A New Urban Agenda
Daniel D. Luria and Joel Rogers
Cities and their surrounding inner-ring suburbs--what we will here call "metro"
or "urban" regions--are the neglected stepchildren of American politics. More
than half the population lives in them,1 and they suffer
from all sorts of problems--from ghetto crime, unemployment, and racial segregation
to environmentally-degrading and fiscally-unbalanced suburban sprawl--but
they are not subjects of constructive political debate. Commonly, indeed,
discussion of our urban areas serves only as an occasion to express despair
about economic dysfunction and social disintegration, and the resistance of
both to political remedy.
That despair is justified, we are just as commonly told, by an Iron Law of
Urban Decay: As incomes rise, workers move to suburbia; when suburbs mature,
they resist paying taxes to support the metro core; as the tax base declines
and services deteriorate, the middle-class flees, leading to further erosion;
poverty concentrates among those left behind, and they become "different"--disconnected
from labor markets, without role models for advancement, lacking the human
or financial capital even for bootstrap-pulling. In this context, we are told,
the best that can be hoped from central cities is peace, or at least a segregation
of the violence. The best that can be hoped for suburbia is . . . well, more
suburbia. But further sprawl only erodes the tax base of inner-ring suburbs,
wedging their residents between the spreading deterioration of the urban core
and the new roads, sewers, and schools for their increasingly distant suburban
"neighbors" on the edge. For their problems, angered inner-ring suburbanites
tend to blame their more proximate neighbors in the central cities, people
generally poorer and darker than themselves. Meanwhile, the wealthy seek to
insulate themselves--taking refuge in luxury urban high-rises, or cloistered
condo communities, or exclusionist "favored quarters" of exurban development.
It is an ugly business, all the more so because it does not have to be this
way. If we wanted, we could reconstruct our metropolitan regions. Taking full
advantage of their dense concentrations of people, skill, and infrastructure,
we could transform them from sites of hideous squalor, stark inequality, and
numbing natural destruction to vibrant centers of high-wage, environmentally-sustainable
economic activity and civil social life. If we did, the benefits would be
massive. Most directly, metro reconstruction would markedly improve the welfare
of urban populations. More broadly, it would make substantial inroads on addressing
the ruinous inequality and declining living standards that currently define
national economic life. Finally, with the economy conditioning most of the
rest of our lives together, such reconstruction would have large political
and social benefits. We would regain some measure of democracy and social
peace among the people of this country, making meaningful our now-fragile
commitments to shared citizenship, by focusing resources where most people
Despite these benefits, any serious project of reconstruction will need to
be fought for. That fight will require a wide-ranging alliance of interests:
large numbers of people, now divided from one another, must be persuaded of
their common stake in its success. And persuasion depends on the availability
of a plausible project capable of uniting these different interests. Can such
a project be stated? We think so, and present a case for our affirmative answer
For reasons of space, we present the project schematically, without reference
to the particular settings and histories--in cities as diverse as Milwaukee,
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Portland, Seattle, and Cleveland--that inspire our confidence
in the possibilities of metro reconstruction. Furthermore, while we have included
lots of details about what needs to be done and by whom, we understand that
such details are provisional: the best way to proceed will undoubtedly differ
from case to case, and, as projects of this kind unfold, we will all learn
more about the relative advantages of alternative strategies. Still, enough
is known now about what works, and what does not, that a new urban agenda
can be stated. And the stakes are high enough to think, we believe not irrationally,
that urban politics and policy might once again be rescued from obscurity
and despair, and made an issue for political debate and popular mobilization.
Before getting to that agenda and its politics, however, we need first to
make the case that something is worth doing, and that it can in fact be done--that
the Iron Law of Urban Decay is imposed by political artifice, not nature.
Why Save Cities?
How did cities get into their current mess? There is no simple answer, but
an important piece of the puzzle lies in American public policy. That policy
is, in a word, anti-urban. A bias against cities, evident in contemporary
public discourse, is a longstanding feature of the American political economy,
and plays a central role in our tax code, major economic development programs,
government purchasing, and other exercises of public power.
In contrast to most developed capitalist nations, American public policy
slights urban renters in favor of suburban homes, urban bus and subway riders
in favor of suburban automobiles, and urban infrastructure in favor of ex-urban
and rural development projects. Simultaneously, we do not require non-metro
regions to pay the costs of maintaining the poor and dispossessed who are
left behind by such acts of favoritism. Whether this anti-urbanism originated
in genuine concern about leveling the wealth of different regions, or in racism,
or in some misplaced notion that the happiest life was always found behind
the wheel of an automobile, the general effect has been to artificially lower
the costs--to individuals and firms--of living and working outside our metro
regions, while artificially increasing the costs of living and working within
Though it is hard to calculate precisely, the subsidy to non-urban regions
is on all counts considerable--annually, on the order of tens if not hundreds
of billions. We have spent trillions building non-metro roads, but nowhere
near that on metro ones or mass transit. Federal annual funding for mass transit
has never been more than one-fifth of highway funding, and state ratios are
even more unbalanced. The overwhelming share of federal and state economic
development program support also goes to non-metro sites--more highways, sprawl-supporting
infrastructure, exurban tax credits and low-interest loans for new development.
Similarly, the deliberate siting of military bases and other government facilities
outside cities or more developed regions has been and remains deliberate national
So public policy substantially reduces the costs of living and investing
outside metro areas, and thus encourages people to make those choices. But
why should anyone object? Leave aside narrow questions of equity--why, for
example, metro residents should be taxed, often regressively, for programs
that hurt them. Leave aside aesthetic and cultural disagreements about whether
city life is vibrant or merely vulgar. And assume, against all evidence, that
suburbanites can insulate themselves from decaying urban cores. Are there
any good reasons to oppose policies that have contributed to urban decline?
There are two reasons: one of political morality, the other of economics.
As to political morality: lots of people live in cities and are likely to
remain there; democracy is supposed to be "for the people"--all of them. With
130 million people in our urban areas, and 80 million (20 million of them
children) in their declining central cities, anti-urban policies don't qualify.
Furthermore, very large portions of this population are exceptionally poor,
in receipt of exceptionally bad public services, and subject to exceptional
violence. No one disputes the results--in high infant mortality, poor health,
stunted development, shattered lives, and heavy grief.
On the economic side, anti-urbanism is very costly. For starters, sprawl
and central- city degradation is wasteful. It wastes land, water, and energy,
and squanders existing assets; as new houses, factories, and schools go up
in the outer rings, perfectly good buildings, with established links to usable
infrastructure, get boarded up further in. Take the excess costs on new construction
and natural resources, add in the untimely depreciation of old capital stock,
it's easily $300 billion in annual waste.
Then there are the economic costs of human neglect. Abandoning our central
cities means forsaking the productive potential of their inhabitants while
containing their resentment. The costs of containment are considerable, as
ballooning budgets for new prisons and police make evident. And the opportunity
costs of all that potential productivity are truly enormous. Forget about
the hidden future Nobel Prize winners. Simply subtract the average lifetime
earnings of those without decent health, education, or job access from those
with these basic goods. Multiply by 80 million, or even 20. It's a big number--in
the trillions--which translates into a lot of foregone tax revenue for the
Furthermore, there is cost linkage. Many suburbanites are prepared to pay
the costs and forego the benefits just mentioned as the price of their isolation.
But that isolation is an illusion. Within regions, the economic fortunes of
central cities and their suburbs, especially their inner-ring suburbs, are
increasingly entwined. By the late 1980s, across a very wide range of metro
regions, every $1,000 gained or lost in per capita city income was associated
with a $690 gain or loss in per capita suburban income.2
Rotting central cities mean a poorer suburban future.
The really big cost, however, derives from the role that metro regions play
in determining the pattern of national economic activity. Put baldly, revived
urban regions are key to reversing the present stagnation in American living
standards. This is a large claim: defending it will require that we step back
briefly from the dynamics within metro regions and consider broader trends
in the national economy and what is required to reverse them.
A High Road?
Despite all the talk about how American wages are now set in Beijing, adverse
trends in American income (including income distribution) result today less
from the downward pressures of international competition than from domestic
policy choices.3 Specifically, we have made "low-road"
strategies of response to new competitive pressures too easy and "high-road"
strategies too hard. Low-road firms compete by keeping prices down, which
means keeping costs down--beginning, typically, with wages. Applied across
the economy, low-road strategies lead to sweated workers, economic insecurity,
rising inequality, poisonous labor relations, and degraded natural environments.
High-road firms focus on quality competition (with higher wages supported
by customer willingness to pay for higher quality), require continual innovation
in quality, and thus depend on more skilled and cooperative workers. Generalized,
high-road strategies are associated with higher productivity, higher pay and
better labor relations, reduced environmental damage, and greater firm commitment
to the health and stability of surrounding human communities (needed to attract
and keep skilled workers and managers).
Firms can make plenty of money on either path, but social gains are vastly
greater on the high road. The principal political-economic failure of the
past two decades--and it is political as much as economic--is that we have
not done what we must to move the economy to it. Moving to the high road is
associated with various transition costs, and staying on it depends on a variety
of social supports. Those supports include effective educational and training
institutions; better functioning labor markets, with fuller information about
requirements for job access and advancement; advanced infrastructure of all
kinds; modernization services and other means of diffusing best manufacturing
practice; and, throughout, barriers to low-road defection. Because such supports
typically lie beyond the capacity of individual firms, they need to be provided
socially. We have not provided them.
Back to Metro
Here is where metro areas come in. Whatever their present difficulties, metropolitan
economies are the natural base for a high-road economy. To the extent that
we now have any "high-road" production and service delivery in the United
States, it is already heavily concentrated in metropolitan regions. Moreover,
this correlation between metro regions and the high-road strategy is no accident:
a high-road strategy must be a metro strategy because the high road requires
the sheer density of people and firms that is definitive of metro regions.
Metro density helps high-roading in three ways. First, density facilitates
worker organization by providing the proximity and sheer numbers needed to
support the infrastructure of new organizing. Worker organization, in turn,
directly helps to close off the low road by obstructing its impulse to wage-reduction.
And worker organization helps pave the high road too. Without the knowledge
and cooperation of workers, firms will find high-roading all but impossible--and
both are easier to secure if workers are organized and confident that they
will also benefit from increased quality and productivity.
Density also helps firms more directly. Economists, geographers, and economic
development analysts use the concept of "agglomeration" to describe the benefits
in skills, productivity, and consumer access that result when particular activities
are concentrated in particular places. In addition, firms in such regions
don't just happen to be near each other and share a regional labor market.
They do business with each other in a way that connects them as if, in some
ways, they were complementary plants of a single enterprise. Agglomerations
are in turn associated with "increasing returns" on any given investment.
When a single firm in one of these agglomerations improves its cost and quality
performance, it creates a competitive advantage for the customers and suppliers
in its cluster. Simply put, firms learn more and faster from each other.
Finally, density helps relieve the costs of providing the public goods (again,
quality public education and training institutions, formal supports for cross-learning
and upgrading among firms, integrated regional labor market services and worker
credentialling systems, modern forms of transport, energy, water supplies,
and communication linkages) on which such advanced production depends. It
is much easier and cheaper to supply such goods with the human and material
resources that density provides.
So here, in brief, is the argument: To combat further inequality and wage
decline, we need to generalize a high-road competitive strategy. Getting firms
to adopt and stick with that strategy will require a more demanding high-road
frame for competition (closing off the low road) and a variety of specific
supporting services and institutions (pavement for the high road). Neither
can be supplied by individual firms acting alone. Density is the midwife to
their achievement. And density means metro. A fair economic future, in short,
depends on the viability of our urban areas.
How to Do It
But are metro regions really viable? What would it take to repeal the Iron
Law, end the anti-urban bias of public policy, capture the natural advantages
of density, and turn our policies more deliberately to building the infrastructure
for high-road competition? Putting aside all-important questions of political
will (we return to them later) and focusing for now on issues of public policy,
the answer proceeds on two related tracks: we need a new array of policies
for federal and state governments, and--coordinated with them--a new set for
At the federal and state levels of government, the essential tasks are to
keep states and communities from pursuing a competitive race to the bottom,
raise minimum standards on firm performance, and get out of the way of the
organizing needed to realize gains from cooperation. None of this need imply
any new public expenditures. What it would mean is that federal and state
(1) Remove subsidies to low-roading firms. As an initial step, governments
should announce that they will not award contracts or development grants to
firms paying wages below some minimum level (say, sub-poverty wages), or polluting
above a certain level, or with a record of illegal resistance to worker organization.
They should then move to mandate such standards generally, and gradually raise
them. For example, phasing in a massively increased minimum wage--say, to
$10 an hour within 5 years--would do wonders for shutting down the low-road
option and requiring firms to compete by improving quality. (Of course, there
is no point urging firms onto a high road only to push them off a cliff. So
this first element must be understood and treated as part of the larger project.)
(2) Discourage "bidding wars" between and within states. Governments
often spend billions simply to lure business from one region to another, with
no net gain for the national economy. One way to discourage this practice
would be to tax any government bids at the next highest level of government
(the federal government taxing the states, the states their local governments),
or condition aid from those higher units on the lower one's participation
in non-aggression pacts with colleagues. Of course, one region's "subsidy"
is another's "investment for the future." So we need criteria to distinguish
genuine investment that might also be expected to lure firms--for example,
spending for better educational systems--from direct payoffs and abatements.
But this task is not insurmountable, and even agreement on basic guidelines
for the most extreme (if common) forms of current subsidies--e.g., those drawn
through regressive taxes on people who are not aided by the resulting employment--would
represent a big advance.
(3) Target development supports to regions on a per capita basis.
As a general rule of public policy, we should spend the money where the people
are, thus encouraging local governments to increase density rather than avoid
it. And let the natural agglomerations of people and firms be rewarded by
letting them recapture their individual tax dollars for collective self-improvement.
Here too there are important issues of design. We don't want incentives to
agglomeration to be so intense as to encourage overcrowding or insupportable
population growth within regions. But the basic idea of removing disincentives
to otherwise naturally-occurring agglomeration provides some guidance, and
even modest progress toward per capita equalization seems justified on economic
and social, as well as democratic grounds.
(4) Encourage the growth of economic development authorities on a functional,
regional basis. While more than half the population lives in what we've
been calling metro regions, only 6 percent is subject to any significant metro
governance. Moreover, the sheer number of sovereign sub-jurisdictions in these
regions commonly poses formidable barriers to planning. The Chicago metropolitan
region, for example, includes 265 separate municipalities, 1,200 separate
tax districts, and parts of six different mega-counties. State and federal
government could provide incentives for more regional administrative structures--which
are needed minimally for basic infrastructure development--by making development
aid and other supports by higher levels of government contingent on the development
of such structures lower down. In very few cases is there actual dispute about
what the boundaries of the regional economy are: the problem has been an absence
of national or state leadership in fostering regional frameworks for economic
development and planning.
(5) Directly encourage high-roading. In all aspects of economic development
spending, infrastructure support, pollution prevention and abatement programs,
and the like, reward regions or states that take the subsidiary policy steps
needed to move toward high-road production. Comparative progress toward the
high road is measurable. If measurable, it should measured, with receipt of
special federal monies contingent on achieving progress. And, independent
of what the states do, the federal government should itself be much more attentive
to targeting its resources to encourage high-roading. It should target aid
to integrated regions, clusters within them, firms within those clusters.
The lead federal "manufacturing extension" agency--charged with upgrading
the performance of the small and medium-sized shops that provide six of every
ten manufacturing jobs--spends $100 million a year, and could reach literally
tens of thousands of small- and medium-sized manufacturers, already supplying
(or trying to supply) to high-road clusters, if that money were appropriately
targeted on metro agglomerations.
Together, these five elements would work to remove the anti-urban and low-road
bias from contemporary state and federal policy; they would encourage 18th-
and 19th-century jurisdictions to consider the realities of late 20th-century
regional economic dependence; and they would encourage both firms and regions
to exploit the advantages of density.
Higher levels of government, however, can only do so much to foster metro
reconstruction. To be sure, moving the national economy onto a high road would
be of manifest national benefit. But because a high road policy must be a
metro policy, regions themselves must play a large role in designing and implementing
it. What, then, should the regions do?
The short answer is that they need to break squarely with the conventional
economic development strategy (hereafter, CEDS) still pursued by most cities
and counties--the strategy that lies behind the Iron Law of Decay--in favor
of a high-road project that takes full advantage of metro density. To fill
out this answer, lets distinguish CEDS and our alternative on five dimensions.
(1) What Kind of Jobs? CEDS adapts to urban decline by promoting job
growth without concern for the kind of jobs generated--which uusually means
promoting low-wage jobs. But low-wage jobs drag down wages elsewhere, encourage
further low-roading, eat away at the margin of struggling high-road firms,
and draw on the tax base (the employers providing them still need basic infrastructure,
and the employees occupying them still need basic services) without proportionately
contributing to it. Tax-base erosion, in turn, leads to cutbacks in public
goods and suburban flight: the Iron Law again. Nevertheless, the strategy
is perversely self-enforcing: as the city gets more squalid, desperation fuels
the view that jobs, any jobs at all, are what is needed, and the thought that
the only alternative to low-wage employment is no employment at all.
A natural alternative is to direct dollars only to jobs of a certain kind,
while building supports for them. Relying on a politics of opportunities and
constraints, localities should make it easier for "good" employers to stay
and expand--through the provision of a variety of services and opportunities
for their improvement and competitiveness--while making it harder for "bad"
employers to do so--by insisting on certain standards on wages, pollution
prevention, and so on. Such a policy could start by setting conditions on
the receipt of government contracts and economic development supports and--especially
supported by our new state and federal framework discouraging a "race to the
bottom" between regions -- move to mandates on private activity.
(2) Attraction or Retention? CEDS focuses on attracting business rather
than retaining and renewing the existing base of firms. It squanders one of
the greatest assets of density, which is the natural grouping of similar firms--drawn
together by the cross-learning, joint production, and other mutual support
that proximity provides--in distinct industries or industry clusters. Mature
metropolitan economies thrive when their core businesses upgrade, link to
one another, or attract or spin off related enterprises that benefit from
spatial proximity to existing industry leaders. But, as emphasized earlier,
upgrading, networking, and incubating indigenous firms requires an infrastructure
of support (technical assistance, training, and the efficient supply of modern
public goods). And while providing these is in the long run much more satisfying,
in the short run it is easier to attract another Walmart. The principle become
self-confirming as neglect of "the ones that brung ya" leads to decline in
existing sources of wealth, making the attraction of new and different firms
more compelling as an option.
Our alternative development strategy would focus on retention, renewal, upgrading,
linkage, and incubation of existing firms--with local authorities investing
in the infrastructure needed to realize gains from agglomeration. Through
"early warning/early intervention" networks, they would recruit firms and
workers to monitor the signs of distress in challenged firms, and develop
the technical and financial intervention wherewithal to save jobs worth saving.
At the same time, they would actively promote cross-firm learning and sectoral
growth by encouraging firms to join together in marketing their products and
training workers. And, drawing on the accumulated pension and other savings
in the region, they would develop regional investment funds to support such
intervention, increase community ownership of firms doing business there,
and support promising spin-offs and incubation centers.
(3) Generic or Targeted Benefits? CEDS relies on generic tax abatements
and other fiscal giveaways, rather than targeted breaks and regulation. Again,
best evidence is that such enterprise zone-type development models simply
do not work, and eventually erode the city's fiscal base. The jobs generated
are seldom high-paying or associated with significant capital investment;
the firms take the benefits and move on. In contract, much evidence suggests
that by a gradual tightening of regulatory controls on production standards--whether
minimum labor costs or emissions standards--business can be encouraged to
innovate in ways that improve both productivity and the quality of community
life. Doing this, however, requires a willingness to impose significant costs
on current business, while insulating it from competition from non-complying
competitors. Most city governments have been unwilling or unable to make this
crucial step. The result, however, is a race to the bottom among jurisdictions
who offer escalating packages of sweeteners for investments firms had already
to decided to make.
Our alternative would set performance conditions on the receipt of public
funds--tying subsidies to the achievement of specific ends--and "claw back"
those funds from firms that do not meet the conditions. The more extensive
the support from the government and allied private institutions, of course,
the more extensive the demands that could reasonably be made on the firms
(4) What Role for Markets? CEDS sees greater public control and accountability
as bad for the economy, and it worries when unions and community organizations
put pressure on economic policy. Starting from the largely correct perception
that government and the general public are ill-prepared to instruct business
on how best to achieve particular standards or ends, it arrives at the incorrect
conclusion that they are incapable even of specifying them.
But modern economies operate best when they can rely on a fair degree of
public support for business goals--support best achieved when the public has
significant say in setting those goals. And some associative action in the
economy, including much that might be deemed "popular," is critical to the
effective supply of the ingredients of advanced production. Design and construction
of an effective training and credentialing system, for example, requires local
knowledge of a variety of distinct productive settings and the ability to
figure out policies that make sense across them. Confronting such issues,
the state is commonly at a loss, as are individual firms. Unions and employer
associations, with detailed knowledge across particular sites and the ability
to compel performance within them, are critical to success.
Building on these observations, our alternative would continue to let markets
do what they do best--allocate scarce resources with some efficiency, and
punish the non-competitive--but would be unabashed in letting public authority
and popular organizations to say something about what the goals of economic
activity should be. And, breaking with "live free or die"/"private markets
or public hierarchies" models of regulation, it would explicitly assign representative
non-state institutions with local knowledge or other capacity not found in
government itself (again, unions, employer organizations, community organizations)
a role in economic administration. In our examples above, it might give substantial
control over resources for skill training to sectoral training consortia,
or control of the early warning network to responsible area unions.
(5) Public Goods? CEDS neglects the role that public goods of many
kinds--from the traditional "economic" ones of transportation, technical assistance,
and education and training to the "social" ones of recreation, safety, and
clean environments--play in a local economy. In this, local economic development
efforts are behind the learning of most advanced businesses, which rely on
the economic goods for production and the social goods to attract and retain
a skilled workforce and managerial personnel. Since no individual is able
to provide this economic and social infrastructure on its own, the decision
about whether or not to provide it is among the most crucial that local economic
development authorities can make. But the ability of such authorities to provide
infrastructure will depend directly on the population of high-roading firms
and associations with a stake in it: the failure to provide decent infrastructure
will drive that population down to the point that authorities will only be
able to attract low-road firms seeking low-income markets and low-cost labor.
Instead of neglecting high-road infrastructure, our alternative would build
it. Sometimes this would mean serious investment--as in effective transit
systems connecting job seekers to work throughout the region, or the provision
of training. More often than commonly thought, however, it would simply mean
fostering cooperation among existing interests, or simply convening discussion
of common problems--among players who know what the problems are and collectively
have the resources to solve many of them, but who heretofore have had no incentive
or support from public authority in solving them together. In such situations
government in effect says: "Here's a problem that we all know exists; you
design a feasible solution accountable to the following values and show me
how to pay for it; we will then pass a law making sure nobody defects from
the necessary deal."
Consider the effects of systematically pursuing a program of this kind: the
federal and state reforms, as well as the inversion of CEDS just described.
Sprawl would be reduced, planning capacity would rise, wages would increase
and inequalities decrease, neighborhoods would become less segregated and
safer, public goods would be more abundant: democracy would more evidently
show its contribution to the economy. And, as with any good strategy, it would
be self-reenforcing: As subsidies to sprawl decrease, the attractions of metropolitan
locations rise; as investment returns to metro cores, productivity within
them increases, making higher wages more affordable; as organization of the
real cluster basis of the economy proceeds, standards for job entry and advancement
can be formalized and publicized, which helps to equalize wages; better wages
secure the tax base; that helps pay for the expensive public goods which both
further reduce inequality and attract high-roading firms; with more abundant
public goods and better job access, central city residents look less "different,"
further promoting their hirability; and with greater regional power over something
employers really want--skilled labor, infrastructure, technical assistance,
credit--the ability of regions to discipline free-riders and defectors from
common norms (e.g., on fair housing and hiring, land use, tax-base sharing)
rises. In the limiting case, the economy actually serves the people, rather
than the people struggling to serve an anonymous and immoral economy.
Who Can Do It?
But who could put all this together? And is it reasonable to hope that they
Part of the answer is that it is happening already. Across the country, you
can find different pieces of the project we have recommended. At least a few
regions do have metropolitan government, sensible planning policies, tax-base
sharing between rich and poor neighborhoods within the same region, regional
standards on zoning--including, critically, fair housing policies that put
poor minorities next to opportunity. Many cities and counties, and some states,
have passed "living wage" or "anti-subsidy abuse" legislation putting enforceable
conditions on receipt of public development monies. Many local planning and
development departments have begun to target their resources toward the improvement
of existing clusters of firms. And there are countless "visioning" exercises--more
or less effectively uniting diverse communities within regions--to establish
benchmarks on regional performance and at least begin discussion of its requisite
This said, these efforts remain exceptions; given continued low-roading competition,
they are that much harder to sustain. Nor, with the possible exception of
Portland, is any one of them truly comprehensive--putting the governance,
planning, finance, standards, supports, and popular organization pieces together.
Nor, to return to where we started, do any of them enjoy appropriate support
from the state and federal governments. Very few of these efforts have, therefore,
reached critical mass, tipping the dynamics of their regions.
Still, the fact that so many initiatives are already in motion, from diverse
quarters--some led by local government officials themselves, others by business,
labor, community groups, or particular issue advocates--suggests a wide-ranging
potential alliance out there, waiting to be organized. To appreciate its range,
consider the different urban political forces--at each other's throats for
so many years--who are now coming to recognize the limits of mutual antagonism.
The current scene pits labor against community, the employed against environmentalists,
and central cities against the inner-ring, while obscuring relevant divisions
within business, and letting the rich exurbs get off too cheap. But many of
the mutual antagonists in this old politics are beginning to see an interest
in alliance. White-dominated labor increasingly recognizes that its declining
city membership no longer suffices to protect it against lowwage privatization
and the destruction of regional labor market standards, let alone assure the
public investments needed to support highwage production and services. It
needs the voting support of (heavily disorganized) central city Black, Latino,
and Asian populations: to get that support, it will need fully to open itself
to them. Those populations, in turn, know that their economic devastation
will not be reversed anytime soon through an increased welfare effort or expanded
public sector. They need private sector investment and jobs within their communities,
and access to jobs without, and they need those jobs to pay a living wage.
And increasingly they recognize that these things are more likely achieved
if they are allied with unions.
Environmentalists and those concerned about organization inside firms, meanwhile,
are finding common ground on the supplyside of production. Just as unions
have found that they can only defend member interests by getting involved
in decisions about technology, product strategy, investment, and work organization,
environmentalists recognize that moving from pollution abatement to sourcereduction
requires a presence inside the firm. Innerring suburbanites, whose kids are
also joining gangs, and who are in many cases losing employment at faster
rates than the central cities, are waking to the fact that the same lowwage
sprawl that has almost destroyed the central cities is now destroying them.
And both central and inner-ring recognize their common interest in getting
the rich suburbs to carry their share of regional burdens. Finally, metro
business itself, at least that part of it that cannot easily flee (for example,
because of existing collective bargaining agreements, or pension obligations,
or heavy sunk investment in plant and equipment), is interested, like any
good business, in limiting competition to itself, interested in particular
in eliminating the low-roaders now taking away their margins.
Put these forces together in any metro region--and the program outlined here
has a real chance of benefiting all of them--and you have a powerful political
Again, we're only talking about what we might reasonably hope for. As with
any good, lots of obstacles might obstruct its achievement. But material interest
strongly supports this grand coalition. And recent experience in mobilizing
directly on that interest--be it the grassroots Campaign for a Sustainable
Milwaukee, or legislative efforts at more tax-base sharing in the Twin Cities,
or the more business-led efforts in Louisville or Cleveland--suggest the possibilities
of real movement. What is most urgently needed are some enterprising politicians,
labor leaders, savvy community organizers, or sensible metro businesspeople
to get in front of a parade that's waiting to form.
And if people get organized, elected officials can be made to follow. In
getting the relevant state and federal policy supports, the gravamen of success
is simply stated: an alliance of the city and inner-ring suburban delegations--still,
in combination, a clear majority in Congress and most state legislatures--to
press the general interest against recalcitrant rich suburbanites and low-road
firms. If the general interest doesn't move those delegations, the fact that
their respective constituencies are getting unfairly and jointly savaged should.
Someone should invite our currently divided metro officials into a room together,
show them a few numbers, and point to the large mixed crowd of constituents
preparing to march outside.
This essay draws on our collaboration with other members of the Midwest Consortium
for Economic Development Alternatives (MCEDA). See Metro Futures: A High-Wage,
Low-Waste, Democratic Development Strategy for America's Cities and Inner
Suburbs (New York and Madison: Sustainable America and Center on Wisconsin
1About 80 percent of Americans live in what the Census
Bureau terms "Metropolitan Statistical Areas" (MSAs). These include not only
central cities and their working class suburbs, but outer-ring "bedroom suburbs"
as well. There is no standard, accepted definition of the "inner-ring"--contiguous
with the central city, working class, mixed use, with historic ties to the
central core--but our research on midwestern cities such as Milwaukee and
Detroit suggests that, as of the late 1980s, at least 65 percent of the MSA
population lives in them or central cities.
2 The calculation comes from a study of 59 metropolitan
areas. See H.V. Savitch, David Collins, Daniel Sanders, and John P. Markham,
"Ties That Bind: Central Cities, Suburbs, and the New Metropolitan Region,"
Economic Development Quarterly 7 (November, 1993): 341-57. The study
notes that the share of suburban income associated with central city density
and income increased substantially over the 1979-87 period observed, suggesting
3 While internationalization is very important, we believe
it has been exaggerated as a bar to the sort of reconstructive program offered
below. Most US manufacturers buy and sell overwhelmingly to themselves, and
the long-run trend of the US economy is toward more services, usually not
traded on even a national basis, much less internationally. Even when competition
is international, alternative strategies with very different social consequences
are available. Choices between them can be shaped by factors clearly under
popular control. Even the diminished state retains a large share of employment
and purchasing power, not to mention the ability to pass laws; it can use
that power to establish standards on economic practice, to support some strategies
of industrial restructuring over others, to establish markets for better sorts
of economic practices as well as products, to limit public supports to those
adhering to public standards. And even a rootless capital relies, in its most
advanced productive forms, on immobile public goods--decent school systems,
transport systems, safe neighborhoods, clean environments--which if provided
in places can in fact help root investment there.