Cities matter to the Manhattan Institute.
Since 2014, the Manhattan Institute has brought together public, private, and nonprofit leaders from around the country to shape the future of urban America. From housing to transportation and regulation to urban planning, we have developed nationally-relevant policy solutions grounded in unique local experiences.
Learn more about MI's work in U.S. cities by visiting our Urban Policy Series.
Michael Hendrix, Director, State and Local Policy, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
Walking the streets of Detroit, Michigan, is an exercise in living history. The sidewalks of Woodward Avenue, even on a cold day, are far from empty. Young lunchgoers pass through the lawn of Campus Martius Park in downtown’s “gathering place,” where the city’s mile roads fan out to the suburbs. Commuters ride to and fro on the QLINE’s red-and-white streetcars past once-faded storefronts now alive again with someone else’s ambition.
Detroit is like every city: a physical artifact of a social space. But there is only one Detroit. Every place may be a canvas fit for people, but people drawn together paint an entirely unique portrait of a place. So when we wonder what sort of public policies should govern urban America, we know they must be both nationally relevant and uniquely local. And these ideas must have at their center a vision for how people flourish; otherwise they are just more technocratic dreams that usually turn into someone else’s nightmare. Policy is for people, in other words, whose authors share their sense of place and time.
That is why this year’s Urban Policy Series began outside Manhattan. Our authors went to Akron, Ohio; Miami, Florida; Macon, Georgia; San Jose, California; and, yes, Detroit, Michigan. In each city, we set a table for their leaders to have a conversation about the future of their community, and for our network of scholars to bring their practical ideas to bear on those concerns. Our aim was to catalyze fresh thinking and generate new knowledge to shape the future of urban America. No small goal, but we believe the resulting volume of work on policing, housing, governance, and more speaks for itself.
Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, details the dos and don’ts of civic branding. “A city’s brand is fundamentally its sense of identity,” Renn observes, and a “promise delivered.” While cities spend millions of dollars every year promoting themselves, few effectively deliver on their promise. Renn shows us what it takes to build an authentic, unique, and true civic brand.
William Bratton, former police commissioner of New York City (twice), Los Angeles, and Boston, finds the police’s “thin blue line” stretching under the weight of challenges both new and old. Together with the astonishing decrease in urban crime over the past generation, Bratton and his coauthor Jon Murad propose a new organizing principle for police agencies. “Precision policing” focuses on targeted crime-and-disorder enforcement and neighborhood policing, often to great effect.
Harvard’s Stephen Goldsmith and I propose a new vision for permitting and licensing regimes in the 21st century. Our aim is to not only make it easier to start a business or build a building, but to improve the entire journey through government from start to finish. Streamlining, digitizing, and redesigning local permitting systems means putting the citizen first, not government. Many cities are already taking these concrete steps—it’s time for more communities to follow their lead.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Judith Miller tackles the crisis in local news as newspaper closures, downsizings, and consolidation accelerate. These “news deserts” are not just found in small towns; large cities, too, are seeing dramatic cutbacks in local reporting. Papers may try to grow their revenue, cut their bottom line, or completely redesign their business model, but as Miller reports, the outlook for legacy media remains grim.
Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute points to a pre–World War II approach to housing development that could unlock more affordable housing in America’s most prosperous cities. He argues for a greater variety (and supply) in housing that fills the “missing middle” between single-family homes and large apartment developments. Importantly, Husock shows how to make this new construction politically feasible by “invisibly” densifying often overlooked land.
Peter Salins, an urban planning scholar and longtime Manhattan Institute senior fellow, argues that cities are still in competition with their suburbs for residents. He calls for planners to focus on what they can do well, such as helping cities remain attractive and functional, while giving the marketplace the freedom to flourish in response to what residents actually want in their communities. Restoring cities like Detroit to the levels of greatness they once enjoyed is of primary significance to Salins, as it should be to every planner who calls these places home.
Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, reveals New York City’s growing homelessness problem and the burden it places on shelters. Despite immense sums spent on caring for those without a roof over their head, shelter performance is slipping, and, in turn, people are suffering. For this reason, Eide calls for restoring the incentives and benchmarking programs instituted under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pushing shelter operators to be evaluated and ranked against their peers.
Last but not least, Stephen Goldsmith returns with a sweeping vision for improving the “user experience” of government. Digital platforms and tools make government more responsive to its citizens, which in turn builds their trust and confidence in city hall. The technology and capacity exist today to craft a user-friendly, data-driven public square, argues Goldsmith. So, what we are waiting for?
This year’s Urban Policy Series is a journey through cities old and new. The ideas contained in these pages are much like the places and people the authors encountered along the way: timely and timeless, full of hope and honest with their challenges, and committed to building a better future for urban America on the lessons of the past.
Chapters to be released online intermittently.
- Chapter 1: The Dos and Don'ts of Civic Branding (by Aaron Renn)
- Chapter 2: Precision Policing (by William J. Bratton and Jon Murad)
- Chapter 3: Unclogging the Permit Pipeline (by Stephen Goldsmith and Michael Hendrix)
- Chapter 4: News Deserts: No News Is Bad News (by Judith Miller)
- Chapter 5: Building a Housing Ladder (by Howard Husock)
- Chapter 6: Rethinking Urban Planning in Detroit—and Beyond (by Peter D. Salins)
- Chapter 7: Benchmarking Homeless Shelter Performance (by Stephen Eide)
- Chapter 8: How the User Experience (UX) Can Build Trust in Local Government (by Stephen Goldsmith)
Editor's note: Download a full version of Urban Policy 2018 here.