“ANY CHALLENGE THAT’S FACING THE PLANET is affecting cities,” says Jorrit de Jong, the inaugural faculty director of the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. De Jong, Emma Bloomberg Senior Lecturer In Public Policy and Management, has led the center’s forerunner, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, since its creation, in 2016, and has been instrumental in developing the collaboration between Harvard and urban leaders in the United States and around the world.

 

Q: What makes the new center unique?

The very first thing is that it will be a University-wide center based at HKS. Our mandate is to bring together expertise and programming about cities from across the University. We aim to connect students and faculty with city leaders, and this is a two-way street: City leaders often look for research findings, guidance, and support, and faculty and students often want to do work on, with, or for cities. Navigating a complex university ecosystem is challenging for city leaders. Gaining access to—and building relationships with—city leaders can be challenging for the faculty and students. The center will help to address these challenges. While the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which will remain a prominent program at the center, focuses on leadership and organizational capabilities in city halls, the center will have a broader focus. Interdisciplinary research and teaching on a variety of challenges facing cities will find a home at the Bloomberg Center. 

 

Q: How can Harvard help cities?

We have a wealth of expertise across the University to help city leaders grapple with challenges as they emerge. Increasingly we see that mayors feel they can’t wait for other, higher-level governments to anticipate and respond to global challenges like climate change. For example, in our recent COVID-19 programming, we saw that mayors of American cities couldn’t afford to wait for the White House to acknowledge that there was a crisis or to provide guidance and resources. We worked with Juliette Kayyem (HKS) and Dutch Leonard (HBS & HKS) to develop a city-specific approach. Then we had the economic fallout of the pandemic. That became a local crisis, because mayors had to figure out what to do with businesses during a shutdown. Danielle Allen (FAS), Linda Bilmes (HKS), Steve Goldsmith (HKS), Rawi Abdelal (HBS), Raj Chetty (FAS), Dani Rodrik (HKS), and Karen Mills (HBS) provided ways for city leaders to anticipate and approach these challenges.

Jorrit de Jong teaching at a Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative program.

The national racial-justice crisis following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd became very local, because racism and the lack of safety for people of color in encounters with law enforcement is a problem everywhere in cities, and every mayor struggles with that. That was a national debate, but it required local leadership. Cornell William Brooks (HKS) and his students worked with three of our mayors to help reimagine public safety through the field lab “Creating Justice in Real Time.” Even the constitutional crisis on the steps of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, immediately translated to local protest and people not trusting government, spreading misinformation. We held sessions with Erica Chenoweth (HKS), Frances Frei (HBS), and Chris Robichaud (HKS) to talk to the mayors about conflict, polarization, and building trust in an age of misinformation.

 

Q: How global is your focus?

The initiative’s most recent cohort of mayors was 40% international. During COVID-19 we did an experiment where we had a program for African and South American mayors. The Bloomberg Center has a global orientation. We have a great opportunity to facilitate global learning in a variety of ways: City leaders can learn from the work that’s being done at Harvard, Harvard can learn from the work that’s being done in cities, and cities around the world can learn from one another as they solve problems and come up with innovations. Finally, students learn from their experience as summer fellows and field lab participants. The new center aims to facilitate all these types of learning on a global scale.

Photos courtesy of Bloomberg Philanthropies

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