WASHINGTON: “American Metro Regions Take Center Stage.”
That’s the title of a new report I’ve been working on with colleagues. And we know that some people will immediately retort:
“Metros? You can’t be serious. How about Obama, Romney, congressional stalemate, the tea party, states in budget crisis — and all the other news flavors of the moment?”
And our reply: Flying almost undetected under the news radar, America’s metropolitan regions are becoming central to today’s American story — and future.
Our Citistates Group study, enhanced by a group of regional experts we convened at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Pocantico estate along the Hudson River last October, discovered eight top reasons.
First, economics now reigns. Leaders in the regional pack — New York, Seattle, Atlanta, Dallas, the San Francisco Bay Area and others — recognized early that the entire globe was their market. They moved ahead of the pack on trade; they attracted entrepreneurial immigrants; they focused on quality universities and attracting knowledge-based populations. As America’s consumer economy sputters, smart export-oriented regions are now poised to prosper for the long run.
Second, there’s “smart growth — regions’ new dollars and sense.” The sprawl development patterns of recent decades now look like disasters, both for developers and buyers. Environmental conservation and compact growth have become top goals for smart regions.
Third, lead regions are “getting it” — grasping that with weakened state and federal governments, they have to figure out their own futures. Symbolic: Dozens of mayors are forming coalitions for collaboration in such cities and regions as Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Denver prospers with an enhanced reputation from its courage in adopting — and largely paying locally for — an ambitious regional rapid rail system. Ditto the Los Angeles area for the Alameda transit corridor, enhancing the regional economy, reducing congestion and cleaning up the air.
Fourth — regions are getting down to business, actually adopting full-scale business plans to place themselves in the world series of job competition. Northeast Ohio and Minneapolis-St. Paul are top examples. On a parallel track, the Climate Prosperity Project has worked with such regions as St. Louis, Denver, Portland and the Silicon Valley to help corporations create “green prints” to save money, increase efficiency and gain a competitive edge.
But — No. 5 — regions’ business success must go beyond mere “business.” Smart strategies encompass equity — for example, infrastructure to connect workers to jobs, increase business efficiency and revitalize distressed neighborhoods. They recognize that clean air and water are key to competitiveness. Cultivating quality of place — inviting streets, well-kept parks, enticing cultural facilities — are all key to drawing, retaining talent.
Sixth, some states are moving from paternalism to partnership with their regions. Historically, governors and legislatures have more often preferred to micromanage local governance rather than recognize that metros are their true “cash cows,” the chief contributors to state coffers. They’ve encouraged cities and suburbs to compete, not collaborate, and actually incentivized greenfield development over smart reuse of urban space.
A most glaring example: New York state legislators in 2008 cavalierly rejected New York City’s bid to emulate successful models from Singapore and London for a system of congestion pricing to reduce vehicle paralysis on Manhattan streets during business hours. The multibillion-dollar revenues could also have been used to upgrade the city’s clogged public transit system.
But more recently, some states are waking up, providing incentives to regions to come up with clear growth strategies. Among the leaders: New York, Colorado, Tennessee and Nevada. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s program to spur local growth, says an Albany-area leader, is helping “to nurture a Capital Region economic ecosystem that is locally collaborative, globally competitive and economically vibrant.”
Seventh — there’s a new federal role, symbolized by the Obama administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a remarkable collaboration of government departments (Housing, Transportation, Environmental Protection). They’re challenging local areas (through competitive grants) to overcome traditional “silos” and work together on land use, transportation, workforce economic development and infrastructure investments.
Eighth — it’s all about outcomes. Whether the issue is a major infrastructure project, stimulating exports or improving workforce readiness, smart regions form networks that find ways to strategize without being tripped up by their areas’ familiar thicket of separate cities, towns and governments. They understand the entire region is the “real” city of an urbanized century, and must act that way or falter. They insist on defining clear outcomes, then mobilizing broad resources to achieve them.
Is any of this perfectly realized? Are some regions deficient in clear leadership? Do some state governments inhibit effective regional initiatives? Is there danger of a federal funds cutoff for projects of true national importance? The answer is “yes” on all counts.
But our conclusion is clear: There are promising new models for regions’ self-determination, for strategic federal support, for states shifting from micromanagement to constructive partnership. Applying them all would mean a stronger America. The question’s no longer “how” — it’s mustering the will.
Peirce is a Washington Post Writers Group columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.