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The Changing Reality of Cities


City mayors no longer speak for "urban" America. Growing pockets of suburban "urban" woes, from drugs and crime to decayed housing and abandoned commercial strips, vary only in degree from those of the inner cities. So do budget dilemmas, welfare and social challenges, economic positioning, environmental issues.

The new urban reality, in America and across the world, is regional. Our citistate regions are profoundly interdependent. A conference of mayors of the inner cities is an anomaly.

One idea would be to create a U.S. Congress of Urban Executives, open to mayors of all major cities, inner-city or suburban, plus county executives or chairs of urban county commissions. These are the leaders of the real urban America of our times -- the America that represents close to 80 percent of the American people, rather than the remnants of so-called "inner cities."

Seattle's Mayor Norman Rice may have been exaggerating when he said at the recent U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami: "In the years ahead, it will be cities and suburbs -- not states -- that will shape our economic, social and cultural future." States, after all, hold immense power in the American system.

But he rightly added: "Regional goal-setting and regional problem-solving must be a central part of any overhaul of federal programs."

It's a debate that needs to be carried directly to the Republican Congress. If the lawmakers want to push forward a vast intergovernmental shift of authority to states, they should debate with the mayors and county executives just how it happens, how benefits will reach the grassroots.

The urban leaders' message needs to be: "Devolution is in the details. We agree there has to be radical reform of traditional systems that have not worked well, from welfare to clean air to education. But we deliver the services on the front line, and we need to be in the discussion."

The mayors are, in fact, pushing for a National Conference of Local Governments this fall. The event was originally planned in response to the proposal of governors and state legislators for a Conference of the States to examine the balance of power in the federal system.

Can a Washington-based press corps, accustomed to tracking partisan conflict, bother to focus on the new regionalism? Maybe not. It's tough to make a headline of how government systems can be remade, how federal aid gets coordinated.

Yet if the mayors were willing to redefine their organization as one of the regions, to welcome in the county executives, the federal and state governments -- and even the press -- would be obliged to pay attention.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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