Monday, September 29, 2008

An Investment in America's Future

America's 100 largest metropolitan areas
Image: Brookings Institution, MetroNation. Colors electronically modified.

When I heard that Congress was discussing a $700 billion bailout of the banking industry, my first impulse was to wonder why the federal government has not come up with a similar amount to support infrastructure and economic investments for cities and metropolitan areas.

I’m not the only one wondering this. Washington Post columnist Neal Peirce wrote an article yesterday asking: “With the Wall Street mortgage meltdown so massive its costs could reach toward $1 trillion, where’s the economic plan to rebuild America’s cities and infrastructure, to retool our businesses and people for a risky century?”

Peirce’s point is that an “economic plan” for our cities and metro regions would not be a bailout; it would be an investment in our nation’s future. Consider that our nation has been losing some of its core economic sectors, bleeding jobs, becoming more and more dependent on a carbon-heavy transportation structure, and has been proliferating an inefficient and unsustainable development pattern that places residents far from jobs and services.

In other words, after we have found a short-term solution to stem the tide of the financial crisis, we need to start thinking seriously about the future of our nation. If we want America to emerge from this financial crisis with the foundation to become competitive in a new, global economy, it is critical that we invest in our cities and metropolitan areas.

America’s urbanized areas provide the potential for reducing oil dependency; increasing energy efficiency; building sustainable, knowledge-based and/or high-tech economic sectors; and allowing more Americans to cost-effectively live within easy access of a variety of housing types, jobs, institutions, and services. This kind of physical, social, and economic climate will give more Americans a greater range of opportunities for where they work, a choice in how they travel, and much greater access to centers of housing, commerce, health care, culture, and education.

The need for substantially increasing federal investment in metropolitan areas has been argued consistently by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Brookings’ report MetroNation: How U.S. Metropolitan Areas Fuel American Prosperity, explains that the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. take up just 12% of the nation’s land, but account for 65% of the nation’s population. The report argues, “It is America’s Metropolitan areas…that aggregate and strengthen our key prosperity drivers: innovation, human capital, and infrastructure.”

Growing our cities and metropolitan areas could give the U.S. the opportunity to increase its fuel-efficient, sustainable infrastructure in ways that are nearly impossible under a sprawling growth pattern. In his article, Peirce cited Phil Angelides, chairman of the Apollo Alliance and former California state treasurer, in his hope of bolstering America’s competitiveness by committing “to double the federal R & D budget focused on a green economy, to equip factories, retrain workers, rebuild inefficient energy grids, develop wind and solar power at an accelerated rate, upgrade energy efficiency of buildings nationwide, and help cities build and expand transit systems for mobility in an oil-scarce, carbon-challenged era.”

Peirce points out that investing in our nation’s future will not come cheap. Still, when there is an immediate need, our leadership seems to be able to come up with massive amounts of capital, in a pinch. Well, we have a need. Many Americans feel it every day. It takes the form of unemployment topping six percent, nearly 40 million people in poverty, more and more Americans unable to afford transportation, health care and housing, floods of home foreclosures, and now a crisis that has rocked our financial sectors.

America’s leaders need to figure out how to make the U.S. competitive in a changing world, and provide an optimistic economic future for the people of our nation. Concluding his article, Neal Peirce’s writes, “no matter which [presidential] candidate wins, the overwhelming need to invest in a radically greener, energy efficient, globally competitive America won’t go away. Bailout of errant markets is just the prelude to the really hard work ahead.”

The time has come to recognize that many trends of the past half century are now uncompetitive and unsustainable. Staying the course will not cut it for America’s future. With the same vigor and sense of urgency that our leaders are addressing the financial crisis, so should they address the crisis of America’s future. Investing in our nation’s metropolitan areas provides the key. And the time to invest is now.

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