A New National Approach

A New National Approach

Metro areas catalyze America’s growth, but a lack of federal policy has lead to serious challenges in these regions. What can be done?

Ideas, wealth, and people are not restricted by the political boundaries defined by cities and states, and so neither should government policy, proclaimed Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. In fact, metropolitan regions — areas of interdependent cities and suburbs that cross numerous political boundaries — generate the vast majority of the country’s assets, according to the group’s new report, MetroNation: How U.S. Metropolitan Areas Fuel American Prosperity.

But these economic powerhouses are slipping behind, he said, and it’s because of an unfocused and inattentive national policy. “The federal government is not cognizant of the value that metros play,” he said.

As a solution, Katz wants to restructure the federal approach to economic development by giving more flexibility and authority to regional decision makers, coupled with more accountability, and better data to make decisions with.

We “need to change our mental map of the United States,” Katz proposed, “from a union of 50 states to a network of 363 highly connected, hyperlinked and economically integrated metropolitan areas.”

To prove just how important metros are, the report points out that the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas contain 65 percent of the nation’s population, 68 percent of its jobs, 75 percent of graduate degree holders, and 95 percent of public transit passenger miles traveled — all within 12 percent of the nation’s land area. (Cities account for half of the employment within these regions.)

“America’s metropolitan areas are not part of our national economy, they are the national economy,” it says.

“A new global order has positioned metro areas, cities and suburbs together, as the engines of our national prosperity and the vehicles for achieving social progress and environmental sustainability,” Katz added.

But the federal government adopts “policies that betray no understanding of how our metropolitan-dominated economy works. And they saddle metropolitan leaders with fragmented, diffuse programs that ignore how thorny public policy problems interrelate and spill across state and local borders,” the report continues.

As a result, the metros of America face serious challenges. The specter of growing international competition, rising domestic income and education disparity, and environmental challenges now put America’s future at risk. Productivity growth has slowed, job creation and degree-attainment lags behind the international competition, sprawl is rampant, and infrastructure is dated, it states.

So what can the federal government do to improve our infrastructure, provide for our human capital, and encourage innovation? To answer that, they will release a series of detailed reports over the next year, culminating with to the presidential elections. But the report, and Katz himself, did offer some proposals.

The goal, Katz envisions, is to get the regions to work together. First, he proposes giving more authority to the conurbations, but says he would tie funding to specific planning goals, like reducing travel times, and broadening the middle class. And the report says the myriad but disparate federal programs must be brought together. “A centrally-funded, purpose driven National Innovation Foundation should reorganize and gather together the federal government’s fragmented and diffuse efforts to unleash innovation in fields such as information technology, engineering, and clean energy. Federal policy should also catalyze regional solutions to closely interrelated metro-wide challenges on land use, transportation, housing and schools. All the while, Washington should provide transparent and accessible data and information that to (sic) guide state and local policy design, implementation, evaluation, and constant adjustment.”

“I feel we can bring back a balance to federal, state, and local leadership,” Katz said.

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