Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Urban Policy Geography

My read on the policy geography described in the Brookings "State of Metropolitan America" has found a second wind. First, Innovation America founder Richard Bendis noticed "The Rust Belt is Dead" in his Innovation Daily. I don't know what in the post piqued his interest, but the Kauffman Foundation-backed Entrepreneurship initiative passed along Innovation America's link referral. Now, Brookings itself is addressing my analysis:

The portion of the blogosphere inclined to noodle over Brookings State of Metro America report, included some who now ask, “whither the Rust Belt?” and “whither the Brookings Great Lakes Economic Initiative?”.

I’m pleased to say all are alive and in forward-looking form. The Great Lakes Economic Initiative developed several years ago, not out of a DC-based “mega-region” overlay, but as I traded notes from my years as an elected official and public policy-shaper in Michigan and teamed up with similarly situated political, business and civic leaders from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and elsewhere around the region. We basically said, “Don’t we have a similar economic and cultural story? Aren’t we trying to treat the same problems; and leverage the same assets? Isn’t there more we can do working together to accelerate our economic transition?"

Yes, I am inclined to noodle. No, I'm neither part of the policy in crowd nor a "Pulitzer prize-winning former journalist". You might call my tracking of various political geographies a hobby. However, I think the tension between the two Brookings urban policy geographies is obvious. Can they co-exist? Do we need to reconcile them? Does my noodling at all matter?

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.

Depending on the issue, there is a proper geographic match for the policy solution. We won't solve very many environmental problems without international cooperation. Nor can we fix US cities through state-centric politics.

Berube uses the arid Interior West as an example of a megaregional challenge. Water scarcity limits urban growth and quality of life. I would suggest that there is more policy variance concerning water within the Interior West than Berube allows. The climate "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian" makes for a neat regional demarcation, but your watershed within that area matters more. But I think Berube would agree that the current situation is a jurisdictional nightmare. Acute scarcity is more often than not the result of bad politics.

I do acknowledge that there is a rhyme and a reason to the Great Lakes megaregion. But we should still ask if the geography matches the challenge. Does a network (e.g. shrinking cities) or contiguous area make more sense? Concerning the latter, smaller is better.

John Austin suggested I look at the initiatives addressing struggling auto communities. My knee-jerk reaction is to think that a network of such places is more appropriate. Here is a recent example of the megaregional framework in action:

America needs to transform its energy system, and the Great Lakes region (including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and western New York) possesses many of the needed innovation assets. For that reason, the federal government should leverage this troubled region’s research and engineering strengths by launching a region-wide network of collaborative, high intensity energy research and innovation centers.

I wouldn't paint the "troubled region" with such a broad brush. There's more political leverage in such a big coalition, but it's a poor geography for innovation. Urban corridors are much more promising:

Congress has funded three "energy innovation hubs" through the U.S. Department of Energy, drawing applications from across the country.

Business and civic leaders in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Morgantown, W.Va., hope to land one of the three. They recently applied for up to $130 million in federal money for a three-state "TechBelt" hub focused on bringing energy-efficient building technologies to market.

Last week, the U.S. House passed an "America Competes" bill that would fund even more energy-related hubs. The Senate will deliberate soon.

The Great Lakes deserves a good chunk of whatever federal funding emerges, Brookings believes.

"Populating auto country with an array of breakthrough-seeking, high-intensity research centers" could help "lead the region -- and the nation -- toward a more prosperous future," the think-tank's brief said.

Rebecca Bagley, president of NorTech, said Brookings is backing a strategy that could enhance energy-related opportunities across Northeast Ohio, including polymer development in Akron and research at Case Western Reserve's energy institute.

"It could potentially build our capacity to translate research from our institutions to companies and products on the market," Bagley said.

The above isn't a Great Lakes research network. It's an innovation cluster. The DOE will oversee three of these hubs. If the Great Lakes gets one (or even all three), I don't see how it will benefit the entire megaregion. And if Northeast Ohio wants to land the funding, then that region better get into bed with Greater Pittsburgh. But I don't see any rhyme or reason to reach out to Detroit, Minneapolis, or St. Louis. However, fostering a relationship with Greater Denver makes a world of sense.

In this case, the megaregional construct doesn't serve any purpose. I'm sure the TechBelt communities appreciate the attention from Brookings. But as far as landing one of the three innovation hubs is concerned, GLEI doesn't matter.

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