Harvard University on Tuesday launched the Bloomberg Center for Cities, a unit housed within the Kennedy School designed to train municipal leaders everywhere from Boston to Bristol, England.
The center will link city officials across the globe with executive education and multidisciplinary research from Harvard faculty and create opportunities for graduate students contemplating careers in public service.
It’s an extension of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, created in 2017 by Harvard and Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization backed by former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. (The existing initiative and establishment of the center in 2021 came with a $150 million commitment from the billionaire and Harvard Business School alumnus — and another $32 million in 2017. To date, it has worked with 465 mayors in 524 cities.)
Director Jorrit de Jong said the new 12,000-square-foot physical space will function as a hub for people “interested in anything cities,” including urban issues from intergenerational poverty to climate change to economic development to violent crime.
“It’s a place where we have a happy marriage between rigor and relevance,” said Jong, also a senior lecturer in public policy and management. “Local leaders are always at the frontier of social problem-solving, because these issues occur in their cities, their streets, their hospitals. They have to learn real fast, and the center is a home away from home for them.”
The third-floor space boasts an open seating plan, faculty offices, convening space for meetings and hybrid events, and a collection of curated artworks titled City as Muse.
A launch event in the Kennedy School on Tuesday was attended by a dozen mayors from across the country, including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Lieutenant Governor (and former Salem mayor) Kim Driscoll. (Wu herself began her career in city government as a Rappaport Fellow at Harvard Law School.)
In a speech, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow heralded the center as a place where municipal leaders “can learn from one another and from our faculty,” ultimately becoming Harvard alumni in their own right.
He honored Bloomberg with a silver key to the university, a first for Harvard and a nod to the keys to New York Bloomberg distributed to dignitaries during his 12-year tenure as mayor.
Bloomberg then took the stage to highlight the challenges cities face from fallout of the pandemic — namely rising crime, shrinking tax bases, and the “urban doom loop,” a phenomenon where decreasing commercial real estate values and tax revenue crushes cities, and leads them to cut crucial public services, prompting more businesses and people to leave.
The solution, he said, lies in the center.
“What we have to do is help cities where people live benefit from the intellectual capital we’ve been able to pull together at Harvard,” he said.
The Tuesday announcement also debuted several new initiatives that will be housed within the center. That includes 10 new endowed faculty positions and three executive education programs on human resources, civic engagement, and economic development, launching in 20 cities this year.
An annual conference series named CityAmbition will also launch in 2025. In a release, Bloomberg Philanthropies said the series would “bridge the gap between ambitions for city progress and the capabilities of local government to achieve them.”
In addition, the faculty expanded the Bloomberg Harvard City Hall Fellowship, which places students from across the university into two-year stints in local government in cities of 100,000 people or more. It was piloted last year with seven fellows; a second group of at least 15 new cities will be matched in August.
Those positions will help address chronic understaffing and funding issues at cities grappling with post-industrialization, inflation, and racial equity, among other pain points, said James Anderson, government innovation lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies.
“This center embodies the reality of how we solve problems in cities,” he added, “and draws on all of the resources available to optimize that.”
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