Find Metropolitan Solutions

September 27, 2007

On behalf of the citizens of Kansas City, and my colleagues on the City Council, I want to welcome you to Kansas City. I hope that you will take some time to explore our city, and that you feel supported in the work of this conference, because it is very important work that you do – especially now, as we gear up for another presidential election.

This will be a historic election. Not since 1952 has a race for the White House been without an incumbent president or vice president. This presents an enormous opportunity to set a new agenda for our country.

It’s also a perfect time to consider the theme of this conference: “Reuniting America.” This morning, I hope to encourage you to approach this notion of unity from an angle that might not be immediately apparent. My goal today is to show you that America needs to unify behind a new agenda for American prosperity, one that is geared to the realities of the 21st Century global marketplace. I want you to leave here with the understanding that we are not a divided nation of red and blue states, of separated enclaves of cities, suburbs and small towns, but rather that we are a metropolitan nation in an urban age. Lastly, I want you to come away from my talk concerned about what the federal government has done – or, more accurately, hasn’t done – to leverage the assets of our metro economy to ensure America’s prosperity far into the future.

First the bad news: The U.S. is in big trouble. As David Walker of the General Accountability Office has said recently, “The most serious threat to the United States is not someone hiding in a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan but our own fiscal responsibility.”

There are two sides to this warning. There’s spending, and there’s earning. Obviously, you can’t do the former without the latter. And in today’s world, America earns in metropolitan areas.

Consider these facts:

83 percent of Americans live and work in metropolitan areas
65 percent live and work in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas
74 percent of the country’s most educated citizens call metro areas home
84 percent of our most recent immigrants do as well
And metro areas offer 76 percent of our knowledge economy jobs

As Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution has observed, “metro areas are currently less than the sum of their parts politically. They are disorganized, fragmented, balkanized and rarely band together to push any major national policy through. Yet there is latent power here to be exploited.”

So, in keeping with the theme of this conference, I ask you, as the nation’s editorial page editors, to begin facing this challenge individually in your own communities, and then collectively, so we may build on our strengths as a metropolitan nation.

Our metro areas are at once divided and inextricably bound.

Consider your host city for this conference. On the surface, Kansas City is arguably one of the most divided metropolitan areas in the nation. If you look at our region on the map, you’ll find a pattern of streets and highways, much like any other city, except that ours has a state line cutting right down the center of it. Indeed, there’s an actual street here called Stateline Road which runs right through densely populated neighborhoods, where on one side residents pay taxes to Kansas and on the other they pay to Missouri.

In addition to this slash down the middle of our community, there are myriad other smaller borders, each subdividing our metro further still. Years ago, your hosts of this conference, the Kansas City Star published a fantastic series of stories called “Divided We Sprawl,” which revealed, among other things, that Kansas City has more separate municipalities per capita than any other metro area in the nation, and the series went on to detail the many impacts this landscape of separation has on our community as a whole.

One of the most memorable moments in this series was when reporters offered the perspective of a man who tours the metro area each day in a helicopter, giving radio reports on traffic congestion. From above, the man observed, there are no borders. There are just miles and miles of interconnected roads, and people scurrying back and forth working together to make the metro area work.

This perspective is truer than any map. The separation between our suburban communities and urban core areas is increasingly difficult to differentiate. It used to be that we worked downtown and slept in the ‘burbs. But that’s not so much the case any more. Only one out of every five metro area jobs are within 3 miles of downtowns. And more than one out of three of these jobs are more than 10 miles away from city centers. And that figure is growing.

Yet, despite this apparent trend in economic separation, these outer communities are not severing from the core. The old center cities remain iconic centers for metro areas as a whole. For instance, in Kansas City, the entire region remains defined by Kansas City, Missouri. More ominously, suburbs are not immune to the problems that are traditionally associated with the urban core. In the past, poverty was, for the most part, an inner-city problem. But it has increasingly become a suburban problem. This trend is so sharp that two years ago census data revealed that there are more poor people in the suburbs than in the urban core. That’s a first for America.

Again, as Katz suggests, there’s power here – and you can help us capitalize on that power.

In addition to being the engines of the American economy, metro areas also fuel national political campaigns. According to a recent piece in the New York Times, 60 percent of the campaign contributions for the current presidential race have come from residents of ten metro areas.

These contributors are your readers, and you, as the strongest voices of your communities, are intermediaries. You can educate your fellow citizens about the reality of their own prosperity – that they are not divided into urban and suburban enclaves but rather wholly dependent on one another as part of a metro economy. And you can show them, by extension, that they’re part of constellation of similarly constituted metro areas that comprises the bulk of the American economy – that their challenges are the nation’s challenges.

And, perhaps most significantly, you are uniquely empowered to ask tough questions of those who aspire to lead our nation, and to demand accountability. Our next president will listen to you. These candidates crave your endorsement.

What a great opportunity you have right now to leverage this powert. In this historic election season, one with such wide open potential, you can ask, What are you going to do to ensure the economic prosperity of my community?

What are you going to do to capitalize on the immigration boom? What are you going to do to fix our crumbling infrastructure? What are you going to do to solve our transportation problems? What are you going to do to close the gap between wages and prices? What are you going to do to make our education system top notch? What are you going to do to spur innovation? What about environmental sustainability? National trade laws? Corporate governance?

These issues directly impact your metro areas and mine, yet local leaders such as myself have limited power to craft comprehensive policies to deal with them.

The fact is that the federal government has not adequately answered these questions.

That’s why I and other business and civic leaders have joined forces with our counterparts in other metro areas across the U.S. to move a metropolitan agenda to the forefront of the presidential campaign debate and force the hand of the candidates – among them, hopefully, the next president.

In the coming months, this diverse and widespread coalition will be, with the help of the Brookings Institution, unveiling a Blueprint for American Prosperity. It will begin in November, with a major study detailing the ways in which metro areas drive the American economy, and how they are vital to America’s continued strength in the global marketplace.

Among the groundbreaking information revealed will be productivity numbers for metropolitan areas. Currently, the only productivity data we have to work with is national and state level. This will be big news – one of the top stories of autumn.

Then, in February, we will begin pushing for a major reform of the federal system so that metro areas can prosper to their full potential.

Throughout the spring, you’ll see a steady drum beat of strong policy recommendations for innovation and economic growth, education, environmental sustainability, transportation, housing, immigration and poverty.

Put simply, we’ll be asking our leaders in Washington to do the job they’ve been neglecting.

As Bruce Katz of Brookings recently observed, “just as cities and metro areas need smart national and state policies to realize their economic potential and grow in sustainable and inclusive ways … so the nation needs an agenda that recognizes and reinforces the economic, environmental and social potential of cities and metro areas.”

That, my friends, is what we need to be talking about when we approach the challenge of reuniting America. I urge you to help us lead that discussion.