Columnist: Cities, Metros Respond to a New Global Economy

March 19, 2012
by Neal Peirce

While hyperpartisanship and ugly derogation of opponents infect Congress and national politics, we needn't despair. In fact, "The United States is really awash in quality leadership."

That's the case made by Bruce Katz, Brookings Institution vice president and founding-director of its Metropolitan Policy Program. "Everywhere you turn, at the city, at the metropolitan or state scale," he contends, "you find either individual leaders, or more likely networks of leaders, who tend to put place over party and ideology." 

It's true - facing real local problems, partisanship fades. As New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia famously remarked, there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up garbage.

But it's more than service delivery, Katz insisted in a recent interview. He sees local, metro and many state leaders teaming up to address three core challenges in the globally competitive 21st century - shaping a stronger, entrepreneurial economy, creating urban quality that draws talented workers, and building citizens' basic skills.

Or, as he put it in a recent Time article, co-authored with Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin, there's a "pragmatic caucus" of political, business, university and civic leaders" who "prize place over party, collaboration over conflict and solution over dogma."

This is exciting news. For years, city and metro leadership was preoccupied with physical "things" - subsidizing sports arenas, building convention centers or constructing large performing arts centers.

But the ground has shifted. In the last decade, for example, New York City leadership pressed hard (but eventually failed) to build a West Side sports stadium in hopes of drawing the Olympics. Fast forward to today and the city's top goal is to build a Silicon Valley-like applied sciences and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island in the East River in Manhattan.

"Stadia are parasitic; an applied science district is catalytic," Katz comments. And what the nation needs, he insists, is not just service and finance and real estate sectors. Or sheer consumerism. We need to develop a tradable economy, producing patents and advancing manufacturing that can keep the United States, and its smart regions, globally competitive.

And why? Because we're into a century of urbanization - across the globe. The challenge is whether our cities and metros will foster research and enterprises, small to large, able to match skills with the Rio de Janeiros, Milans, Shanghais, Sydneys and Bangalores in technology, design, industry, place-making and entrepreneurship.

The new world scene harkens back to history - for example, the city states of the Hanseatic League that around 1400 consisted of about 80 trading cities, among them Lubeck, Cologne and London, stretching across a broad swath of northern Europe. When my co-authors and I cited the Hanseatic League as emblematic of the future in our 1994 book "Citistates," we barely sensed how rapidly that scenario would unfold.

Indeed, today's ever-more-globalized and urban-focused economy, Katz suggests, "means city and metro leaders - corporate, university, elected - are not on the periphery of American policy. They're really going to be at the center of it, as national politics disintegrate."

Successful metros demonstrate an interesting interplay between place-making and economy-shaping. Denver's downtown became an example of new birth starting in the 1990s. Then, in 2004, came its leap ahead with its FasTracks regional rail system. Financed mostly locally, it created an image of Denver as a sustainable metropolis, able in turn to draw in "green" firms and sell their ideas and products to the world.

Is there a federal role? Surely there is continued strong need for federally oriented trade agencies, negotiating with other nations and helping our firms and regions export more effectively, along with the Small Business Administration and others. And hopefully - someday - we'll have a reformed national tax policy that's tilted more to production and innovation, far less to consumption. 

But it's also true, Katz reminds us, that "the United States is a quintessential federal republic," with large powers and roles - from schools to higher education, transportation to administrative powers - devolved to states and localities.

So the new focus on cities and metros is reminiscent of ebbs and flows of federalism over history. Such cities as Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago and Syracuse are currently devising deliberate export strategies. Katz predicts that by next year, 25 cities "will come forward with their own intentional export strategies - as different from pre-recession urban strategy as you can imagine."

At the same time, notes Mark Muro of Brookings, several state governments, most notably in Colorado, New York, Tennessee and Nevada, are actually reaching out to encourage their metro regions to organize across local borders to create economic strategies.

But one suspects it will be metros themselves that will be America's prime wedge of global innovation. It won't be easy: With a weakened federal government, they'll have to finance more of their own major projects, from research to transit.

But the bottom line is clear: The road map for our shared futures starts at home, in our own citistates.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.