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Will A Federal Metro Policy Fly?

Aug 5, 2008

There's a national debate going on nowadays about how the issue of cities, metropolitan areas, and growth is lacking from our national debate. Recently, for example, UCLA planning professor Randall Crane argued that cities are the most important issue that the presidential candidates aren't talking about. But will the usual arguments about infrastructure and prosperity carry the day? Or do cities and metros need to play the climate change issue to be relevant in Washington again?

Some policy wonks are still trying to put planning and development issues on the national agenda. Perhaps the best recent example came last week in Pittsburgh, when Bruce Katz, longtime head of the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program delivered his "MetroNation" pitch to the Alliance for Regional Stewardship, the national association of regional civic groups such as Joint Venture Silicon Valley.

Katz has been beating the "metro drum" for a decade, but his message is now finely honed and one that planners and developers ought to pay attention to. His argument is that the United States is a "metropolitan nation" the top 100 metros account for an enormous percentage of the population and economic activity and future American prosperity depends on how well these metropolitan areas compete in the world economy. (Brookings most recently came out with a report on "Mountain Megas" the five big metropolitan areas in the Intermountain West.) Katz further argues that the four building blocks of metropolitan prosperity are innovation, infrastructure, human capital, and quality place a kind of mash-up of land use planning and economic development.

The most interesting part of Katz's argument is his call for a more forceful or least clearer and more consistent federal role in helping metropolitan areas pursue these four goals. Calling for a strong federal role especially in economic development has been out of fashion in Washington for at least two decades. But Katz's argument is that the federal government creates policies and spending strategies anyway, so the feds should be more conscious in using these efforts to support metros, whether it's in infrastructure or innovation.

Katz claimed to be spending most of his time focused on Congress rather than the presidential candidates. He argues that the Democrats who control Congress will be very powerful no matter who's president. "Obama has begun to get a lot more specific / concrete," Katz said in Pittsburgh. "He's also picking up some of what Senator Clinton proposed in the primaries. McCain is still a work in progress. We know what he doesn't like, he doesn't like earmarks. We don't what he likes."

Katz's prosperity-based argument might get only so far no matter how bad the economy gets. After all, even if the Democrats are in control, there's still considerable political resistance to a strong federal government. But I'm betting if there's one issue that makes Katz's agenda pop, it's climate change.

Like most other policy wonks, Katz has begun to work climate change into his policy agenda. Sometimes it feels a little like an add-on to the four "building blocks" he talks about all the time. But it's probably the only overarching issue that the feds will be able to tackle without resistance during the next couple of years. And it's an issue that plays well on the metropolitan level, because emissions reduction and adaptation transcend local boundaries.

-- Bill Fulton



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