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Think Locally, Act Globally: Changsha and Portland

A general view of buildings is seen near the Xiangjiang River in Changsha, Hunan province July 25, 2012.

We’re probably not going to see a “Changsha-dia” TV show anytime soon, but Changsha, the capital of China’s inland Hunan Province, has a lot in common with Portland, Oregon. They’re both midsize ($140 billion to 150 billion) metropolitan economies, split by a large river with many bridges, with expansive parks and green space, and a desire to develop sustainably.

Based on this connection, leaders from the two regions signed a mayoral-level trade city partnership last week in Changsha that connects Portland’s cluster of sustainability-focused firms, branded under the banner of “We Build Green Cities,” with the fast-growing Chinese market for environmentally-conscious urban development. 

Selling goods and services to foreign companies and consumers offers myriad challenges to American firms. Companies in the United States list language and cultural barriers and difficulty in locating foreign buyers among their top reasons for not reaching foreign markets, even when those places are powering global demand.

According to the Portland Development Commission, the city’s economic development arm which led the trip to China, the trade city partnership will aim to break down these impediments for Portland firms. “Now, when we meet with a firm that has an interest in China, our first thought will be that we have a strong partner in Changsha that can help our firm enter the market,” reports Michael Gurton of the Portland Development Commission, fresh off a long flight back from China.

City-to-city partnerships have traditionally been limited to “sister city” connections or cultural exchanges. But this kind of business relationship between cities in the United States and abroad is new and important as metro areas in rapidly-urbanizing nations like China drive global demand.

Relevant to Portland, pollution is fast-becoming an environmental, health and economic crisis in China’s growing cities, for example, which has pushed the national government there to take on an increased focus on combatting environmentally harmful emissions and activities. But political power in China is diffuse, with localities retaining significant authority over regulatory enforcement, investment and economic development. Thus, even new national rules and objectives on the environment, like those in the country's new environmental protection law passed in April, require the cooperation and ingenuity of local officials to have meaningful impact.

Portland’s focus on sustainability opens doors abroad for Portland’s other globally-competitive industries, as well. The region gained traction in Japanese markets through We Build Green Cities sustainability partnerships, for example, and has since seen a boom in trading opportunities in athletics gear and increased interest in foreign direct investment from that country. And in Medellin, Colombia, initial interest from a recent business trip about a district-level energy project has expanded beyond sustainability to Portland’s software and textile industries.

For more on Portland’s global strategies, check out The Metropolitan Revolution by my colleagues Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, who explain in detail the region’s path to its global orientation.

  • Amy Liu is a senior fellow, and co-director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. She and Bruce Katz, the Institution’s Vice President, launched the program in 1996 to provide decision-makers with the latest trends analyses, policy ideas, and on-the-ground practices to help metropolitan areas, compete and prosper. Over the years, she has worked directly with neighborhood, city, suburban, and rural leaders within metropolitan areas; and government, business and civic leaders at the regional, state, and national level to address the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing our communities.

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