Op-Ed

A Blueprint For the Future

Bruce Katz

As an extraordinarily aggressive US primary election season comes down to the wire, it’s more remarkable to note how little has been said or proposed other than the relentless campaign trail mantras of “change” and “experience.”

Despite the pivotal and historic openness of the race, candidates of both parties have largely stuck to a script that is nearly 20 years old.

The candidates’ economic proposals are largely traditional (make the Bush tax cut permanent) or defensive (stop jobs from going overseas).

All remain silent on a positive vision that leverages the economic strengths of America’s metropolitan areas and also how to address their challenges—overstretched transport systems, a lack of affordable housing and a changing workforce that remains unprepared for the 21st century global economy.

This silence is all the more stunning as US urban areas, or “metros”, are the backbone of its economy.

According to the UN, 2008 will see a tipping point as the percentage of the world’s population living in cities and towns ticks over 50%. This point was passed long ago in the USA—a whole 83% of the American population lives in urban areas that together, drive and dominate the economy and house the nation’s wealth-generating industries, centres of research and innovation and ports of commerce.

The American economy has evolved into a series of clusters – networks of firms that engage in the production of similar products and services. Firms within these clusters crave proximity – to pools of qualified workers, to specialised services and to other firms so that ideas and innovations can be rapidly shared.

Density—the essence of urban places—matters even more in the knowledge economy than it did in the industrial economy.

But for all their assets and dominance, America’s leading metros cannot solve their myriad challenges or leverage their boundless opportunities by themselves; they need the support of higher powers, national not divine, in order to thrive and prosper over the long term.

However, for too long, national efforts to bolster metropolitan America have been piecemeal, created in isolation without regard to their impacts upon other goals.

Low-income housing is built overwhelmingly in poor, inner-city neighbourhoods, and many wonder why these places remain intractably mired in poverty. Meanwhile, many of the entry-level jobs that serve as a ladder to the middle class have moved to the suburbs.

Transport investments that tie goods and people together are also made with politics paramount and little regard to their impacts on housing and the provision of access to jobs.

If metros are going to grow their economies, the federal government must make strategic investments in science and technology, as well as support business growth with skills training and healthcare cost reform.

If metros are going to grow in sustainable ways, smart federal and state policies are needed on transportation, housing, land reclamation, brownfield remediation, and energy efficiency—and a market-shaping commitment to environmental sanity that reduces our carbon contribution to climate change.

If metros are going to grow a strong middle class, federal commitments are required to improve access to quality education at all levels, enhance skills, reduce the costs of being poor and ultimately grow assets and wealth.

Overall, as we approach the November 2008 presidential election, the US needs a national agenda to give cities and metros the rules and tools to leverage their economic strengths, grow in environmentally sustainable ways and build a strong, diverse and resilient middle class.

The US is, in short, a full-fledged “metro nation”; it is high time it started acting like one.

More