January 3, 2012 Brian Kelsey

Megaregions: Don’t Hold Your Breath

Nate Berg at The Atlantic Cities today takes up the latest research on megaregions in The Emerging and Interconnected ‘Megapolitan’ Regions:

“Metros are the basis of integration into the global economy, I have no doubt about that,” says [Robert] Lang, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He argues that the megapolitan scale will increasingly be that driver. “These are the key assets, these are the key ports, these are the key international airports, this is the key place of interface with the global economy.”

And more locally, these megapolitans will also be the geographical unit that drives planning.

“Not in terms of everything,” says Lang. “Not housing, not schools. But in terms of transportation planning, economic development, environmental planning, areas at that scale.”

I’m all for long-range planning and regional collaboration. I’m even for so-called futurists, as long as they don’t come with a $25,000 speaking fee. Scenario planning exercises, such as Envision Utah and, closer to home, Envision Central Texas, encourage people to grapple with investment decisions and tradeoffs in a highly charged political environment inhabited by developers, environmentalists, affordable housing advocates, and fear-mongers. What’s not to like for a student of economics with a healthy appetite for debate and trouble-making?

But while I agree with the megaregion pundits about transportation and environmental planning, we’re not there yet on economic development, and, as Lang correctly notes, we’re nowhere close on related and equally important issues like (secondary) education. And I’d add workforce development to that list. Costs for major transportation projects must be shared across cities and counties because they can’t afford to go it alone. And fight it though we may, we resist regional cooperation on environmental concerns such as aquifer protection at our own peril. [Characterizing water availability as primarily an environmental issue is foolish in its own right, but that’s an entry on communication for another time.] No individual city or county can afford to adequately protect a long-term water supply of regional significance. Cities and counties will maintain separate budgets for local transportation and environmental projects for as long as we have local government, but we’ve crossed the threshold where regional cooperation is no longer questioned in most places.

City and county officials can work together on metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to lobby for projects that benefit their collective area within the region. Everybody in the region–or at least all users–benefit from the investment, but their residents likely benefit more than people in other municipalities because of proximity and perception. Voters, to the extent they are paying attention, give credit to the local politicians for successfully navigating the regional decision-making process and everybody wins.

What’s the counterpart for economic development? Most local economic developers participate in at least one regional effort of some type, such as “regional partner” programs at larger chambers of commerce funded by membership dues or economic development districts funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. However, while most local economic developers, especially in smaller communities, understand that acting regionally is the only way to compete effectively in the global economy, how many local politicians or voters give credit to their local economic developers for the project that lands in the community next door? Some of your residents may get new jobs in that facility next door, and perhaps, if the project is large enough, a portion of the spinoff activity will add to your tax base, making the local politicians happy. But rarely do you see local economic developers standing together to explain, convincingly, how a regional win translates to tangible benefits for each individual community. Competition among local economic developers breeds a lot of innovation that pushes the entire field forward. This is not one of those cases. We need to do better.

Pundits are right to point to the regional nature of how economies grow–based on shared assets like DFW Airport and networks which form the basis of cluster approaches–but, as much as it pains me to say it, convincing data alone rarely changes behavior. Carrots and sticks change behavior, not academic arguments. Thankfully, we’ve seen more carrots than sticks lately with bottom-up approaches like the Jobs Accelerator at the federal level and the MPO-like process for economic development that’s emerging in states such as New York and Ohio. But it will take some time to see if these new models are politically viable and capable of generating results that are significant enough to accelerate regional cooperation in places around the country where old habits die hard when it comes to economic development.

Until I see evidence of that changing, I’ll be skeptical of the megaregion argument.

Comment (1)

  1. Jon Roberts

    I couldn’t agree with you more. And it’s worth pointing out that the one thing that could make regional e.d. work is usually rejected out-of-hand: regional (tax) revenue sharing.

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