Welcome to The Avenue, a blog that will explore what it means to be a metropolitan nation.
Americans generally have a mental picture of a “city,” “suburb,” “town,” or “rural community.” We don’t have a mental map of metropolitan areas. They are a different, broader geography, that integrates all of these smaller places in a single landscape, in which people, goods, and social and environmental challenges cross municipal borders as if they weren’t even there.
Within metros, conventional stereotypes explode. More poor people now live in suburbs than cities. Immigrants routinely move directly to suburbs, skipping cities altogether. In our “exit ramp” economy, jobs are increasingly found dozens of miles from traditional downtowns, even as those cores find new life as centers of innovation. Old divisions between rural and urban have diminished: 50 percent of people who live in “rural” places actually also live within the boundaries of metropolitan areas.
Metros are not just sociologically engaging, they are critically important to the U.S. economy. In fact, they are the U.S. economy: All 363 metros in the nation are home to 83 percent of the country’s population and drive more than 90 percent of national GDP. But here’s the challenge: we may be a “metro nation” economically and socially, but we don’t act like one. Our competitors in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere are not making the same mistake.
Part of the problem is that metropolitan areas lack a single government home. Worse, federal and state policymakers do not invest strategically in metropolitan areas, despite their concentration of the assets that bolster GDP (including innovation, human capital, infrastructure, and quality places, which we will be blogging about incessantly). Instead, they tend to spread money thinly and evenly across the landscape. The result is that the nation invests in the wrong things in the wrong places rather than purposefully leveraging the assets driving our metro economies.
The primacy of metropolitan economies means that “metro policy” cannot be relegated to a small set of marginal programs and initiatives--where urban policy has been for two generations. One of our preoccupations on The Avenue will be connecting “the macro and the metro,” by examining the dynamic relationship between macro economic forces (such as reduced consumption and shifting trade balances), large scale policy reforms (including health care, energy and climate, and immigration), and metropolitan prosperity.
We will also highlight local and metro innovations that should drive national and state policy. The United States is at the tail end of 30 years of devolution, where city and suburban leaders out of necessity now occupy the cutting edge of program and policy innovation. The new surge of federal power and activism needs to build on the capacities and competencies of metropolitan leaders, rather than resorting to old top-down diktats.
As we discuss these issues, we will keep our eyes on happenings abroad. A global economy and super-sized challenges require us to think not just outside the box, but outside the nation.
So The Avenue will cover a lot of ground. This blog is a collaboration between the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and The New Republic, and the contributors will be the research and policy staff of the Metropolitan Policy Program and special guests. We look forward to starting a vibrant discussion about policies and places in America today.