Courtesy Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program

Urban communities represent the true economic geography

The early decades of this century are shaping up to be historically disruptive and defining. The global economic order is in a state of radical transition. New environmental imperatives and safety concerns are driving the extreme makeover of national energy systems. Rapid technological innovation is both expanding individual choice and enabling collective action. Social inequities and political volatility are at a fever pitch.

One unifying, simplifying thread emerges in this tumultuous period: the power of cities and metropolitan areas.

The world has arrived at a Metropolitan Moment. For the first time in history, cities and their metropolitan environs house more than half of the world’s population. In the United States, metropolitan areas contain 84 percent of the population and generate 91 percent of GDP.

Metropolitan communities, here and abroad, represent the true economic geography. They agglomerate the world’s talented workers, innovative firms and risk-taking entrepreneurs, and concentrate unique assets and industry clusters that define regional competitiveness and drive national economies. They are also the undisputed vehicles for environmental sustainability and social inclusion.

Such concentrated power demands new levels of responsibility. With many national and supra-national levels of government dangerously adrift, the onus is on cities and metros to act like the engines of national prosperity they are and lead the economy-shaping, talent-preparing, place-making, and environmental-stewarding that this disruptive period demands.

Metros are stepping up to the challenge. In Europe, Munich has become an innovation and production powerhouse by strengthening the relationships between government, research institutions, global companies and labor skilling institutions. In Asia, Seoul is pursuing a bottom-up effort to grow knowledge-based industrial clusters tied to major development projects in the city.

In the United States, a growing number of metro areas, challenged by an economy stuck in place and a federal government paralyzed by excessive partisanship, are likewise inventing a new playbook for prosperity and a new style of governance.

First, they are innovating locally to engineer the shift from an economy characterized by debt, consumption and income inequities to one driven by exports, powered by low carbon, fueled by innovation and rich with opportunity.

A geographically diverse set of places—Cleveland/Akron, Los Angeles, Louisville/Lexington, Memphis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Phoenix/Mesa, Portland, Seattle, and Syracuse—are designing and implementing metropolitan business plans to grow jobs for the near term and reshape their economies for the long haul. 

These metros are adapting the discipline of private sector business planning—evidence-based, solution-oriented, performance-measured—to the task of revitalizing and restructuring metropolitan economies. The result is the flourishing of deliberate and purposeful strategies that build on the distinctive assets, attributes and advantages of these very different economies.

Take Greater Seattle, which intent on becoming the global hub of clean IT, is establishing a new facility to test, verify and rapidly take to market new energy saving technologies that can be deployed in residential, commercial, industrial and retail buildings. Or Los Angeles, which is inventing a bottom up export strategy to build on the distinctive goods and services produced in a diverse metropolis that is expanding trade with Asia, Mexico, and Latin America.

Second, U.S. metros are advocating nationally to enlist the help and support of their states and the federal government.

Greater Seattle, for example, has obtained a commitment from Washington State to match any resources secured to deploy their clean IT strategy. California leaders recently announced a new economic development framework heavily oriented to expanding international trade to scale up the export innovations of Los Angeles and other metros.

More broadly, Colorado, New York, and Tennessee have all initiated state economic development strategies that intentionally build upon and align with the distinctive action plans of cities, counties and metropolitan areas.

Working together, metros are campaigning for federal support of metropolitan innovations that grow jobs. The U.S. Conference of Mayors jobs agenda, released earlier this month, calls for the federal government to use its substantial export infrastructure (e.g., the Ex Im Bank, the International Trade Administration, the Small Business Administration) to help 25 metros devise their own, home-grown metropolitan export plans over the next two years.

Finally, U.S. metros are networking globally to broaden the possibilities of trade and exchange, particularly with mega-metros in rising nations like China, India, and Brazil. U.S. metros must increasingly look abroad not only for markets for their goods and services but for sources of investment and talent. And that’s what many are doing.   

In Northern California, for example, the Bay Area Council has become a foundation of respected, actionable, up-to-date information about what the metropolis trades with whom. This platform is supplemented by the activities of private/public organizations like China SF, which acts as a matchmaker between firms wanting to sell goods and provide services to China and Chinese investors looking for investment opportunities in the Bay Area.

The new metropolitan playbook is altering thinking and action across a broad cross section of metropolitan leadership. Transformative initiatives are being delivered and co-produced by networks of corporate, political, civic and community leaders. Governance is replacing government as the vehicle for change and, in the words of Colorado Governor and former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, “collaboration has become the new competition.”

America’s Metropolitan Moment has arrived and it is making innovative communities sharper in focus, more collaborative and cohesive in action and more globally fluent and connected. The tantalizing promise is that this Moment will also rebuild the nation – economically, socially and politically – in the process.

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