Seattle, toward a 'MetroNation'

Brookings' Bruce Katz argues in a UW talk that this "metro" can help lead the U.S. toward a new, more prosperous economy.
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A light rail train in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel

Brookings' Bruce Katz argues in a UW talk that this "metro" can help lead the U.S. toward a new, more prosperous economy.

Bruce Katz, the founding director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and a frequent visitor to this region, opened a series of four public lectures on sustainable urbanization Tuesday night at the University of Washington. Titling his talk “The Great Recession: What Comes Next for our MetroNation,” Katz began by quoting United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s comment about global challenges today: “This is not a time for tinkering. It is a time for transformation.”

Katz’s argument was that Seattle can take advantage of a serious recession to drive innovations that would advance a new economic model, different from the one now failing the nation. He echoed other thinkers in saying that low-carbon energy must now fuel economic growth, and that this would change transportation and information technologies, the homes and communities we live in, and the products we manufacture. The new economy, he said, will be shaped more by exports than by the consumption of goods produced domestically.

But the most important message Katz wanted Seattle to hear is that the city can help lead the transformation. As a past and present magnet for technological innovation, as the home of a university whose research wins more public funding than any other facility in the country, as a port city that is a hub of international trade, and as an attractive place to live that is “teeming with well educated people,” Seattle “has the stuff that will drive prosperity” in a new world economy.

Metropolitan areas or “metros” like greater Seattle are the economic entities that will lead the nation forward, Katz said. “We are no longer Jefferson's nation of small hamlets. The U.S. emerged as the world's power because our metros are connected with metros all over the globe.” Katz didn’t mention Jane Jacobs, but he follows her Cities and the Wealth of Nations in asserting that prosperous economies depend not on nations but on the cities within them. Wealth is created where human capital converges, resources can be gathered on a large scale, mixtures of enterprises can fertilize each other, and major infrastructure projects can be communally developed not only to support these enterprises but to link them with enterprises elsewhere. Katz’s key term is metros instead of cities, he said, because “cities are not the places they were 50 years ago. The assets that the metro needs to compete economically are spread throughout the region,” beyond the city, in its suburbs and exurbs. “Only when you include parks, air, rail, transit, and roads does an economy get the necessary cumulative impact.”

So, Katz said, “We're a metro nation. Do we act like it? Do we organize our resources?” In the Seattle metro, not yet. Transportation problems, among many others, sorely need solutions, and quickly. "There's no reason why metropolitan Americans shouldn’t have rapid, frequent, reliable transportation.” Most important, governance of such matters throughout the region is “overly fragmented, with stovepipes and silos. It’s time to forge a common vision for the region and to put state, city, and local policy in service of that vision.” But resources still tend to be “allocated as if they were peanut butter to be spread on bread, instead of targeted to give the best return on investment. We must find a new pattern of spending, and move toward metropolitan governance.”

Groups such as the Puget Sound Regional Council and Cascade Land Conservancy have made a start on regional collaboration. However, Katz said, even if a cohesive regional vision was developed on which to base policy and budget decisions, and even if a regional system made coordinated collective efforts, Seattle’s metro “can’t do it alone.” The federal government must help by setting standards for metros and by directing funds to them so that standards can be met. For instance, the national government should lead, as it did in the 1930s, in improving the movement of goods between metropolitan areas. “There’s no way Seattle’s and Tacoma’s ports can succeed without this kind of investment,” especially (as Katz has written elsewhere) given the global competition with port-city metros beyond our borders that are building sophisticated transportation networks.

Still, Katz insisted, “Hard times are the right times to set ambitious goals. And the country has enormous potential. I don't want to minimize the impediments, but I’ll put our system up against any other system, just from the potential of its diffusion of power to unleash innovation in the private sector.”


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