Big cities aren’t dividing America. They hold the key to our collective future

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Over the past several years, it’s become increasingly convenient to label cities and metro areas as “blue” and prosperous and rural areas as “red” and distressed. This dichotomy pits urban and rural communities on opposite sides of America’s economic, political, and cultural divides.

The fault lines are real, at least in the aggregate. They are evident in the economic gulf between Biden and Trump counties in the 2020 election, and in the widening growth chasm between rural and urban counties revealed in the 2020 census. They have spurred growing calls to save American democracy by way of taming urban America and reinvigorating smaller towns.

However, this zero-sum narrative not only hardens our divisions, it also misses the point. It’s our major metro areas that are at the forefront of global innovation and rapidly evolving social and economic dynamics. City and regional leaders’ ability to navigate these changes—including the common challenges and interdependencies they share with rural leaders—will dictate America’s collective future.

City fortunes have changed

Today’s focus on the urban/rural divide would have been hard to predict 25 years ago. In 1996, Brookings founded a new program on urban and metropolitan policy to make an affirmative case for cities when they were widely regarded as crisis points. Most were embroiled with issues like crime, poverty, and fiscal distress stemming from decades of federal policies that concentrated poverty in the urban core and opened the suburbs to white flight.

As a case in point, our home city of Washington, D.C. was at the time governed by a congressionally-appointed control board, later chaired by our former Brookings colleague Alice Rivlin, which was charged with addressing structural budget deficits and public-sector mismanagement. Our first major report at Brookings, aided by the arrival of GIS mapping, depicted how the economic and social divides in the Greater Washington region did not fall neatly along city-suburban lines, but ran east-west, in which parts of the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland were saddled by poverty and disinvestment, hurting the whole region.

When Mayor Anthony Williams regained control of the District’s finances in 2001, he embraced Rivlin’s audacious vision to reverse 50 years of population decline and grow the city by 100,000 residents in 10 years. While it eventually took 15 years, D.C. achieved that goal, and more. Today, the city faces a very different set of challenges than in 1996, as long-time residents struggle to afford housing and prosper from the region’s revival and increased high-tech status. Even more than 25 years ago, communities across the Greater Washington region share in those challenges.

Big metro areas are windows into our future

The fall and rise of Washington, D.C. offers a metaphor for the wider resurgence of metro areas, especially the largest ones, in the U.S. and global economy. Over the past quarter-century, those economies have heaped an increasing share of their rewards on highly educated workers and the urban industries in which they predominate. Together with the accelerating demographic and economic mixing between major U.S. cities and their suburbs, this means that America’s future is shaped principally by its largest regions: 56 metropolitan areas with populations exceeding 1 million, from Fresno, Calif. to Greater New York, now account for more than half (57%) of the nation’s population, 60% of its jobs, and an astonishing 66% of its total economic output.

Beyond their current demographic and economic heft, America’s largest city-regions also foreshadow the country’s future makeup. In 2000, residents of these metro areas were already 38% Latino or Hispanic or non-white (compared with 31% of U.S. population overall), presaging their 42% representation across the entire U.S. population in 2020. Today, more than half of very large metro residents are people of color, a little more than 20 years ahead of the U.S. Census Bureau’s projection for when our country will mark that milestone.

A similar “future is now” dynamic characterizes large-metro economies, too. Digital, scientific, and professional services account for an outsized share of U.S. innovation, and more than one in three new U.S. jobs in the past 20 years. Today, these industries account for almost 9% of U.S. jobs, up from 7% in 2000. But in big metro areas, they were already 9% of jobs in 2000, and today represent 11% of employment, a harbinger for the continuing digitalization and knowledge-intensive growth of the U.S. economy in decades to come.

Of course, our large cities and regions have always paved the way for American progress. From the nation’s founding in New York and Philadelphia, to the Industrial Revolution in New England’s mill cities, to World War II’s “arsenal of democracy” in Detroit and the cities of the Midwest, to the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham and the cities of the South, to the advent of the modern technological era in Silicon Valley and Seattle, our large cities and metro areas are the crucibles in which we continuously forge the America of tomorrow.

Metro leadership is essential for tackling America’s challenges

Today, America depends more than ever on the relentless forward progress its big metro areas have historically delivered. Urgent challenges face U.S. families and communities: technological schisms that exclude too many workers from opportunity; a proliferation of low-wage jobs that destabilize families; systemic racism that continues to strip wealth and power from Black and other communities of color; and an unsustainable approach to building our neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions that heightens economic and environmental risk and inequity.

While these challenges are not specific to any one type of American community, our major metro areas will face them first. Indeed, that’s already happening, because leaders in these places—in government, business, nonprofits, universities, community groups—are on the front lines of those challenges. They are investing in more diverse tech talent pipelines, raising minimum wages and job quality standards, supporting more resilient and equitable infrastructure, and seeking to restore value to historically Black neighborhoods. Those holistic approaches take shape through cross-sector alliances that bridge public and private interests, or downtown and neighborhood ones, often transcending partisan allegiances that stymie progress at the state and national levels. As these leaders do the work, they are also navigating rapid demographic changes that are upending traditional local power structures, ahead of similar trends that will increasingly transform a much wider swath of the American landscape.

If we hope to sustain the American experiment across this turbulent era, our big metro areas will need to lead the way. But we can’t expect them to go it alone. The challenges they face are larger, more complex, and more demanding of coordinated action than those of the past. Metro leaders need better information about what works, and what doesn’t. They need opportunities to innovate new market-based tools and practices that simultaneously address multiple challenges. They need networks of support with their peers to problem-solve together, to combine their voices to advance wider reforms, and to further hone their leadership.

Perhaps most of all, leaders in our major city-regions need greater authorities and assistance from their federal and state partners to meet their challenges at a metropolitan scale. Unprecedented flows of flexible federal dollars in the American Rescue Plan represent an important start; the new infrastructure bill and proposed social spending package promise additional, generational opportunities to encourage and enable bold new levels of problem-solving that traverse city, suburban, and even exurban boundaries. Democrats in California and Republicans in Indiana show that efforts to support metro success can transcend partisanship.

Metro progress can narrow the urban/rural divide

Supporting metro leadership could also help address America’s widening geographic disparities. Our largest city-regions are prosperous in the aggregate, but they are not equally successful. In fact, the national agenda to help left-behind places includes both urban and rural communities, which helps to explain the strong bipartisan interest it has garnered. Older industrial cities in the American heartland, like Birmingham, Cleveland, and St. Louis, are among those striving to reposition themselves by addressing racial segregation and fostering innovation, talent, and high-paying industries typically associated with their coastal counterparts.

Outside of the very largest metro areas, the differences between urban and rural communities are even more muted. According to economist Tim Bartik, the more than 500 chronically distressed local labor market areas around the country include a mix of metropolitan, smaller micropolitan, and rural communities that could benefit greatly from strategic federal support to recover from the pandemic recession. And just as not all cities and metro areas are prosperous, not all rural areas are poor. Nor are they a demographic monolith; people of color represent 24% of rural residents, and account for a majority of the population in an increasing number of rural counties. This blurring of urban and rural fortunes is analogous to the increasing similarities between cities and suburbs within metro areas.

As our largest metro areas tackle America’s most complex challenges, they can bolster the fortunes of more than 300 other U.S. metro areas and a host of smaller cities, towns, and rural communities. Metro prosperity often makes rural prosperity possible, especially when place-based strategies strengthen broader regional supply chains, protect and preserve natural resources, and improve the hard and soft infrastructure that bridges the urban/rural divide. Our Brookings colleague Tony Pipa has urged an overdue rethink and renewal of federal rural policy toward this end. One of us has argued for modernizing federal place-based regional economic development policies to revitalize distressed urban and rural economies, including building the capacity of local leaders to mount successful strategies. Along those lines, we can do much more to share knowledge and talent across communities of different sizes, enabling local leaders to adopt and adapt smart innovations regardless of their urban, suburban, or rural provenance.

Recommitting to Metro

Our journey toward a more perfect union cannot pit cities, suburbs, and rural areas against one another. But it will rely on large metro areas to invent America’s future, so that both they and our smaller communities can thrive. As we celebrate our 25th anniversary at Brookings, our updated name—Brookings Metro—represents that very vision: that every community can be prosperous, just, and resilient, no matter its starting point.