U.S. cities for the 21st century

Experts call for a new federal role in metropolitan development, one with fewer strings attached.

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Welcome aboard: Chicago wants to coordinate its transit system with commuter rail and suburban buses serving the metropolitan area.

Over the next two years, Chicago plans to introduce a pilot high-speed bus program, complete with dedicated lanes and permanent boarding kiosks, as well as a downtown congestion pricing plan for those who still drive – all paid for with a $153 million federal grant the city received.

It's the sort of federal incentive that some urban experts would like to see more of: designed to help spur large-scale, creative thinking about a metropolitan area's infrastructure or economic development without dictating the form it should take.

Crafting a new federal role for metropolitan America – one that recognizes the importance not just of cities but entire metropolitan areas, together with the idiosyncrasies and differing strengths of each region – is at the heart of a major report the Brookings Institution released Thursday at a summit of mayors, county officials, and business and civic leaders in Washington.

Ultimately, its goal is to revolutionize the way the US views its metropolises.

"If you're going to get serious about the economy, then you've got to get specific about how you're going to leverage metropolitan economies," says Bruce Katz, director of the metropolitan policy program at Brookings.

Even though America's 100 largest cities generate two-thirds of US jobs and three-quarters of domestic economic output, much of the policy coming from Washington – and from the presidential candidates – is still rooted in a Jeffersonian ideal of hamlets and small towns, Mr. Katz says.

"There's a lag between the political class recognizing what our major firms already know: that the geographic economy has been radically altered by globalization," he says.

One key problem: While metro areas function practically as an economic unit, politically they're divided into hundreds of smaller governments, agencies, and municipalities, often viewing themselves as in competition.

It's not helped by a federal grantmaking structure in which, for instance, all public housing agencies are local, not regional, and there's no incentive for collaboration among agencies, or among connected areas like housing, transit, and economic development.

"Air quality and water quality and marketplaces and employment treat the region as an integrated whole, and yet the political reality is that there are 1,300 units of local government in metropolitan Chicago," says Frank Beal, executive director of Metropolis 2020, a civic organization created to promote big-picture, regional solutions for the metro area. "The governance structure isn't adapted to the reality of what's here."

Still, Chicago, more than many areas, is already taking some steps toward cohesion. A Metropolitan Mayors Caucus meets regularly to discuss issues that affect both the city and suburbs. The region has consolidated some of its transit and planning organizations and it's starting to demand more coordination among the city transit system, the commuter rail system, and the suburban bus system.

But Mr. Beal says much more could be done, and he agrees that there's a role for the federal government in helping to change the way metro areas are viewed – offering a grant premium to regions that coordinate their local housing authorities, for instance, or finding other incentives for collaboration.

Katz at Brookings sees a few existing examples as prime prototypes of how the federal government could be a positive force in metro regions. He cites the Labor Department's "Wired" program, for instance, which offers regions money to do skills training and other development around a growing economic activity. Or the US Department of Transportation's grants for anticongestion programs, which were awarded to Seattle, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami, in addition to Chicago.

A grant that large is necessary for anything truly visionary, says Mike McLaughlin, director of regional policy and transportation for Chicago's Metropolitan Policy Council, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group.

"This allows for thinking bigger and doing a demo project right," says Mr. McLaughlin.

Eventually, the plan is to expand the initial 10 miles or so of high-speed bus routes to 100 miles, serving a much broader regional area.

Katz hopes that this week's conference and the ongoing conversation will spur a much broader conversation about how to bring the US to the understanding the rest of the world already has on the importance of its metropolitan regions.

"There's a lot at stake here," he says. "Unlike our competitor nations, we don't have the public side of public-private partnerships yet.... I think what we're proposing is inevitable at some point. The question is how fast it will happen."

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