Expert: Philadelphia Is a Model City

Philly, meet the man who sees the beauty in your potential

Philadelphia’s had a bad rap for so long (crummy sports teams, loutish fans, corrupt politicians and so much litter), many who live here have turned it into a badge of honor. But at least one man (not named Michael Nutter) believes Philly’s much better than its lousy rep suggests. His name is Bruce Katz of venerable Washington, D.C., think tank the Brookings Institution. Katz says Philly’s doing pretty great, and he’s rolling up to The Academy of Natural Sciences for tonight’s talk, The Metropolitan Revolution: Philadelphia as a Model for the Nation, to tell us why. He’ll be taking part in a panel, moderated by Next City’s Diana Lind, that’ll include Mayor Nutter, Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, and Jennifer Bradley, with whom Katz co-wrote the just-published The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (Brookings Institution Press). We caught up with Katz on the phone yesterday afternoon to discuss Philly’s finer points.

What do you see as the thing that distinguishes Philadelphia from other cities? What makes us awesome?

Bruce Katz: Size, for one thing. You’re the fifth largest city in the country, the sixth largest metro, and the seventh largest economy. You’re in a strategic location between New York and Washington. You’re also one of the few locations connected to others by inter-city rail. Then there’s your history; I was just now two blocks away from where the Declaration of Independence was created.

It’s safe to say that lots of Philadelphians don’t feel that way about their city. How does Philly think of itself right now, and how can it improve that perception?

BK: Philadelphia, like many American cities, is undergoing a process of transitioning from one kind of economy to another kind of economy; that is a painful exercise. Post-recession, we’re in an incredibly dynamic period. There was a period where the U.S. convinced itself that it would transition to a different kind of innovation economy, stressing consumption. Philadelphia, like many cities, was assessing itself on those sorts of national metrics and post-recession, we’re understanding that we need a broader set of measures, which have more to do with long-term, resilient growth — things like production, innovation, sustainability, exports and foreign investment.

What do you see as Philadelphia’s assets? And are they being handled as well as they could be?

BK: You’ve got a large innovative base, but the real question now is how to unlock the innovation around energy and healthcare. Philadelphia also has great historical inheritance, amenities that you’ve inherited from prior generations. Now you have to figure out how to repurpose and re-brand them so that Philadelphia is seen as a place that’s able to compete with other major American metros.

How is Denver, which you profile in your book, relevant to Philly?

BK: Denver sits in multiple counties, which are fragmented suburban municipalities. What Denver understood 30 years back was that it needed to collaborate to compete. Each suburban county couldn’t thrive by itself. The same thing applies to Philadelphia. For long-term success, you need strong metropolitan networks that can be nurtured over time.

You don’t profile Philadelphia in your book. Why not?

BK: We mention Philadelphia, but we don’t profile it. I’m impressed by the city’s reuse of older assets, especially the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub in The Navy Yard. But it was built in response to a major federal competition that Philadelphia won, and in the book we wanted to focus mainly on locally grown efforts. Although that hub was a big deal.

Your belief — that the power of cities and metropolitan areas can be harnessed locally, to great effect — is an optimistic one. Why are you hopeful about the future of American cities, and why should we all be?

BK: I don’t think I’m optimistic, I think I’m realistic. The U.S. is the quintessential metropolitan nation. We don’t think about ourselves that way or act like it. But if we did — if we learned how to see Philly the way the rest of the world sees it, with its concentration of infrastructure and human capital — we would see a powerful engine of prosperity and innovation. The question is how to harness that energy. Every metro needs to embrace the challenge.