Book Review- The New Localism-: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism

The New Localism. Where to begin? I know, near the beginning.

From Page 17.

“New Localism is a problem-solving practice and governing philosophy for the twenty first century. It emerged out of pragmatism- out of the need to rescue communities in decline- but is increasingly focused on linking local communities to the growth sectors of the global economy in ways both inclusive and environmentally sustainable. It embraces the devolution of responsibility and reflects the multidimensional nature of how problems are solved over the long term. It s success will require the development of new norms of growth, governance and finance.”

The book’s authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak argue that the staggering hostilities in national politics brought on by hyper partisanship and outdated service delivery mechanisms have unwittingly hatched a framework for local problem solving that is dynamic, pragmatic and innovative. “As politics has become nationalized, problems solving has become localized.” They coin this term, The New Localism.

Bruce KatzCiting examples in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Copenhagen and elsewhere, Katz and Nowak tell the stories of an increasingly effective civic response to economic issues, affordable housing, environmental challenges and other modern ordeals. It follows a growing belief that leaders at the local levels of government are better positioned to solve problems than their state and federal counterparts. “Tackling complex issues such as climate change or social mobility or the deployment and employment of disruptive technologies should work toward solutions that are integrated and innovative rather than dictatorial and prescriptive.” Word.

Innovators are paramount to the book’s premise. Civic leaders, some in local government and others who aren’t, are building platforms from which the best ideas are nourished and better public policies are generated. The results of these “micro” level programs are having large impacts in cities.  The authors point to the promise of a small capital fund in Kansas City that compiles early stage capital for local entrepreneurs, the role of the Kresge Foundation in stabilizing Detroit’s public schools and a public-private effort in Copenhagen to fund downtown infrastructure. There are scores of other examples in the book as well.

As an exercise, contrast these victories with the federal government’s handling of the nation’s $2 trillion infrastructure shortfall.  (Spoiler: the proposed federal effort is miniscule and likely not to pass anyway)

My personal view on what is taking place in civic life today matches what the authors submit in great detail throughout this book. I offer this anecdote to illustrate the point. I get to work with some of the brightest minds in local government, many of whom go on to state and federal elected positions. Almost without exception, they are taken aback by the partisan rancor and the inability of those inside the systems to move the needle on important topics. They are frustrated when contrasting their experiences with what they lived at the local level, where getting things done was the universal goal. Several have moved on from public life, all together.

I highly recommend the book for anyone who reads this blog. It provides an important baseline for a movement that promises to replace large scale nationalism as the paradigm for economic and social change with one that relies on greater local innovation, more democratic decision making and an increased emphasis on civic life.

This book, in short, is a blueprint for change. To quote the authors one last time:

“This is how we rebuild nations and repair the world: from the ground up.”


*all bold quotes are from the book