A decade of economic growth has boosted America’s metropolitan cores to new heights, an almost unprecedented boom not seen since the Industrial Revolution. Today, the 25 largest metro areas account for about half the nation’s gross domestic product.
But that growth has brought a new set of perils: rising income inequality, crippling housing and workforce shortages, an expanding homelessness crisis and climate change. A new generation of city leaders are tackling those challenges and guiding their cities into a globalized century in which their main competitors are no longer just across a state line, but across the world.
Here are six mayors shaping urban America in six vastly different cities:
QUINTON LUCAS (D)
Kansas City, Mo.
Sometimes, $1.50 matters. It did to Quinton Lucas, 35, who spent part of his childhood studying in the bathroom of the hotel room where he lived with his single mother and two sisters. From there, he would take the bus to a prestigious private school where he had won a scholarship.
Now, as mayor, he wants to give that $1.50 back to the next generation of low-income students — by making city bus rides free. His math shows it will cost the city about $8 million a year, a tiny fraction of its annual $1.7 billion budget.
“When you live at that kind of level, you know how much difference $1.50 makes. You know how much difference that extra thousand dollars a year can make,” the Democrat said in an interview.
In an age of flashy tech companies spending billions on new campuses and cutting-edge facilities, Lucas’s initiative is meant to spread the wealth to more of his city’s residents. The City Council is unanimously behind it, and he expects fare machines to be shuttered by June 1.
“The story of the American city can’t just be about tech. It can’t just be about attracting highly educated college graduates,” he said. “You really create an opportunity to, I think, build more ridership with more interest, and one that is fundamentally more equitable.”
JANE CASTOR (D)
Students at Young Middle Magnet School in downtown Tampa are learning about water — the water that flows through the city sewers, the water that comes out of their taps and the machines that make sure that water flows where it should.
To Jane Castor, six months into her first term as Tampa’s new mayor, today’s students are tomorrow’s engineers and scientists, the key to developing a workforce that can attract new businesses hungry for well-educated employees. The STEM programs beginning to scale in Tampa and surrounding Hillsborough County are an early investment in Tampa’s next generation.
“One of the factors that [companies] always research is the availability of a qualified workforce, and fortunately we have that. But we want to ensure that availability moving forward,” Castor, a Democrat, told The Hill. “We get to expose all of these young students to STEM opportunities around Tampa.”
Tampa’s program, too, specifically focuses on getting girls and young women interested in science, technology, engineering and math curriculums, professions in which women are historically underrepresented.
In an interview several years ago, Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Darrell Steinberg (D) laid out the benchmark by which he would judge himself: If his city could attract thousands of new tech jobs, it would be a good city. If his city’s residents were qualified for those new tech jobs, it would be a great city.
Jane Castor is setting the same bar for herself.
“It would be wonderful to see [the students] all running the city in a decade,” she said.
JEFFREY LUNDE (R)
Brooklyn Park, Minn.
At a moment when Americans are backing into their tribal corners, Brooklyn Park in suburban Minneapolis is trying to come together. The city is one of the more diverse in the nation, home to a huge Hmong community and a growing Liberian community.
“We consider ourselves the world’s largest Liberian city outside of Liberia. We are the most diverse large city in the state of Minnesota,” Jeffrey Lunde said. “Diversity is a key component of our city. We’re so diverse we have a Republican mayor.”
Lunde’s outlook, and his mission to unify his constituents, reflects the reality of modern urban life: When 75,000 people share a city of just 26 square miles, they have no choice but to get along.
Sometimes, that means working together on contentious issues like immigration. Lunde, a Republican, campaigned hard for a provision sponsored by Sens. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) in last month’s National Defense Authorization Act that will give Liberian immigrants a pathway to citizenship, something that had been a low-level priority in both the Bush and Obama administrations. President Trump signed the bill.
“Our job is not to get involved in food fights. Our job is to make sure people have food to eat,” Lunde said. “People just want a better life, and I think we welcome them here.”
Asked on a cold January day why the Liberian community chose Brooklyn Park as their preferred destination in the United States, Lunde laughed.
“It sure as hell wasn’t the weather,” he said.
JACOB FREY (D)
Sometimes, a radical transformation requires tweaking the mundane. In Minneapolis, where a rapidly growing population has sent housing costs through the roof, the answer to solving a widening divide between racial and economic communities came from rethinking zoning rules.
For years, coastal tech hubs like San Francisco, Seattle and New York have strained under the weight of rapidly growing populations as younger Americans move in hunting for high-paying jobs, sending the real estate market skyrocketing. Now, many of those same industries have moved into emerging metropolitan areas in the Midwest, and those cities are beginning to experience the same stratospheric sales and rent growth.
But like a lot of Northern cities, Minneapolis is partly to blame for its own low inventory. For a century, the city’s zoning rules prevented builders from erecting multifamily homes or apartment buildings in many neighborhoods, in no small part to keep racial minorities out of what were almost exclusively white neighborhoods.
“Minneapolis has 100 years worth of intentional segregation, restrictive covenants that run with the land, and very systematic separation of certain communities from the rest of the city,” said Jacob Frey, the city’s new Democratic mayor. “We literally have maps at City Hall designating North Minneapolis as a slum for blacks and Jews.”
Frey’s solution, approved by the City Council in 2018: ending single-family zoning. Now, developers can build new multifamily homes with as many as three units in every one of Minneapolis’s neighborhoods.
“Single-family zoning has sort of been the sacred cow of the 20th century. It was the whole American dream, that white picket fence, suburban living style,” Frey said. “Pushing back on the intentional segregation of the past, that is my passion.”
Frey’s plan has its opponents, to be sure. But in a metropolitan area that has added 150,000 new jobs in the last decade, the key to maintaining that growth lies, he believes, in providing new housing options to the skilled workers who now find the Minneapolis economy attractive. He hopes the new rules will create a diversity in housing choices and an attendant diversity in neighborhoods that once looked remarkably homogenous.
“Sometimes the only thing people hate worse than the status quo is any change at all,” Frey said.
JUSTIN WILSON (D)
After the recession, governors and local officials across the country began offering massive incentive packages in hopes of luring companies and jobs. Academic research has found that most of those incentive packages gave away far more in value to the companies than the companies brought to localities.
So when two local governments just outside of Washington put together their bid for Amazon’s HQ2 project, they decided on a different approach, one that would provide a lasting benefit to the city of Alexandria and Arlington County even if Amazon’s tax revenues didn’t fill the gap. To prove to Amazon that its residents would be qualified for the estimated 25,000 high-tech jobs the company would bring, the cities helped bring a new Virginia Tech campus to their region.
“There was very much a feeling that the benefits of the [Amazon] investment were going to accrue to a very small percentage of the residents,” said Justin Wilson, the Democratic mayor of Alexandria. “We felt like there was an opportunity to chart a different course.”
Working together across their shared border, Alexandria’s government and the Arlington County Board of Supervisors are planning for new housing growth, workforce development, collaboration with the new Virginia Tech campus and area schools. They plan special outreach to minority- and women-owned businesses, and they hope to protect low-income housing in minority-heavy communities near Amazon’s coming Crystal City hub.
“We looked at every opportunity that we thought would be able to seize the benefits of this investment and make sure it benefitted everyone in the community,” Wilson said. “We’re still fleshing this all out. The good news is there’s real excitement in the community.”
KATE GALLEGO (D)
For millennia, the residents of the Valley of the Sun have contended with the oppressive heat and the scarce water that flows through its rivers and streams. Now, as the climate changes, the city is experiencing increasingly hot summers and increasingly catastrophic rain events.
To coastal cities like Miami and Charleston, climate resilience means sea walls and storm drains. To an inland metro like Phoenix, and to its new mayor, Kate Gallego, resilience means changing the way they think about infrastructure. From better building materials to light rail and transportation operations, Phoenix is working its way toward sustainability.
“We want to protect our most vulnerable residents when we have intense heat in the summer, so we’re looking at everything from how we design public housing to whether we can have cooler bus stops,” Gallego, a Democrat, said in an interview. “We really need to prepare for drought here, so [we are] making sure that we invest in smart, sustainable solutions for water.”
The city has partnered with Arizona State University, which has a campus just blocks from City Hall, and with Harvard University to create heat-resistant transportation corridors. New buildings are made of higher tech materials that cool more easily. Every council district in the city recently voted to continue expanding the growing light rail system.
For one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, soon to be home to more finance jobs than Wall Street, sustainably managing that growth in a changing climate is critical to becoming one of America’s great metro areas.
“I think a lot,” Gallego said, “about what kind of city I want to leave my son.”