Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Rust Belt Is Dead

Long live the Rust Belt.

I am still trying to process the mammoth Brookings "State of Metropolitan America" report. I plan to dig deeper into the chapter about educational attainment. For now, the big story is how Brookings has boldly served up a novel perspective on US geography:

In fact, my Brookings colleagues and I identify seven categories of metropolitan areas based on their population growth rates, their levels of racial and ethnic diversity, and the rates at which their adults have earned college degrees. Together, these indicators say a lot about not just these three dimensions of metropolitan populations, but also factors such as development patterns, age, household structure, economic history and trajectory, and income inequality. Associating metro areas in this way breaks them out of their traditional regional boxes, bringing together areas as far flung as Allentown and Jacksonville, Portland and Atlanta.

"Traditional regional boxes" describe an economy dominated by manufacturing. The post-Fordist world (if there is such a beast) is dominated by a network of global cities. World regional geography no longer makes any sense. I wish postsecondary education would wake up to that fact.

I argue that there are two geographic camps trying to map globalization. Richard Florida and his evangelizing of megaregions champions the old ways, simply retooling the contiguous abstraction for today's world. Brookings deconstructs Char-Lanta:

As leaders in these regions seek policy solutions and on-the-ground practices to capitalize on their demographic strengths and address their population challenges, they might think about looking beyond the metro next door. Indeed, Greenville may have more to learn from Little Rock than from Charleston, and Orlando might look to Phoenix rather than Miami. These leaders can also make common cause on the federal issues that matter most to their populations, such as expanding affordable housing supply (Next Frontier), educating immigrant children (Diverse Giant), or strengthening American manufacturing (Industrial Core).

Metro areas are where the demographic meets the economic. Our traditional regional identities will probably persist, but like Red Sox Nation, we have much to learn and gain from affinities that stretch across the national map.

Like Red Sox Nation. Like Steelers Nation. Like a diaspora.

Brookings identifies seven urban tribes. I'm having Joseph Campbell flashbacks. I'll call them metro cohorts. Indianapolis shouldn't be comparing itself to Cleveland or Detroit:

Those characteristics are redefining the Indianapolis area, making us less like industrial cities such as Cleveland or Detroit that we've been grouped with in the past and more like fast-growing Charlotte, N.C., or new immigration gateway Portland, Ore., the Brookings Institution says in a new report.

Sorry Indianapolis, there hasn't been a Rust Belt to unbuckle for some time. I don't know if Indianapolis was ever in the same boat as Cleveland or Detroit. I wouldn't be so smug. How do you compare with your new cohort?

Regional and megaregional thinking is a dead social science. It's a relic of late 19th-century British imperialism. It was popular among Nazi sympathizers. In the United States, the champion was Carl Sauer. If I'm confusing you, then I recommend you read this.

I don't know how it happened, but Brookings has come a long way in short time. Remember the Great Lakes Economic Initiative? John Austin's vision is buried six feet under. I think that's a good thing. The suggested megaregion was never coherent. More importantly, US politicians need a new geography to better understand a metro nation (if not an urban world). See Saskia Sassen.

In my opinion, Brookings has successfully pushed the geographic metanarrative forward. Get busy writing the next generation of textbooks for college students. Introducing the mental map of an urban-centric America.


The Urbanophile said...


I have my reservations about the megaregion concept as you know, but I'm not sure the Brookings study undermines that. They are classifying metros into common types. Just because these metros have commonalities and thus might learn from each other doesn't mean there is any relationship between them. Nor would the lack of commonality among metros in a given region prevent a relationship. I think one reason, for example, the notion of a Midwest megaregion has intuitive appeal is that it lends itself easily to hierarchical thinking, where cities like Chicago and Indianapolis are complementary, and thus can benefit from specializations amongst them. I'm not convinced of this, but it doesn't seem prima facie unreasonable that one would think that way.

Jim Russell said...


Make no mistake. The Brookings study is intended to be a game-changer, a new way of thinking. The press release is unequivocal in that regard.

The debate now is about how successful Brookings will be selling its geographic framework. None of the above precludes the kind of relationships you suggest. But as a student of geography, I contend that they are unlikely.

What you describe is a comfortable mental map, an old friend. The geographic construct is, without any doubt, more than century in age. Of course, there's nothing prima facie about this observation. Few people know who Carl Sauer is or that geopolitik was a taboo subject for almost 50 years.

Unknown said...

The new "mental map" is interesting and underscores the need for relevant benchmarking. But under the current circumstances, American cities — especially those in the Midwest — would be better served by a map that included cities in Western Europe and Southeast Asia. I think it might bring home the issues Richard Longworth raises in his most recent post.

The Urbanophile said...

I need to go revisit the "Vital Center" report as well. Has Brookings more or less blown up their Great Lakes initiative?

Jim Russell said...

I haven't heard anything suggesting that Brookings has abandoned the GLEI. But the think tank can't promote the more recent report and still stand behind the Great Lakes megaregional concept. The two policy geographies are radically different.

I write this having read all the documents associated with GLEI, particularly the research that went into settling on the right geographic construct. The State of Metro America is a dramatic break from that thinking.

It's breathtaking.