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Best Futures for America Bubble Up from Our Regions

Manuel Pastor, Jr. / Dec 04 2008

For Release Sunday, December 7, 2008

Manuel Pastor It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. We have elected the first president in decades from urban America–and he seems to get the regionalist mantra. Running a campaign that tied together voters from cities and suburbs, he promoted a metropolitan prosperity agenda in place of the usual anti-poverty bromides. He coupled that with a commitment to social justice born from his early experience working for an interfaith group that was part of the Gamaliel Foundation, a network that has “regional equity” at the heart of its community organizing.

Yet, the incoming president also faces a tough economy and a propensity for some to say that smart planning for social inclusion is a luxury we can ill afford in a time of economic crisis. This is exactly wrong: we are only as strong as our weakest link. And there’s little doubt that the distributional excesses of the last decade are at least partly to blame for the mess we are in.

It is tempting to put inclusion to one side. Traditional economic theory has often posed a seemingly intractable trade-off between economic efficiency and social equity, suggesting what’s good for one may be bad for another. In hard times like these, business and politicians argue, the constraint is especially tight: we need to celebrate the creation of any job.

But a spate of research on America’s metropolitan regions suggests we can and should aim higher–that those metros that make more progress on reducing poverty, segregation, and inequality actually grow faster.

In one sense, this is no surprise: it’s exactly the desperation, separation, and isolation of some communities that has caused these places to underinvest and fall behind. And the national parallel seems clear: our financial crisis was preceded by widening disparities that drove people to borrow to stay afloat, our foreclosure crisis was triggered in part because segregation and sprawl drove new homeowners to the hinterlands, and our current economic crisis reflects our inability to compete, partly because we have neglected basic infrastructure and education.

But we can also learn from the new regional efforts of the last decade to find a positive national path.

First, we need to recognize the importance of just plain talking. Many regional efforts of recent years have seemed to be just so much speechifying–a good friend labels them an “endless series of conferences.” But new regional dialogues–face-to-face, race-to-race, and place-to-place–have also created fertile terrain for finding common ground. And strikingly, this is exactly the sort of message of shared fate and cross-constituency organizing that Obama found resonated in his campaign.

Second, business needs to embrace the possibilities of a “bottoms up” approach. Regional examples of this abound: business organizations like Chicago Metropolis 2020 have pushed hard for affordable housing; business-philanthropic initiatives like the Fund for Our Economic Future in Northeast Ohio have stressed the need to support and grow minority business. We need to translate to the nation this regionalist understanding that firms do well when they partner with disadvantaged constituencies, invest in workforce development and accept the sort of employment and community standards that can lift everyone up together.

Third, community and labor groups need to evolve their own perspectives, moving beyond economic justice to just economics. It’s all well and good to secure community benefits when benefits are to be made. But a serious approach to growth requires understanding sector clusters, supporting selective investments in infrastructure, and working hard to connect low-skill residents with economic development opportunities. Here, too, the regions offer reason for hope–such groups as the labor-affiliated Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy have coalesced environmental and community allies to support the growth of a trade industry vital to the future of Southern California businesses.

Can we bubble up these regional efforts to a new national consensus on the importance of conversation, competitiveness, and cohesion?

Three years ago, I set off with two other researchers to interview on-the-ground leaders who were blending regional growth and social equity. We initially hoped to offer a sort of “best practices” handbook. But we soon found that the best of these advocates were not really in it for a transit stop or a housing project or an urban boundary. They were instead hoping to refashion our understanding of public life, the connections between communities, and the ways in which our fates are intertwined.

Arguing that these new efforts could jump from the region to the nation, becoming an antidote to the corrosive politics affecting Washington, we called the book (forthcoming early next year) This Could Be the Start of Something Big. It was an overambitious title, to be sure, and, anxious for a convincing close, we ended our first draft (back in January 2007) by highlighting an obscure Illinois Senator and how he had found his own language of cohesion while still a community organizer focused on issues of inclusion and economic recovery.

Today’s exciting possibility: that vision of a fairer and more sustainable society, built from our communities and regions up, may guide a whole nation.

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