What the Delegates Can Learn From Denver

Jennifer Bradley and Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University

August 25, 2008

What will delegates take away from the Denver conventions? T-shirts, buttons, business cards, policy papers, and the memory of Barack Obama’s history-making acceptance speech, of course. But the delegates should also absorb some lessons from Denver itself. The Denver region is the shape of things to come.

The Denver metropolitan area has transcended the old, destructive city versus suburb dichotomy. Our obsession with the differences, disconnections, and competition between cities and suburbs is irrelevant now, because the key social and economic units in American life are metropolitan areas, combining cities, suburbs, and rural swaths in an integrated whole.

The new Blueprint for American Prosperity project from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program shows that metropolitan areas, not individual cities or suburbs, are the engines of our national economy. Metro areas are home to the workers and firms that drive prosperity, and important assets like innovation and infrastructure.

The nation’s 363 metropolitan areas are home to 83 percent of the population, yet generate 86 percent of U.S. jobs and 90 percent of the nation’s output. The Denver metro contains about half of Colorado’s population, yet accounts for more than 60 percent of its state gross domestic product. Metro areas are the real geography of American life.

Denver gets this. The region’s Metro Mayor’s Caucus brings 32 area mayors together regularly to address common issues like water resources, transportation, and development. In his recent state of the city speech, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper acknowledged the power of the metro, saying, “The most powerful changes in America today are taking place NOT in cities or states, but in metropolitan regions. As I’ve crossed the country these past 18 months raising money for our convention, I am most frequently asked how Denver has achieved such success on a regional basis.”

Denver area leaders not only connect across municipal borders, they connect different issues. In 2004, the region voted for a $5 billion plan, FasTracks, to build more than 100 miles of new light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit lanes serving 57 new transit stations. Communities around the new transit stations changed zoning laws to allow tighter, taller development near the rail stops, providing the density that enables more residents to reap the rewards of this great public investment.

As the Denver Post noted in a recent editorial, FasTracks “would be no more than a jumble of rail and concrete without careful zoning and transportation planning by the cities and counties served by the project.” Everyone can see the connection between where we live and how we get around now, thanks to high gas prices, but metro Denver made the link back when gas was $2.00 a gallon.

There’s nothing inherently unique about this metro that brings the mayors together or enables them to link housing and transportation. It takes leadership, patience, and imagination — and the Democratic delegates should bring these lessons home from Denver.

However, such efforts would go a lot farther if federal leaders also learned in Denver the need to encourage metro-wide collaboration and connect federal policies. Right now, federal housing, workforce, transportation and even homeland security programs, just to name a few, allocate resources to either parochial city or county bureaucracies or distant state agencies, which rarely see the metropolitan area as an economic or environmental whole. Different federal rules and resources could be powerful incentives for more city/suburban collaboration.

The federal government could also make it easier for cooperation-minded local governments to combine different federal spending programs in single, bigger-bang-for-the-buck projects. Currently, local efforts to use federal funds for combined projects, like denser development around transit stops, are stymied by headache-inducing differences in grant requirements and restrictions.

Better yet, the feds could combine both goals – more collaboration across borders and program areas – into a sustainability challenge grant. This grant would reward metropolitan partnerships that combine land use, housing, economic development and transportation programs to develop more sustainable communities, thereby rewarding innovation, integration, and collaboration all at once.

Denver points toward a model for the 21st century US, which will be – is in fact already– a full-fledged metro nation that is functionally and economically a network of metropolitan areas. Delegates, just look around.