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Who Versus Where

Last week on this blog, I riffed about one of the more interesting findings to emerge from our State of Metropolitan America report—that demographically, our nation’s major metropolitan areas didn’t always look very much like their geographic neighbors. 

To illustrate the point, I looked at the Southeastern seaboard, which counts metropolitan members from each of the seven demographic categories we identify in the report, from the “Next Frontier” region of Washington, DC to the “Industrial Core” area of Augusta, GA. 

We argue that metropolitan demographic peers may have more to learn from one another than they do from their geographic neighbors.   We also call out the notion of a unified “Rust Belt” as glossing over the important demographic distinctions between, for example, the Rochester, NY; Cleveland, OH; Indianapolis, IN; and Chicago, IL regions.

However, many knowledgeable commentators have pointed out that Brookings houses a major research and policy initiative around the future of the Great Lakes region, which we define as encompassing territory (on both sides of the US-Canada border) from western New York and Pennsylvania in the east to eastern Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri in the West.

Not only that, but a companion initiative of ours, based here and at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, examines the trends and issues affecting large metropolitan areas of the Intermountain West, including those in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. These, too, are a diverse lot demographically, from fast-growing, diverse, and highly educated regions like Denver and Tucson, to less-diverse ones like Colorado Springs and Provo, to less-educated ones like Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Does this new demographic typology upend our last few years of work here on these “mega-regions?”

As the poet Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.”   Poetry aside, it is important to understand both demographic and geographic similarities among our metros if we are going to respond effectively to the many challenges they face.

Take water, a high-profile public policy issue in both the Great Lakes and Intermountain West regions, with a distinct character in each. The Great Lakes region has water in abundance, and the region faces challenges around how to maximize the economic and environmental value of the lakes themselves, as well as how to capitalize commercially on the scientific and technological opportunities presented by its position along the lakes. The metros in this region, despite demographic differences, share these challenges.

In the Intermountain West, the issue of water is instead one of scarcity—how to allocate limited water resources across an arid landscape with fast-growing needs. Metros in this region must likewise face this challenge, whatever their demographic differences.

The same could be said for common infrastructure issues, like freight travel in the Midwest (including across the US-Canada border), and car/truck travel in the Southwest (e.g., between Southern California, Las Vegas, and Phoenix).

But when we are talking about developing public policies, those similarities only take us so far. It is still a fact that metros within a given geographic area can vary greatly in their economic structures and growth trajectories.   Columbus, Ohio, and Albuquerque, NM, for example, have more in common with one another than they do with their geographic neighbors, Cleveland and Phoenix, respectively. 

State and federal policies around stabilizing the housing market and dealing with foreclosures, or ramping up renewable energy research, or attracting and retaining high-skilled immigrant workers, should reflect the reality that these issues are not uniformly shared across particular regions. Their impacts have much more to do with metropolitan-level population characteristics and dynamics that are not necessarily defined by traditional boundaries. Indeed, our new work around the future of the nation’s auto communities begins to associate many of the places that appear as “Industrial Cores” in our State of Metropolitan America report.

As our colleague John Austin argued in his 2006 report The Vital Center, regions like the Great Lakes were created not just by a shared geography, but by unique economic histories and common cultural experiences during the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. But if by 2010 Indianapolis and Buffalo look to be on completely different demographic paths, it’s worth pondering why that is—and what, if anything, public policy might do about it. We hope this latest typology kick-starts both intra- and inter-regional conversations of that sort.