Skip to content

Slicker Cities

On the entrepreneurial turn in city government

As a corporate advisor, my job is to advise companies where to invest. The CEOs of major companies are now so busy that unless you are on the short list of investment opportunities, you will not even be considered as a possibility. There are dozens of regions and cities that would like to attract the capital and corporate presence of my clients . . . to make it to the short list, you must offer real value, and, ultimately, capture the investor’s imagination.”

Kenichi Ohmae, strategy guru and former partner of McKinsey Japan, offered local and regional governments this grim prescription at the turn of the new millennium. Ohmae had been on the global speaking circuit for years, and by the 1990s, most local governments had already swallowed this bitter pill. Mayors around the world had been soliciting the advice of consultants and strategists in competition for the attentions of capital, a practice that has continued into this century. From the aerial view of knowledge-economy employers, Melbourne is London is Johannesburg; Chicago could easily be Portland or Austin or Los Angeles. The perceived interchangeability of cities left governments in the position of needing to retool their culture, imagery, services and infrastructure to appeal to companies, the fickle tastes of their creative class employees, and management consultant intermediaries. Cities were being re-envisioned not for their cultural or civic possibilities but for precarious places in the corporate imaginary.

Half a decade before his 1999 remarks, Kenichi Ohmae spoke at “Cities and the New Global Economy,” a 1994 OECD conference held in Melbourne. Hosted jointly with the Australian government, mayors and regional leaders from around the world convened to learn how they might help their communities thrive in the new world, having been wracked by disinvestment, austerity, and the post-industrial retooling of the economic system. It was clear that cities were the last great hope for countries reeling from these economic upheavals and anxious about their place in the information age, where wealth was alchemical, generated by supply chains running through new dimensions. According to Ohmae and other strategists on the speaking circuit, nation states were becoming irrelevant in the networked age, when financialized products and information moved by multinational corporations were increasingly indifferent to central governments. Cities absorbed these anxieties as academics and policymakers debated and rhapsodized about the urban future that would define an immaterial economy. 

Cities were being re-envisioned not for their cultural or civic possibilities, but for precarious places in the corporate imaginary.

British geographer and town planner Peter Hall, another keynote speaker at the 1994 conference, provided remarks on “the roots of urban innovation.” “Interestingly, cultural [sic] innovative cities and technologically innovative cities share some key traits,” he said. “They are dynamic, wealth-generating places.” John B. Prescott, an Australian business executive, floated the idea of “intelligent cities” as a way forward, places where wealth and prosperity are not accrued through “minerals, rural exports and manufactured goods” but “less visible sources of advantage” like creativity and innovation. These vapory goods of intelligence came packaged with a range of sinister development strategies: investments in “soft infrastructure” might be accompanied by deregulation and the outsourcing of public services to private companies.

Hall’s work had by then already been seminal in promoting deregulation. In the late 1970s, he conceived of a British “Freeport,” an urban economic development strategy that posited suspending taxes and regulation within ailing central cities could improve their conditions. A version of the Freeport strategy, shorn of some of proposed elements like open borders for migration, was later adopted by Margaret Thatcher’s government and imported to the American context in the 1980s as the Enterprise Zone; communities receiving this designation would provide investors with lenient regulations and tax incentives to encourage development. Hall testified in support of these zones before Congress, as did representatives from right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. Hall’s future conference co-presenter Prescott was previously the CEO of BHP, an Australian mining company that had been accused of lobbying against climate and environmental action, in addition to dumping toxic waste into the rivers of Papua New Guinea.

In light of their respective pasts, Prescott and Hall’s lofty rhetoric about cities’ potential as innovation hubs, their futuristic declarations about the creative economy of tomorrow, seem to obfuscate another narrative: prosperity, intelligence, and creativity aside, cities really needed to be in the business of constantly being in business in order to survive, no matter the cost to their communities.

Conference-goers in 1994 looked towards the future with optimism after decades of financial struggle. In the mid-twentieth century, wealthy and upper middle classes abandoned cities for government-subsidized suburbs while urban areas were held as sacrificial ground that highways could violently cut through. In the United States, right-wing writers advanced racialized theories of dependence and decline in urban areas throughout the 1970s and in the decades following. In 1971, urban theorist George Sternlieb described the city as a playground sandbox, one that had ceded its iconography and power in favor of a childlike dependency on the state. He diagnosed the problem thusly: “The crisis of the cities is a crisis of function. The major problem of the core areas of our cities is simply their lack of economic value.” The essay was originally published in The Public Interest, a now-defunct conservative magazine founded by Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol.

American cities were then treated to a special kind of cruelty in the 1980s when the Reagan administration dramatically decreased federal aid for city services like housing and transportation, strategies advanced by policy think tanks that touted the racist ideal of self-reliance as the solution to endemic poverty. From their posts within these think tanks and academia, conservative intellectuals demanded that governments reconfigure their finances such that they relied directly on rates charged for services by raising fees, while public-private partnerships or outright privatization filled the gap. Harvard Business School strategy gurus like Michael Porter were recruited by state governments to apply the logic of competitive business strategy to inner cities, which essentially amounted to replacing underfunded government programs with private sector wealth generation strategies like reducing taxes and regulations on businesses. The promise of local wealth generation necessitated decentralization and deregulation.

This time of crisis pushed local policymakers to not only deliver services but to act as manic entrepreneurs. Many public servants did save their cities from decline and insolvency during the 1980s and through the 1990s; Chattanooga is an oft-cited example, as are Glasgow and Bilbao, Spain. But the desperate measures they took resemble the mirthless logic of reality-show challenges, where contestants are made to design a dress or bake a cake without proper materials or instruments while the clock ticks down. Local governments may have been able to find solutions to the predicament they found themselves in, but celebrations of their heroism obscure the circumstances that created these problems in the first place. An initiative by the U.S. German Marshall Fund commissioned in 1992 to profile the competitive efforts of individual cities concluded, “Some city authorities have been more innovative than anyone would have dared to predict. Change has come out of desperate circumstances.” Disaster may have been averted, but the fact remains that so many local governments have become permanently beholden to a class of elites to sustain the livelihoods of their residents.

Innovation was not invention but rather earnest rebranding. Financial rescue followed from this cultural redefinition, which Marxist geographer David Harvey described in 1989 as a shift from the managerial to the entrepreneurial. He wrote that “local coalitions have no option, given the coercive laws of competition, except to keep ahead of the game thus engendering leap-frogging innovations in life styles, cultural forms, products and service mixes, even institutional and political forms if they are to survive.” To attract the tax base of a professional class, cities engineered utopian futures via waterfronts, malls, and convention centers. In doing so they were forced to prioritize “the speculative construction of place” versus providing services to, and ameliorating the problems of, the people who already lived there.

Rather than focusing on universal access to parks, libraries, and transportation, cities found themselves making investments that were aspirational in nature, signifying (rather than necessarily achieving) livability in order to attract jobs and resources. Take CityLab’s reporting on the 1980s and 1990s light rail craze, for example. While many cities did not have adequate funding for public transportation during this period, regional and heavy rail systems were heavily stigmatized as expensive and a waste of taxpayer money. Buses, though a practical transit mode for urban populations, were not nearly as flashy or forward-looking and carried racist and classist stigmas. Light rail was seen an intermediary, cheaper solution to cities that needed to reduce congestion and draw curious riders to a newly vibrant downtown. Many of these systems were not materially successful as transportation solutions, but they played a definitive role in the “revitalization” of urban cores. Where “trains had cachet” to a middle-class, presumably white commuter, investments in bus service appealed less to this customer base.

To attract a professional class and the tax base they would bring, cities engineered utopian futures via waterfronts, malls, and convention centers.

As Ohmae described it during his 1999 plenary address, what cities faced was a “marketing challenge.” Images of teeming urbanity, diverse populations, and bland signifiers of progressivism became currency. The losers of this myth-making game would see budget crises and slow attrition in the form of service cuts. Today, branding has been folded into the publications of many major governance institutions. The OECD, the World Bank and Davos’s World Economic Forum all provide guidance on achieving what they call world city or competitive city status. In 2015, Richard Florida, commenting on the World Bank’s report on urban competitiveness, mused that “smaller and medium-sized cities provide a welcome example of how all cities can leverage their unique resources, firms, and talent to become more prosperous and sustainable places to live.”

The tone of reports like these shares the aspirational quality of a self-help book; the specifics of history are disregarded in favor of “how-to” instructional manuals for urban prosperity. The mechanics of branded revitalization are relentlessly parameterized for local governments, who are simultaneously told that their own uniqueness and individual advantages are the way forward. Urban sociologist Sharon Zukin, for example, has written that “emphasizing culture is a concerted attempt to exploit the uniqueness of fixed capital—monuments, art collections, performance spaces, even shopping streets—accumulated over the past. In this sense, culture is the sum of a city’s amenities that enable it to compete for investment and jobs, its ‘comparative advantage.’”

But when appealing to a highly educated, mobile, upper-middle class resident or employer, uniqueness gives way to a candied sameness. While publicly funded arts and cultural planning efforts can serve to materially improve the lives of residents, top-down, developer-centric efforts can result in a homogenous banality. The effect is an algorithmic kind of beauty: sleek and modern, while also gorily Frankenstein-esque. Popped color palettes, parklets, and glass-walled buildings make cities indistinguishable from each other. It’s the architectural equivalent of “Instagram face,” designed with the robotic pragmatism of a targeted ad. In coding design elements towards wealth and the professional class, cities and developers also necessarily code aesthetics toward the sensibilities of white urban transplants, given the makeup of this class.

Once you start to notice this double-gaze—the expressions of vibrancy, innovativeness, or civic health developed for the eyes of  moneyed outsiders—it appears everywhere.

Ten years ago, Boston, the city where I live, invested in a waterfront innovation district now known as the Seaport; billions of dollars of public money were funneled into its creation. City officials hoped that in making the investment, they would attract innovators and disruptors. Today, the neighborhood is known mostly for its high incomes—and its inhospitality to families and people of color. Its promotional materials favor a “pick me” visual assemblage; on Instagram, the Seaport features photos of pleasing and innocuous colorful public sculptures alongside images of its young professional inhabitants in synchronized downward dog yoga poses against a blue sky. Within this neighborhood is the Lawn on D, a grassy park that feels like a strange simulacrum of an urban commons. At night, the lawn’s art installation, “Swing Time,” shines bright like a wishful harbinger of the city’s techie future.

The Lawn on D, for all its attempts to telegraph the communal sublime, is a privately operated space, run by the publicly subsidized Boston Convention Massachusetts’s Convention Center Authority and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and “powered by” Citizen’s Bank. The state legislature approved the convention center for construction in the 1990s as a means of increasing investment in the city while simultaneously cementing Boston’s status as an academic and technological leader. The Convention Center Authority itself was established in 1982, a time of grave fiscal trouble for the city. While the Lawn on D is worthy of mockery, it’s one of many products put forth by cities where irrelevancy otherwise equaled financial ruin.

The Seaport isn’t aesthetically offensive as much as it’s a tragedy of a neighborhood,  where the city and state provided both concessions and public money to cater to a phantom crowd. And there are so many places and endeavors like it: attempts at sustainment through these indirect means. Today, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to radically alter life in Boston, a city beset by a housing crisis, transportation and infrastructure disparities, and dramatic wealth inequality, it’s hard not to wonder what other opportunities were lost in the Seaport’s creation. But what a competitive city requires is the same thing that we’re told we all require in the errant twenty-first century: talking points, an elevator pitch, and the ability to summarize ourselves into discrete parts so that audiences with any amount of power might notice us.