Regional Economic Development Musings

A friend of mine asked me to react to this post over at citiwire.net, so here are my off-the-top-of-my-head musings, in response to what’s in the post as well as themes it hits that I’ve been mulling over for a minute:

1) Bruce Katz keeps on banging on the importance of metros, and rightly so, given the increasing importance of density in our knowledge-based economy. Remember when we thought the Internet would render place irrelevant? Turns out we’re seeing the opposite trend play out: brains want to be near other brains, cities where the vast majority of uber-clusters of brains are (think universities, research parks, and medical centers), and even environmental realities have impelled us to reconsider the sustainability of living and working in ever far-flung places.

2) That said, let’s not go overboard here. I once presented to a group of people representing 12 counties in northcentral Pennsylvania and pointed out to them that their counties represented almost a quarter of the state’s land mass but only 4 percent of its population, 2 percent of its income, and barely 0.2 percent of the state’s contribution to GDP. They correctly pointed out that that’s not all life is scored on, since quality of life and wide open recreational spaces and access to breath-taking sights don’t get properly quantified in such metrics. I learned from that group that while Bruce Katz’s statements are correct – metros are where the economic activity is – those statements need to be expressed in ways that don’t come off like the big city slicker talking smack about rural places as if there was no good reason anyone would want to choose to live there.

3) The whole “think regionally” mantra is another correct but loaded concept. Yes, watersheds and tourism strategies and quality of life initiatives are no respecters of jurisdictional boundaries. But the political process by which decisions are made are very much bound by those artificial lines. It irks me a little when people talk as if it was better for power to be centralized, because then things can get unilaterally done, whether you’re talking about Richard Daley in Chicago or the Communist Party in China. All well and good, but let’s not forget the beauty and effectiveness of the democratic process, no matter how messy and sometimes dirty it might get. So citizens and officials alike have to put their immediate allegiances aside and figure out how to work together; but they do so within a political structure that, however maddening and oftentimes corrupt, is the best the world has ever seen.

That’s all I got this morning. I welcome additional contributions to this conversation.

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