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Urban-Metro-Global: Our New Economic Imperative

William Stafford / Jun 11 2009

For Release Thursday, June 11, 2009

William Stafford For 17 years I’ve been privileged to organize Seattle region delegations of dozens of business and civic leaders on study missions to citistates around the world.

Such heavyweight global regions as Shanghai, Munich, Dublin, Hong Kong, Helsinki, Melbourne, London, Singapore, and most recently Abu Dhabi and Dubai, have all been targets of our missions. The effort, still unique among U.S. regions, has been led and coordinated by my organization, the Trade Development of Great Seattle, an affiliate of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

What each visit has underscored for us is how central cities’ hopes, fortunes, and place in the world are tied to those of the entire metro regions around them.

In the 1970s, the vision of metro regions as national and world players was just in its birth — sparked by such mayors of the era as Wes Uhlman of Seattle (for whom I handled intergovernmental relations) and Thomas Bradley of Los Angeles.

Authors and analysts have helped the effort — among them Robert L. Bish with his book on the public economy of metropolitan areas, Bill Barnes’ writings on the common market of North America, and Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson’s concept of major metro regions as the citistates of the modern world.

Currently, the work of Bruce Katz and his colleagues in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program has focused the compelling need for national development policy grounded in metro regions’ economic strength.

Thomas Cochran, veteran executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says Americans should focus less on the Gross Domestic Product measure, more on the Gross Metro Product (GMP) of our regions. The New York region’s total — $1.2 trillion dollars — is larger than India’s. The combined output of the “top 10″ U.S. metros, he notes, is greater than that of 37 states.

While we’re legally a nation of states, says Cochran, “our economy functions as a conglomeration of metro areas” — a fact that federal policies “do not yet acknowledge.”

Cochran talks of a new political alignment: “I have large counties,” he told a recent “Meeting of the Minds” conference in New York, “calling me and saying we’d like to join the Conference of Mayors. We ‘gotto get down’ and do the politics, form a political operation to demand” more responsive federal policies. “I’m going to start talking to urban county leaders,” he asserts.

The reality I see is that Americans, for too long, have remained oblivious to the increasingly competitive nature of the global economy — competition, hitting us from powerful metro regions worldwide, confronting workers, managers and owners in every office, factory and living room in America. Our jobs and businesses are now challenged on every front from software to airplanes, international education to automobiles, beef to medicine.

Our federal government, working collaboratively and responsively with the regions that are the core of our economic strength, needs to respond. President Obama, himself an urban man, ought to grasp this. A potentially key figure in his efforts should be his new Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke, who saw the challenge first-hand as a member of our Trade Alliance’s board of directors for seven years (before advancing to the Washington state governorship).

Why a national effort? To me our metropolitan areas resemble the ancient Greek city states, which only united when the Persians, under King Darius, marched across their borders. Global competition is today’s equivalent of Darius, whose attacks awoke the Greeks to the danger they were in.

The federal government needs to respect the economic powerhouse of the regions, but also help them see opportunities and forge strategies.

Before other communities, our Greater Seattle region — 80 communities including Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Bellevue — was obliged to confront global realities. We found one of every three of our jobs (sparked by such industries as Boeing and Microsoft) was tied to the international economy. We staged our study missions precisely to keep and advance our competitive edge. The Barcelona visit in 2002 led us to create a metropolitan “Prosperity Partnership” that today is mapping our competitive course.

Every U.S. metro now needs a strong global strategy, with the federal government helping us to pull jointly, not separately.

Put another way, just as the urban policy of the United States is becoming metropolitan policy, so must metropolitan policy — to keep the United States competitive globally — become national economic policy.

Wes Uhlman used to quote Benjamin Franklin, who, as he signed the Declaration of Independence, said “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” Franklin also created a drawing of a snake representing the 13 colonies with the slogan, “Join or Die.” Today, his drawing would best be titled — “Cooperate, or Decline.”

William Stafford is president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle. His e-mail is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to