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Cities, Metros Respond to a New Global Economy

Neal Peirce / Mar 19 2012

For Release Sunday, March 18, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWhile hyper-partisanship 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 founder 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 Fiorella LaGuardia famously remarked, “there is no Democrat 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’s 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, placemaking, and entrepreneurship.

The new world scene harkens back to history — for example the city states of the Hanseatic League which around 1400 consisted of some 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 placemaking 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’s continued strong need for federally-oriented trade agencies, negotiating with our nations and helping our firms and regions export more effectively, along with the Small Business Administration and others. And hopefully — some day — 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 — that are largely 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 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. And fresh efforts are underway, as Chicago exemplifies. Preparation of an ambitious new economic development plan announced Feb. 28 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel was in fact pulled together by World Business Chicago, a hard-headed business group. It warned of lost momentum and urged early action to sharpen Chicago’s ability to deal on the global stage. Top strategies proposed included advanced manufacturing, export promotion, and investment in next-generation infrastructure including transit, water and energy.

A separate challenge to Chicago, some days later, came in a report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, prepared for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. It called for much greater coordination of efforts across the full Chicago region — the 21-county area of the full Chicago-centered 21-county Illinois-Wisconsin-Indiana region. The area, it was noted, has 1,700 units of government (compared to just 34, for example, in Greater London). That makes it tougher to deal with regionwide challenges including disjoined job training and an aging, overloaded and underfunded transportation system. And then, the report noted, there’s the challenge of continued, divisive habits of jurisdictions offering tax incentives to firms ready to jump location from one to another.

Candid discussion of — and cures for — such obstacles is critical. Because it’s increasingly clear: the roadmaps for America’s shared futures need to start at home, in our own citistates.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Howard Wooldridge
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Good read. Challenges abound for our metro areas. I m not yet optimistic.

  2. Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    A very positive take on a persitently negative attitude that has held our mind sets hostage. Your closing remark “the roadmaps for America‚Äôs shared futures need to start at home, in our own citistates” is of importance. “Home grown” defines a creative approach.

  3. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted April 8, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I do not think they are creative enough. Time is also about to run out since minority-majority era babies were born last year and the improvement of their education has not happened significantly to make a difference.
    The US Has Made No Progress on College Graduation Rates in 30 Years
    Students who graduate college have been taught the skills they need at education level below.