“Metro Policy” in the United States | MIPIM-World Blog

The founding fathers and soul of America..

The United States has a conflicted attitude toward cities that dates back to the founding of the republic. Virginian Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and later the third U.S. president, foresaw an agrarian nation of “yeoman farmers,” arguing that, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” At the same time, New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, co-author of the Federalist Papers and later the first Secretary of the Treasury, argued instead for a diversified, industrialized American economy, gathered into communities “in which each individual can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigour of his nature.”


Hamilton’s vision eventually won out; the United States is today a highly diversified, highly urbanized economy. Yet the small-town idyll remains a large part of America’s collective identity, evident in political paeans to “Main Street” voters, substantial federal subsidies for agriculture, and the widespread popularity of musical genres from “country” to Bruce Springsteen.


Metro Nation

In the end, the United States is neither an urban nor a rural nation, but a full-fledged metropolitan economy and society. Two-thirds of its residents live in one of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, which combine economically interwoven cities, suburbs, and adjacent exurban and rural areas, on just 12 percent of the nation’s land mass. Those same metro areas generate fully three-fourths of U.S. Gross Domestic Product, and concentrate even greater shares of highly innovative firms, college-educated workers, and critical infrastructure such as ports and transit.



These 100 metro areas range from arguably the world’s most powerful economic region, the 20 million-person New York metropolis, to the aptly named 500,000-person Modesto metro area in the heart of California’s agricultural belt. The group includes several networks of metro areas related through their key economic clusters: globally prominent advanced services centers such as Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco; energy capitals such as Houston, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans; aerospace leaders such as Seattle, Wichita, Phoenix, and Hartford; logistics centers such as Atlanta, Dallas, Louisville, and Memphis; and globally recognized health care hubs such as Baltimore, Cleveland, and Minneapolis.


Metro governance deficits

Despite the global power and prominence of these metro areas, governance in the United States remains highly localized. Suburban communities account for most of metropolitan population and economic activity in the United States. They grew phenomenally throughout the 20th century, especially from the 1950s forward, and often at the expense of their nearby cities. Racial segregation in housing markets, massive investment in highways, declining urban industrial base, and deteriorating quality of city services all contributed to suburbanization and American ambivalence toward cities. Even today, metropolitan areas, especially in the older Northeastern and Midwestern portions of the country, are politically fragmented across hundreds of small suburban municipalities, despite the high degree of economic interdependence that suburbs and their cities exhibit.


Until very recently, however, national policy took little account of metropolitan areas. Beginning with President Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, and continuing through President Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s and President Reagan’s New Federalism of the 1980s, federal “urban policy” had been concerned mainly with the physical environment of cities—primarily affordable housing—and economic and human development in distressed communities. Federal policy makers paid little attention to the broader regional economic and settlement dynamics that either undermined or supported urban growth.


New Metro Policy

The Obama administration, however, began to embrace a new vision of “metro policy” focused on achieving national prosperity by strengthening cities and metropolitan areas. Several innovations along these lines deserve note.


First, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the “stimulus”) featured a series of substantial investments in the assets that undergird metropolitan economies—innovation, human capital, and infrastructure. Dollars for federal research and development, new models of urban education, road and transit repair, high-speed rail, and health care technology flowed disproportionately to metro areas.


Second, the administration advanced a series of proposals intended to catalyze multi-dimensional, multi-jurisdictional solutions to complex metro challenges. These included a new Regional Innovation Clusters initiative to support bottom-up job creation and economic growth strategies; a multi-year plan to invest in community colleges to increase completion and upgrade workforce preparedness; a National Infrastructure Bank to make market shaping investments based on economic evidence; and a Sustainable Communities Initiative to support the development of integrated regional plans that link housing, transport, jobs, and land use.


And third, the administration spearheaded a historic level of interagency collaboration, recognizing that the complex challenges facing U.S. metro areas require integrated solutions that cross traditional agency stovepipes. Interagency partnerships on sustainable communities, youth disconnected from school and work, and residential energy efficiency have all helped to address important metropolitan issues in more coherent, coordinated fashion.


Implementation challenges and old scores


The transformative nature of these initiatives, however, should not be overstated. Many foundered on the shoals of hyper-partisan Washington politics and were short-lived or never enacted. Others failed to grapple with the legacy systems and balkanized program oversight that prevent flexible, integrated solutions to modern metropolitan challenges.


Metro Imperatives for the future…

A more robust metro policy must grapple with several additional hurdles complicating a productive role for the U.S. federal government. It must recognize that other much larger spending and regulatory policies—such as subsidized health insurance and the tax deduction for home mortgage interest—have distinct spatial effects that often dwarf policies explicitly labeled as “urban” or “metropolitan,” and make their effects more transparent to engage metro leaders. It must confront the distinctly anti-urban influence that states exert in policy arenas such as transportation, and drive more evidence into decision making at those levels. At the same time, it must also devolve more powers strategically in areas like housing and workforce development, catalyzing the formation of governance systems that match the geography of metropolitan economies.


The future of metro policy at the national level hangs in the balance of the November presidential election, too. A second Obama term would likely see renewed energy around many of the initiatives described above, as well as efforts to devolve certain powers and programs to metro entities in light of federal fiscal constraints. The Romney campaign and the Republican Party platform signal more interest in bolstering traditional state and local roles than metro-scaled efforts, and foreshadow deep cuts in many of the federal investment areas that drive metro prosperity. Shades of Hamilton versus Jefferson? Plus ça change…



Alan Berube, Metropolitan Policy Programme Brookings Institution.


Image: Flickr-Alex ’77

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