Locator, an innovative group “committed to the mission of no more empty buildings in the city core.”

Both represent examples that breathe new life into cities instead of fueling growth in the exurbs. “Sprawl,” Katz says solemnly, “is unconscionable for environmental and other reasons.” Pointing to the “classic lag between change on the ground and policy change”, he argues for greater acceleration of reform particularly at the federal and state levels to combat it.

But the time may be right for a change in direction. “We’re on the verge of big changes,” says Katz who names a list of recently elected officials who could turn things around: Governor Eliot Spitzer in New York, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, among them. Both Democrat and Republican, these leaders, are focused on city revitalization and smart growth.” If they’ve been mayors, all the better,” says Katz. “Those who have been mayors are a step ahead of the game. Mayors just intuitively understand the value of cities and adjust policies.”

They understand, for instance, that cities today and in the future require more density, transit and mixed use to be successful. Over the next 50 to 75 years, American cities will look more like European cities, Katz predicts, although they'll lack the density. Environmental issues, he says, are just one of the driving forces that are going to reward denser, smarter, more environmentally-friendly urban and metropolitan development.

European cities, he points out, also went through industrial shocks in the 70’s and the 80’s just like Pittsburgh and Detroit in recent years. On the upside,  these cities have revived quicker and sprawled less, containing growth by investing heavily in waterfronts and city transit to channel development.  

Each city, of course, is unique in its assets. “Pittsburgh is really quite different from a lot of midwestern cities because of the heavy concentration of world-class higher-ed institutions like CMU, Duquesne, and Pitt,” says Katz. “It’s a dramatically beautiful city because of the confluence and topography of the region. What’s critical for Pittsburgh is to understand that these physical and institutional assets are really its foundation on which to build.”


 Tracy Certo is editor of Pop City.


Photos:

Bruce Katz

The "T" light rail (public transit)

School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), Downtown

Pittsburgh Technology Center

Katz at Heinz Awards

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene
except Bruce Katz
© Jim Harrison
and Heinz Awards
© Rocky Raco

 

 

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