Over at Newsweek, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley have a piece up on the “suburb question.” That is, what do we do now that suburbs are beginning to look at lot more like the typical conception of city centers — mixed-income, congested, occasionally blighted, crime-plaugued, and so on. They write:
The mental line between city and suburb no longer makes much sense; policies need to treat metropolitan areas as a whole. Washington should support regional clusters for high-tech industries and other sectors. Such clusters foster innovation and economic growth, and they don’t gather neatly in one municipality or another. That’s why we speak of Silicon Valley and Route 128, rather than San Jose or Boston. Federal job-training funds should reflect the way metropolitan economies actually work: in clusters of firms that span boundaries.
And all levels of government need to reinvent the physical landscape. We need to create walkable communities and more public transit to link people in the burbs to jobs, schools, concert halls and sports fields that may be in the next neighborhood, the next municipality or the next county. As much as they may love their SUVs, suburbanites would benefit from lower greenhouse-gas emissions, less traffic and higher housing values (proximity to transit boosts home prices).
The mental line between city and suburb never made much sense from a policy standpoint. It was always a bad idea to break up a single economic unit into competing political jurisdictions. But while the net effect on society and on the economy was bad, the local effect for suburbs and suburbanites was extremely positive, and so on the process went.
During this critical phase of urban growth, it would have been nice to have had over-arching metropolitan bodies to coordinate policy. They never really developed, however, because during the age of suburbanization, metropolitan growth was largely zero sum. A rising suburban tax base meant a falling urban tax base, better suburban schools meant worse urban schools, increased suburban employment meant declining urban employment, and so on. There was a one-sided demographic flow — the rich left the center — with predictable effects on the local economy and on local policy-making.
Increasingly, that’s no longer the case. Many urban areas are now developing a more balanced demographic “ecosystem.” Both suburbs and center cities are mixed-income, and the outward flow of families with children is generally met (and sometimes exceeded) by the inward flow of singles and childless couples.
This has changed the logic of policy competition. Growing tech employment in the suburbs probably increases the return to being a District law firm or accounting firm, and improved consumer amenities in the city increase the attraction of a business location in the suburbs (relative to another city with a weaker downtown). It’s true that suburban congestion has probably hastened redevelopment in center cities, but it’s also the case that a well-crafted congestion reduction policy would benefit the center and the periphery alike.
Urban growth is increasingly positive-sum, in other words. That hasn’t meant an end to policy competition between jurisdictions, however. In part, that’s because there will always be advantages to municipal specialization in certain policy preferences (tastes differ). But some competition exists unnecessarily because the institutional environment hasn’t changed. In a positive-sum world, there are bargains to be struck (particularly if the federal government sweetens the deal by committing to needed metropolitan investment spending). What’s needed is a means to facilitate discussion, negotiation, and allocation.
The time may be right for a federal effort to encourage this kind of institutional building. One easy way to begin is to condition funds for transportation and housing on the existence and use of a metropolitan body. I was hopeful that the Office of Urban Policy might represent a step toward this kind of thinking (and it might yet). If any administration is capable of improving metropolitan governance, one would think it would be this one.