Think Locally, Act Globally: Changsha and Portland

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.

The initiative featured here emerged from work begun under the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation and continued through the Global Cities Initiative: A Joint Project of Brookings and JP Morgan Chase. Brookings recognizes that the value it provides is in its absolute commitment to quality, independence, and impact.  Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment and the analysis and recommendations are solely determined by the scholar.