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Cities vs states: the coming battles

Map courtesy of MPI's Zara Matheson and Atlantic Cities

Map courtesy of MPI's Zara Matheson and Atlantic Cities

Aaron Renn reposted a thought-provoking blog this week from 2011 that questioned the relevance of states as metro areas become more and more dominant in American society. I admit to missing this one the first time around, since I basically took most of 2011 off.

Quick sidebar: I'm working on a book about that experience, tentatively titled A Year Off the Clock. I highly recommend to anyone the idea of taking some sort of extended mid-career break. Tim Ferriss advocates for mini-retirements as part of his 4-Hour Workweek approach, and this is a variation on the idea. For me, it gave me a lot of time to pause, think about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. And, ultimately the experience reinvigorated me. But more on that another time.

Renn's post hits on a topic that I recognize others have written about before, but one that is central to our times: the increasing fault lines of metro vs. rural areas. It's one that I hope can move beyond the political news cycle, since it's so central to our economy and lives. These issues actually do effect people's day to day lives in meaningful ways, as opposed to other federal issues that seem more theoretical and distant.

Here's Renn:

Additionally, I might add my observation that this creates a situation where the policies which are right for one area may be wrong for another. Since it is the nature of governments to promote uniform rules, this often leaves one or even all regions of a state with suboptimal rules. In fairness, there are are often some types of flexibility, such as that provided by different classes of cities. But important macro policies remain one size fits all.

Consider Illinois. It’s a combination of a global city core in Chicago, a Rust Belt hinterland, and a southern fringe region. State policy is set by the Chicago elite as a general rule, and predictably it follows a big city, global city favorable model: strong home rule powers for large municipalities, a high tax/high service type model, strong public sector unions, etc. This pretty much works for Chicago, but for downstate it puts their communities in a major economic vice since they don’t benefit from global city friendly policies and are competing against other places that have optimized in other ways.

Indiana being one example. It is pretty much the opposite. Its largest city region is only about 25% of the state’s population, meaning Indiana is dominated by rural and small city constituencies. As a result, Indiana has optimized for a “Wal-Mart” strategy such as through its low-service/low-tax approach, weak environmental rules, and very weak (I’d argue nearly non-existent) home rule powers for even its largest municipalities. This is great if you are a small manufacturing city trying to beat out Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois for low wage manufacturing and distribution jobs (which sounds bad but is realistically the best short term play these places have). But it’s pretty terrible if you are Indianapolis and trying to fight to have a place in the global economy, attract choice talent, build biotech and high tech business clusters, etc

The latter situation is one that I have much more familiarity with, and I think is far more common. He highlights the dysfunctional nature in Kansas City, for example, which not only fights a battle similar to Indiana, but does so in two separate states. Missouri has two large metro areas within its borders, but the state government is dominated by rural interests. The Kansas side of the KC metro produces the lion's share of wealth and job growth for the entire state, but has little sway in Topeka.

I've often wondered which metro area will be the first to seriously propose secession (KC would be a great candidate) from a state or multiple states. While I'm not an advocate of such a radical change, since rural and urban need each other, it's not hard to read the tea leaves and imagine that occurring. Metro and rural areas simply have far different needs in terms of day to day governing and management, and we need to develop some forms of governance that provides better autonomy or subsidiarity. 

Cities and urban areas by nature need more and better government; rural areas can often get by just fine with less. Pick your pet political issue, and you can draw pretty clean lines about how it manifests itself differently in a rural area vs a city with hundreds of thousands or millions of people.

As an example, here's a few that come to mind in the planning world:

  • In rural areas, road design rightfully emphasizes long-distance faster travel. In cities, roads need to be designed for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users in addition to drivers. High-speed, long-distance travel is not the norm.
  • Public transportation is not critical to the health of rural areas (though I would still argue strongly for inter-city trains and buses), but it's fundamental for cities to succeed.
  • Development regulations and zoning are far more important in a dynamic metro area with many strangers vs a small town or rural area that has closer social connections
  • The entire approach to economic development is far different, as Renn mentions.

The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, more and more states are on a path to poke fingers in the eyes of urban areas and produce very ideological legislation. At what point will the pushback from big cities and their suburbs lead to talk of radical change? The decades-long evolution of America from a largely rural to a largely urban country is one that is happening with its fair share of turmoil. I'd like to pull a Rodney King and ask, "Why can't we just all get along?" but it's clear for now that we cannot.

Real demographics: San Diego

Utopia just isn't what it used to be

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