In late October, the International City/County Management Association’s annual conference brought me to San Antonio where I saw firsthand the sharp juxtaposition between a failed state and an innovative city.
Texas represents the rise of state governments that are anti-urban, anti-science, and anti-reason. The recent Texas legislative session was preoccupied with efforts to crack down on sanctuary cities, impede urban annexation, and even preempt local laws that require homeowners to seek approval before cutting down historic trees.
But as the state government reverts to partisan revenge, the City of San Antonio has continued its march forward. I’ve been coming to San Antonio for 25 years since I went to work for Henry Cisneros during his tenure as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The city is now 1.5 million strong (7th largest in the U.S.), and nationally recognized for its diversity, diversifying economy, and magnetic appeal.
I went straight from the airport to Henry’s office; he continues to be a source of inspiration and information. He just co-authored a new book, Building Equitable Cities: How to Drive Economic Mobility and Regional Growth, which I highly recommend. After touching base with Henry, I was able to get out into San Antonio and observe how leaders there are building an equitable city – with local efforts driving inclusion, innovation, and infrastructure.
First, with Henry’s help, I visited with Sarah Baray, the CEO of Pre-K 4 SA, a real thrill since I highlighted this initiative as a national model in a recent paper. In 2012, San Antonio successfully passed Pre-K 4 SA, a measure that raised the citywide sales tax from 8.125 percent to 8.25 percent, to expand access to prekindergarten. The effort was originally led by then-Mayor (and future Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) Julián Castro. It generates approximately $35 million annually, costing the median San Antonio household $7.81 per year.
The goal of Pre-K 4 SA, in Sarah’s words, is to “change the trajectory of San Antonio in one generation.” By all accounts, it is succeeding. The city has built or renovated four modern pre-K centers to serve 2,000 4-year-olds. Everything about this effort is high-quality: the facilities, the teachers, and the focus on hands-on learning. Sarah and her colleagues have done their homework: they know interventions early in life – such as access to preschool – can reduce the long-term achievement gap and set the platform for children to be middle class by middle age. I witnessed a community with a collective soul, a sharp contrast to the divisive politics of the state government.
Second, I sat down with folks from Geekdom and San Antonio’s Office of Innovation. Geekdom is a 6-year-old co-working space with more than 1,600 members and more than 500 “community companies.” Geekdom calculates that the jobs their companies represent would be San Antonio’s 17th largest employer if they were one unified enterprise. Their goal: to grow 10,000 jobs in San Antonio’s historic downtown, working in close concert with the city government and their focus to use entrepreneurs to find market means to solve social challenges.
Finally, I took a several-mile walk along the famed River Walk. Originally built in the 1930s, the River Walk was recently expanded. There is something magical and restorative about being in nature in the city. But this smart 80-year-old effort around urban place-making is spawning a growth spurt in museums, mixed-use developments, and amenity districts that hug the river, exemplifying the tight interplay between quality places, innovative economies, and inclusive affects.
San Antonio’s progress amid state hostility reminds us of three central truths. First, cities are not state governments that can be hijacked by partisanship and captured by ideologues. Rather, they are networks of institutions and leaders that are intrinsically pragmatic and focused on problem-solving.
Second, as a corollary, city power is neither defined by governmental power exclusively nor dependent upon state governments making smart decisions or devolving formal power. Rather, cities have enormous market and civic power, since they concentrate real economic and physical assets as well as problem-solving institutions and people. Even when states get stupid, cities can leverage their market and civic power to fund the future through transformative investments in innovation, infrastructure, and inclusion. A state government’s efforts to preempt a city’s governmental power, in short, does not and cannot preempt smart public, private, and civic action and progress.
Finally, cities are part of a natural cycle of innovation: one city invents, another adapts, routines get set, and the market scales. Pre-K 4 SA has already become a must-visit for other cities thinking about investing in early childhood education. Geekdom is a great model for cities that don’t have Tier 1 research institutions like Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh or Georgia Tech in Atlanta. And the River Walk continues to inspire U.S. and other cities thinking about how river ways and greenways could become a foundation for economic regeneration.
Obviously we would all prefer to have smart states that enable innovation rather than stupid states that micro-manage and impede progress. But it is what it is. Let’s use this age of populism, however long it lasts, to rebuild our nation and society from the bottom up.
San Antonio is pushing the limits and, in the process, making us rethink the relationship between states and cities and reimagine what power is in the 21st century.