Blue Dots: A Big Philanthropic Bet Spotlights the Promise and Limits of Cities

 Chicago

Chicago

There’s a certain amount of comfort to be taken from living in an American city during the Trump era—that is, if you're not thrilled with where the nation at large has lately been headed.

I suspect a lot of people were very encouraged when their cities refused to use local resources for ICE enforcement, or more than 300 mayors said they would remain committed to the Paris Agreement. Mike Bloomberg helped rally those mayors and others, and even agreed to pay $15 million toward UN operating costs when the U.S. withdrew. You sometimes get this sense that just maybe, with the help of some kindly billionaires, cities can rally together and take a crack at a more progressive America. 

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Bloomberg has long been something of a patron saint for the power of cities as leaders, especially when it comes to climate change. But lately, since Trump's election, Mike's city-centric vision has become suddenly more relevant—which explains Bloomberg Philanthropies' major new move in this space.

A $200 million grantmaking program, announced this week, pulls together anti-Trump defiance and can-do Bloomberginess into an effort to elevate mayors as problem solvers and national leaders. The program is another sign of just how important city and philanthropy team-ups have become, with larger issues increasingly at stake. But this latest big bet by Bloomberg, part of a broader recent surge in urban-focused philanthropy, also raises questions about the extent to which cities can lead the way on some of America's most pressing challenges—and how appropriate it is for private funders to be underwriting such a role. 

Bloomberg's American Cities Initiative includes a return to the U.S. after a couple of rounds abroad for the Mayors Challenge, a city innovation competition that will award a combined $17.5 million. It also ups the commitment to the U.S. Conference of Mayors with a $600,000 grant; expands Bloomberg's pro bono consultancy to new cities; and will unveil a series of other philanthropic programs soon. All of this seeks to “generate innovation and advance policy that moves the nation forward.”

The initiative is the latest example of Bloomberg’s post-mayoral channels of power—his philanthropy, political giving, public platform, and leadership among other mayors—which made him, in some ways, even more influential than he was during his three terms as New York City mayor. The new infusion of funding is likely to bolster that influence and make philanthropy a larger force in cities as they face new and complex challenges like climate change, rising populations, growing infrastructure needs, strained budgets and new tensions with both federal and state authorities. 

In the initiative's announcement, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu says, correctly, “More than ever, innovation and progress are happening at the city level.” Often backed by private wealth, as federal and state funds aren’t keeping up, cities are making strides in areas like creative open spaces, cultural institutions, green infrastructure, healthy and sustainable food systems, and energy efficiency and resiliency in buildings. 

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There’s also truth to the narrative that while Washington is bare-knuckle boxing with seemingly little opportunity for consensus, local governments have no choice but to figure out solutions to their problems. And while the influence private wealth wields in those solutions is often troubling, it’s understandable cities would seek out ways to supplement budgets strained by rising costs and shrinking federal and state support. 

In fact, cities provide a lot of opportunities for philanthropy to get it right, with giving that can make ground-level democracy function better, and provide some financial slack for governments to test out new ideas. So a new program to boost innovation and elevate bold mayors is a welcome addition. 

At the same time, there’s a bit of Bloomberg-knows-best swagger in this program that makes you wonder if the role of cities and the ability of philanthropy to boost them are being somewhat inflated here. Bloomberg’s speech and press surrounding the announcement are full of fighting words, scolding Washington’s “dysfunction” and “impotence,” and pointing out that cities are having to “replace Washington and, in some cases, state governments, to provide services.”

But as we have recently written regarding the Mott Foundation's outsized giving in Flint, Michigan, over the decades, there are acute limits to what cities can accomplish on their own in the face of larger economic forces. Other limits, as Henry Graber observed in Slate, are due to legal and geographic boundaries that cities quickly run up against. A lot of wealth is still in the suburbs, and a lot of funding still comes from the federal government. Estimated federal grants to state and local governments in FY 2017 exceed $596 billion across hundreds of programs. That puts the capability of cities to truly take the reins, and Bloomberg’s $200 million in philanthropic support, into stark perspective. 

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There is, justifiably, deep frustration among city leaders toward the current federal government’s corruption, hostility, and just plain incompetence. And there’s nothing wrong with taking principled stances against Trump’s agenda. But casting cities and their billionaires as replacements for a working federal government is a dangerous game. Cities can feel like blue islands floating in a sea of red—and, yes, though Bloomberg presents himself as an independent, his platform is mostly aligned with mainstream Democrats—but these areas of our divided country somehow have to function together. 

It’s also important to point out for a moment, here, that cities are often far from the progressive havens we like to think they are. They have a “long, tough climb ahead” on climate change and sustainability. And when it comes to the deep, national problems of systemic racism and wealth inequality at the root of our political turmoil, even our greatest cities are often our worst offenders. The recent gentrification of cities, often fueled by growth of the tech and finance sectors, has turned some top metro areas into the most stratified places in America. In certain cases, as we've reported, city-focused philanthropy may have accentuated these negative trends. This is fraught terrain for funders, and it's worth remembering that Bloomberg himself left office amid charges that New York under his tenure had become "a tale of two cities."

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So at the end of the day, how much of a positive impact can something like the American Cities Initiative, or urban philanthropy writ large, have in tackling the nation's biggest problems? Probably not quite as much as we would like to think. 

But philanthropy can potentially add financial leeway to try new things in our city centers, and create more of those critical success stories. It’s not a listed priority in the announcement, but it would be a huge mistake for participating cities to gloss over issues of race and equity in cities as they flex their problem-solving strength. That also means supporting community-driven approaches, not top-down fixes.

And then things could get interesting, especially when it comes to mayors receiving funding to serve as ambassadors for those success stories, touting what they’ve been able to do. You can imagine a lot of potential to start influencing more conservative city and state leadership on topics like climate resiliency, energy, transit, even higher wages, if they see results. And maybe that has a way of, island by island, steering the national discourse. As we've noted before, it does seem like cities have lately displaced states as the most exciting "laboratories of democracy."