Faculty Journal Posted on Friday, January 20, 2017

Facing the Realities of Geo-Political Division in the Age of Trump: The Metropolitan Future and the Need for Collaborative Models of Governance

Jill Simone Gross Associate Professor, Hunter College; Ph.D., Political Science, CUNY Graduate School

Now that Donald J. Trump has been inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, we are faced with a stark reality in New York City – that we seem to be living in a “metropolitan bubble.” Among the many fissures that the election revealed in the fabric of American society (economic, social, and political), the geopolitical tensions were some of the most apparent. Residents of the largest and densest metropolitan areas along the east and west coasts appear to have very different political orientations from those living in rural and smaller metro areas (populations less than 500,000) in the Sun and Rustbelts. In the largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas, support for Clinton ranged from 62- 77 percent, while in smaller Sunbelt metros and rural communities, support for Trump ranged from 51-77 percent (see here). When this is coupled with a growing animosity to globalization that seems to underlie much of Trump’s rhetoric, perhaps the foremost challenge for the coming years will be the governance challenge – how to get things done in a geo-politically hostile environment.

Cities are complex environments. Effective governance demands collaboration between a wide range of public and private-sector actors, working in concert for the public interest. Elsewhere, I‘ve said that urban governance, therefore, can be understood as “the contemporary scaffolding supporting public decision…How that scaffolding is built and the types of poles and planks that one uses to construct it will depend on the ground on which it is built, the actors who build it, and the reasons for its construction.”

Today, New York City seems to lie on divergent and convergent tectonic political plates. Our governance “scaffolding” sits upon ground that is volatile and shifting. For policymakers, this suggests a need to consider how we can adapt our urban governance techniques in such a way as to encourage collaboration. We cannot deny divisions any longer; they exist and they are real. The question, then, is what can be done to increase understandings and awareness across regional difference? How can we begin to find some common ground, some mutual understanding?

The U.S. has never been particularly adept at subnational collaboration. Our decentralized political system has tended to generate a competitive relationship between localities – each seeking to lure capital and labor – and to strengthen economies, often at the expense of their neighbors. Decentralization has also meant that cities are often left to their own devices when it comes to governance, with higher levels of government playing minor supportive roles. In the New York City metropolitan region, we are very familiar with this situation, where efforts to construct rail tunnels, bridges and sports arenas have been regularly stymied over conflicts with our neighbors in New Jersey, or through a lack of investment from higher levels of government on the state and federal level. Indeed, lack of resources has meant that some projects take over a century to materialize, such as New York City’s Second Avenue Subway. And in other instances we are faced with aging and failing infrastructure, and environmental degradation due to the inability of localities to collaborate.

Competition is touted as the lifeblood of American cities. Trump certainly has made his position clear: “You’ve got lots of states at play: a lot of competition…. a lot of places you can move. And I don’t care, as long as it’s within the United States, the borders of the United States.” Interstate competition of this sort tends to work as a zero-sum game. Thus, the success of one locality may come at the expense of another. Taken to its extreme, we become an increasingly Balkanized nation, unable to act with authority, unable to innovate, and unable to unify behind common goals.

While division has become the rule in politics rather than the exception, there are innovative forms of urban governance that might offer a way forward, which Trump might wish to consider as he puts forward his First 100 days agenda.  Hybrid governance arrangements are emerging in “wicked problem” spaces, those that transcend the borders of individual localities – environment and immigration, for example.  Hybrid collaboratives are emerging globally, and “by virtue of their diverse participant base, offer a potential vehicle for building shared understandings of policy problems (aka learning), and by extension greater possibilities of finding agreements despite differing interests, agonism rather than antagonism.” They are bringing together actors from the public, private and non-profit sectors. They are bringing together policymakers from across policy areas – breaking out of policy silos, and allowing for a sharing of ideas and the development of understanding of our differences.

What unifies these entities is the shared problem. If we are ever going to move forward, we need to find the tools to communicate across difference, enable conflicts to manifest productively, and find ways to heal our divided nation state. The work is difficult, time consuming and challenging, but the outcomes seem well worth it! It is time to learn from some of the smaller successes that can be found through understanding collaborative forms of governance.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Jill Simone Gross is a Roosevelt House Faculty Associate, Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of Urban Policy and Planning, and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Policy and Leadership at Hunter College. She is completing her second term as the elected Chair of the Urban Affairs Association, the international professional organization for urban scholars, researchers, and public service professionals. She earned her PhD in Political Science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and holds an MSc Degree from the London School of Economic and Political Science. She was a European Union Fulbright Scholar in 2011-12, where she conducted research on the localization of migrant integration. Dr. Gross’ primary areas of research and writing are in comparative urban politics, governance, migration and economic development. She has explored cities in West Europe, North America and China. Dr. Gross’ most recent Journal publications can be found in: Urban Affairs Review, the Journal of Urban Affairs, Cities, and Urban Research and Practice. A book chapter titled “Migrants and the Right to the City” was published in Yasminah Beebeejaun (Ed.) The Participatory City (Berlin: JOVIS Verlag GmbH, 2016). She is the co-author of Governing Cities in a Global Era (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007). Dr. Gross is currently completing her next book on the topic of urban migration policy in the face of crisis, and is coediting a book on governance processes in World Metropolitan regions.