Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Divided Michigan

Don't expect any cooperation between Great Lakes states in your lifetime. The megaregion is not a functioning geography. How can I be so sure? First and foremost, the states themselves are fractured and dysfunctional. A good example is Michigan (via Brian Kelsey) and the divisions between East and West:

So far, 34 states have voted on whether to ban union shops. Michigan has never gotten that far, but right-to-work supporters have a new approach.

The latest tactic? A law that allows right-to work zones as small as a county, rather than a statewide ban on union shops.

Some in West Michigan believe this region should be a test case.

Zones are ad hoc spaces that speak to the inefficacy of the dominant political geography. Detroit's hold on state power isn't working for Western Michigan. Cities such as Grand Rapids have more in common with Chicago than Detroit and highlight the folly of the Great Lakes Economic Initiative.

Here we are in new spatial territory, as a new metropolitan map is emerging that defines not the U.S. but our relationship to the world. Networks form the unifying thread of the new map. American metros relate to each other through complex supply chain networks and migration patterns that are based on the endowed assets, distinctive economic clusters and social/cultural histories of individual metros. Likewise, U.S. metros relate to foreign metros through trading relationships and the exchange of goods, services, people, and goods.

The new map defies our conventional way of thinking about the world. Proximity of place to place (say Cleveland to Pittsburgh) only counts for so much in the new world. The essence of what a place does (i.e., what goods it produces, what services it provides) matters more. ...

... At the same time, Florida's focus on megaregions (and the high speed rail that he says should link these places) is overly expansive. It is doubtful whether connecting Cleveland to Chicago is rooted in any economic connections and trading relations that matter today. In a constrained fiscal climate, such cross-metro infrastructure investments will just crowd out the kinds of transformative interventions that are needed within metros (e.g., rightsizing of cities around anchors, multimodal facilities at major logistical hubs, new energy infrastructure).

The new map is not a network of cities within some contiguous region. It is a connectivity profile of metros. Zachery Neal's research supports this perspective:

In the past, dominated largely by agriculture and mass commodity production, bigger was better. America’s largest cities served as what Walter Christaller dubbed ‘central places.’ These central places served people living in the surrounding territory, as a place to purchase goods and services, and to sell crops and livestock. Bigger cities drew people in from further away, fueling their economic growth. However, as technological developments allowed people and goods to be transported more quickly and cheaply, people were no longer as shackled to the closest big city. Well connected cities, tied to other places by rail lines and highways, and more recently by airline routes and the internet, could benefit from consumers’ demand and workers’ labor in other places.

Driven by such technological advances, the economic prosperity of American cities has become more tied to their connectedness than their sheer size. But, exactly what kind of connectedness is important can vary from place to place. Cities like New York or Chicago, which drew strength from their size in the past, today thrive largely by being well connected to other cities globally by multiple types of networks, serving simultaneously as transportation hubs, stock exchanges, and cultural centers.

The megaregion is a product of central place theory. I'm astounded that we still cling to such an antiquated way of thinking. It's an economic geography from a time before the last round of globalization that birthed the Rust Belt. We need to look forwards, not backwards.

In terms of talent management and workforce development, network geographies are nowhere to be found. Human capital connectivity and the prosperity derived from geographic mobility are foreign ideas. No wonder the United States is falling behind the rest of the world:

Many people have observed how the networks of overseas Chinese and Indians benefit their respective motherlands. Diasporas speed the flow of information: an ethnic Chinese trader in Indonesia who spots a commercial opportunity will quickly alert his cousin who runs a factory in Guangdong. And ties of kin, clan or dialect ensure a high level of trust. This allows decisions to be made swiftly: multimillion-dollar deals can sometimes be sealed with a single phone call. America is linked to the world in a different way. It does not have much of a diaspora, since native-born Americans seldom emigrate permanently. But it has by far the world’s largest stock of immigrants, including significant numbers from just about every country on earth. Most assimilate quickly, but few sever all ties with their former homelands.

Replace the countries of China and India with metros (e.g. Guangdong). That's the dominant economic landscape of today, not megaregions of multiple contiguous states. Via Cuyahoga County Planning Commission Weblog, a possible functioning policy geography:

The Cities in Transition Initiative is a three-year project designed to build a sustained network of leading policymakers and practitioners in five older industrial U.S. cities: Detroit and Flint, Michigan; Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio; and the greater Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania region. Through annual study tours, working meetings, and charrettes, participants in this network will work together closely to articulate critical policy challenges facing their communities and to identify and adapt innovative solutions that European older industrial cities have implemented to address the myriad challenges associated with urban disinvestment and economic restructuring. In each of its three years, the project will zero in on a different policy area affecting these cities: respectively, land use; manufacturing; and workforce development.

The results won't apply universally to Rust Belt cities. What works for Detroit won't necessarily benefit Grand Rapids. The box that is Michigan is part of the problem, not the solution.

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