Katz: “Break Some China” to Build Birmingham as Economic Power

A national advocate who believes cities must lead economic development and change dysfunctional politics visited Birmingham Thursday, and this is what he quickly noted:

A downtown still anchored by handsome old buildings, something gone in many places.

The rail lines.

“Crazy amounts” of affordable housing.

The presence of a major health and science research university.

Challenges, including addressing poverty and identifying local companies known worldwide for their work.

The observations were from Bruce Katz, a vice president of Brookings Institution, and founder and director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy program. He and Jennifer Bradley, also of Brookings, wrote: The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.

He was invited to Birmingham by Leadership Birmingham, the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health. Over two days he was scheduled to meet with local elected officials, government administrators, university and corporate leaders.

The Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area is the forty-ninth largest in the country, in the middle of a list of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, the focus of Katz’s message and program.

Speaking to a Leadership Birmingham event Friday, Katz outlined his call to action for Birmingham and other metropolitan areas.

Metro areas are the “true geography” of most Americans’ lives now and are the main part of the American economy, he said. They should think of themselves as primary, independent players on the global stage, building the leadership and economy that defines their place.

“Stop thinking someone else is going to do it,” Katz said. “…Set your vision. Become the best version of who you are. …Find your game-changer,” Katz said.

No two cities are alike, he said. “Driving, charismatic personalities” in a city’s leadership are a plus, but not a necessity. “Collaborative leadership” across a region’s political and geographic lines is a core principle for effective action. But even this may have to come later in the development cycle, he said.

“It’s crucial that you find something you can do together and have some wins. …Break some china. … Begin to experiment,” Katz advised. “…You’ve got to do something. Then people who wouldn’t talk to you will be begging you to work with them.”