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Designing for the Metropolitan Revolution

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Across the U.S., mayors, educators, philanthropists, business and community leaders and others who govern the nation's cities and metropolitan areas are taking on the big issues that the federal government won't, or can't, solve. They are reshaping our economy and living at the vanguard of public policy work, foreshadowing a future in which cities play a more central role in influencing the direction of society and culture.

That's the premise of a new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, on the growth and networking of cities. The book chronicles the way metro leaders across the country are addressing major economic and social challenges and recognizing that Washington is not coming to the rescue. A lack of central leadership has forced mayors and city governments to step up and use local resources to solve regional problems. The good news for them is that private sector companies are increasingly flocking to cities, paving the way for a new generation of public-private cooperation.

The book's author, Bruce Katz, interviewed me for the chapter titled "The Rise of Innovation Districts." This chapter remarks on the increased concentration of research and development districts inside urban areas. It should come as no surprise that more companies are flocking to cities. A city address gives workers prime access to all the amenities of urban life and can serve as a powerful recruitment tool for top talent. In our knowledge economy, intra-organization collaboration alone won't solve pressing issues. Companies need their work force to function as part of a larger urban fabric, exchanging knowledge with people from a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences. This is why San Francisco has overtaken suburban Silicon Valley in terms of start-up energy and why old-school places like Chicago's North Loop are leaving distant suburban campuses empty.

The dynamic nature of urban environments is also influencing how we design workspaces themselves. The workplace of the future is a hub of social connectivity -- much like a city. Leading companies are embracing urban design principles in their office spaces, with large, open floor plans scaled through a network of neighborhoods, streets, parks, and landmarks. These spaces can be easily reconfigured to create dense, collaborative spaces for new teams and projects, adapting in real-time to the changing needs of an organization and its workforce. The rigid, hierarchical workplaces of yesterday are to cul-de-sacs and strip malls as today's workplaces are to bustling, meaningful urban spaces. But too often, the innovative thinking going on inside of our workplaces is not translating outside our workplaces.

While most high-profile Silicon Valley campuses -- Apple, Google, Facebook -- are isolated, self-contained, private worlds, understandable considering their settings, their urban counterparts -- Twitter, Pinterest, Square, Salesforce -- have had less of an impact on transforming San Francisco than their arrival first trumpeted. Yes, they are occupying formerly vacant space in marginal neighborhoods, but their investments in The City are really investments in themselves. Are they really investing in The City's fabric and contributing to urban transformation? And is The City mistaking the number of cranes on the skyline for real progress towards solving some of the region's most intractable problems?

Moving forward, it's critical to consider the implications The Metropolitan Revolution holds for the Bay Area. If people and organizations clearly crave the energy, creativity, and connectivity inherent to urban areas, how can our patchwork of local governments address continued economic growth while mitigating its environmental and transportation problems? How can nine counties, encompassing dozens of jurisdictions and 8 million people, work together more effectively as stewards of an increasingly interwoven economy? Clearly, Washington and Sacramento are not going to create the optimal conditions for competing on the world stage, so how can Bay Area business leaders join with the local government to address the big problems like climate change, income inequality, immigration reform, and transportation that must be solved to keep this region prosperous? Rather than short-term regional wins like the Super Bowl and the thousands of condos now under construction, we need to start thinking about our own Metropolitan Revolution, one where we think long-term about what's going to keep this region the undisputed leader of what's next.