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The Future is the American City-State

With partisan gridlock at the higher levels, cities like Las Vegas will be the new leaders in innovative government.

Research  |  Nov 1, 2017  |  By UNLV News Center
man in front of Las Vegas City Hall

Benoy Jacob, director of the Urban Leadership Program in UNLV's School of Public Policy, predicts that Las Vegas will be a leader in a new system of American governance in which strong cities lead policy development. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

In 1998 I was a graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. I took a class in urban economics led by the well-known and highly regarded political-economist Harold Chorney (in the interest of complete disclosure, my memory is fading and so it is possible that it was a required course, and possibly about micro-economics). At one point, I found myself and my colleagues in a somewhat heated debate with Professor Chorney about the return and rise of city-states. He argued that, if it wasn’t already occurring, we would soon see cities as the locus of social, economic, and political authority.

The consensus among my student colleagues, myself included, was that Professor Chorney may well have lost his mind. And so it is with my sincere apologies to Professor Chorney that I am going to proceed in this essay to argue that: If it isn’t already occurring, we will soon see cities as the locus of social, economic, and political authority; that is, the rise of American city-states.

A city-state is a small independent region that consists primarily of a central city. Google it and you will find references to Ancient Rome, Vatican City, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, or Hong Kong. What you will not find, however, is any mention of New York, Chicago, Portland, and certainly not Las Vegas.

Some legal experts may scoff that American cities have no constitutional authority and are “mere creatures of the State.” However, I believe that American federalism soon will be characterized by a series of innovative and powerful city-states. One them certainly will be Las Vegas.

As any “futurist” will tell you, imagining the future is about understanding the present. The best predictor of tomorrow’s weather is today’s. And the cities of today serve as portents for, what one might call, a United City-States of America. Since, at least, the devolution revolution of the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan shifted many programs and responsibilities to sub-national governments, America’s cities have been taking on more and more of the responsibility for governing the country. Where cities were once the administrative arm of higher orders of government, they are now on the forefront of key policy issues, including immigration reform, social policy, and even climate policy.

In their book Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley argue that the expansion of metropolitan policy efforts is, already, leading to a restructured form of federalism. In their own words:

"In traditional political science textbooks, the United States is portrayed neatly as a hierarchical structure – the federal government and the states on top, the cities and metropolitan areas at the bottom. The feds and the states are the adults in the system, setting direction; the cities and metropolitan areas are the children, waiting for their allowance. The metropolitan revolution is exploding this tired construct. Cities and metropolitan areas are becoming the leaders in the nation: experimenting, taking risk, making hard choices, and asking for forgiveness, not permission."

While it’s reasonable to believe city-states will emerge in the more established metro regions of New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, I predict that Las Vegas will, indeed, be at the forefront in this new system of American governance. It is, after all, a city used to taking risks.

By definition, a city-state must be self-sufficient. It must, at minimum, be able to:

  1. Provide economic opportunities to its residents
  2. Be environmentally sustainable
  3. Independently address new public policy issues.

Las Vegas is uniquely positioned to do all of these things.

First, in a series of studies on intergenerational mobility, the Las Vegas region, relative to other parts of the country, has been shown to have higher upward economic potential for children. Specifically, children born in Las Vegas will make 3.7 percent more than a child born in an average American region, by the age of 26. While this might not seem like much of an advantage, it places Las Vegas in the top 16 out of 100 American regions. To the degree that this statistic holds true, Las Vegas will be at a significant competitive advantage relative to other emerging city-states. As citizens choose to move between regions, Las Vegas will be able to offer the potential for greater intergenerational economic mobility.

Second, city-states must be environmentally sustainable. A region that is not sustainable in this way, will lack the independence to be a viable city-state. Necessity, being the mother of invention, it is perhaps not surprising, that Las Vegas has been one of the leaders in the country with respect to environmental sustainability, particularly in the areas of water conservation and solar energy development. As the region grows and population pressures increase, maintaining status as a leader in sustainability practices will further define our community as a strong American city-state.

Finally, the city – as a governing body – will need to have the capacity to take-on and address new and unanticipated policy challenges. It must have the capacity for policy innovation. Many American cities have already recognized this and the stronger regions in the country can be defined in terms of their innovative capacity. For example, New York is often celebrated for actively using “Big Data” to develop solutions to previously intractable issues. The City of Las Vegas, while not as far along as some, is developing the capacity to be innovative on a variety of fronts. The city is embracing predictive analytics, it has fostered a partnership with Cisco to become a “Smart City,” and has recently established an innovation district in the downtown core. The governing capacity of the city, particularly its ability to support economic and policy innovation, is increasing. If this continues in earnest, the city will emerge as a leading a city-state.

As this transformation occurs, UNLV will play a critical role — one the university has already has embraced with its drive to increase Top Tier research and its ongoing commitment to community engagement.

UNLV offers more than just student interns. We can, and do, develop innovative policy solutions, conduct objective program evaluations, facilitate public dialogue, and deploy our resources to help our community. Our challenge now is to help external stakeholders explore the breadth of possibilities that come with such engagement. And as we do, other institutions will look to UNLV as their model, just as their communities look to Las Vegas.

With all apologies to Professor Chorney, the future of American governance, will, indeed, be a future defined by strong, innovative, and dynamic city-states.


Benoy Jacob has been an active student and scholar of cities since at least 1998. As an associate professor at UNLV, he directs the Urban Leadership Program in the School of Public Policy and Leadership at the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. But, if he had his druthers he would be 6-foot-5 and be playing professional basketball. Perhaps in the near future?