The age of the citistate

In the past few years, there's been a growing sense of the region in Northeast Ohio. Researchers, planners, politicians and business leaders are starting to appreciate how our major problems transcend city and county lines. We need regional cooperation, for example, if we are to plan efficient transportation systems, restore watersheds or revitalize the local economy.

In June 1993, Ohio legislators Grace Drake, Patrick Sweeney and Roy Ray sponsored a "Summit on Regional Competitiveness" at the Richfield Coliseum. The featured speaker was Neal Peirce, syndicated columnist on urban affairs and principal author of the book, Citistates: How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World (Seven Locks Press, 1993). Reprinted below is most of Peirce's speech.

We are devoting a lot of space to this because it gets to the root of how we should be thinking regionally. Peirce focuses on three "disabilities" plaguing metropolitan areas like ours—the great socio-economic divide between poor inner-cities and affluent suburbs, wasteful urban sprawl, and the lack of coordinated regional governance.

As you read his analysis and recommendations, think about how we might begin to do things differently in our region. And think about some additional questions: How can we make our economy more locally self-sufficient and sustainable, not just more internationally competitive? How can we base our regional vision on the limits of natural systems, the land and the watersheds? And, if regional decision-making is essential, how can we make it truly representative?


Across America and across the globe, the age of the citistate is upon us. Great metropolitan regions—not cities, not states, increasingly not even nation states—are the key competitors in the world marketplace. It is the marketplace, not military power, which in the wake of the Cold War overwhelmingly defines our present, and our future. And it's the great regions that learn, as it were "to get their act together," which will prosper in the new world economy.

Imagine, if you will, a visitor from another planet, approaching the dark side of earth in our time. He would quickly note the clusters of light where humans congregate in great numbers. Approaching any one of them—at least as soon as daylight broke—he would see a fully integrated organism: a concentration of human development, of roads and rivers and bridges and masses of buildings, all arrayed together, people and vehicles, air, water and energy interacting in as many ways as stars in a firmament.

This is what people familiarly call metropolitan areas and what I prefer to call the citistate—the closely intertwined, interrelated, geographic, economic, environmental entity that chiefly defines late 20th century civilization. Demographics underscore its reality. The historic rural dominance of human population is fast dissipating. Eighty percent of the world's population occupies just two percent of the land surface of the globe. It's estimated that by 2000 roughly 50 percent of the world's population will live in and around cities; by 2020, that figure could rise as high as 70 percent. In 1950, there were only 14 U.S. metropolitan areas of more than 1 million people; in 1990 there were 39 and their inhabitants constituted, for the first time in American history, a majority of the nation's people.

Metropolitan areas have, of course, been around for a long time. So why, you may ask, would one suddenly call them citistates?

I came to that conclusion, I might explain, by way of a series of reports I was commissioned to prepare for the newspapers in Phoenix, Seattle, Baltimore, Dallas and St. Paul. For each city I assembled a small team of analysts to work with me. We got full editorial freedom; to get our information and insights we interviewed, in each place, at least 60 leaders, from grassroots community group leaders up to mayors and governors. Now two colleagues and I have assembled our reports on the metro areas into a single book.

From the start, we insisted we had to focus not just on the historic center city but on the entire metropolitan region, its capacities, problems, challenges. We looked hard for appropriate region-wide strategies. So that when we went back to sum up our work, it was clear we'd identified not just formulas for internal improvement, but indeed the components of an international competitive strategy for each citistate. And we decided to coin a new, single word—"citistate"—to underscore the transglobal challenges and connectedness of the great urban regions of our time.

In their classic sense, of course, city states are hardly new in world history. Before there were nation states, there were city states. One can trace them back to antiquity, to Athens, Sparta, Syracuse, Carthage and Rome, then to the Hanseatic League of the 14th and 15th centuries, to the Italian City States of the Renaissance. Measured by historic time, nation states are relative newcomers, having arisen to conduct great campaigns of transoceanic colonization, to launch great land wars across the face of Europe. They eventually led us into cataclysmic world wars...

Yet no natural law of history says nation states' absolute dominance must remain for all time to come. We see a remarkable confluence of events, rushing to a head at a single moment in history. Telecommunications have advanced so rapidly that messages, data, money transfers generated in our citistate financial centers now leap national boundaries in nanoseconds. Investment capital, the mother's milk of urban economic development, becomes increasingly mobile. Trade barriers are crumbling, opening distant markets, making it much more difficult—as the Europeans, for example, are now learning—to subsidize and sustain politically favored regions. And nation states are losing a real measure of sovereignty as their control of their own currencies falters, walls against immigration tumble down, free trade agreements proliferate and the one activity they were perhaps best at—amassing huge armies and preparing for war—subsides in importance with the end of the Cold War.

Across continents, provincial and ethnic loyalties are tearing apart the once-secure borders of nationhood: witness, by way of example, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, or what used to be Yugoslavia today. John Gardner, planning director for Metropolitan Toronto, suggests that the forces abroad today are simultaneously pushing power up, to the international level, and downward, to the local. The "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro underscored, for example, the imperative for coordinated international attention to such vital and shared issues as global warming. Yet at the same time, it becomes ever clearer that all these figures they give for national economies are really just averages, that the reality is constellations of regional economies, each with a major city at its core.

Competing with the world

Each citistate has to be consciously aware of where it stands in a worldwide competition, not just with other American regions, but competitor regions spread from Seoul to Singapore, Oslo to Osaka, Berlin to Barcelona...The critical question is: how do our citistates position themselves for the new world order? Looking for the right strategy, how broad a slate do you write on?

One approach would be quite narrow: to focus simply on trade relationships, perhaps airports and maritime facilities, maybe foreign consulates, but not much more. This is in line with quite traditional economic development thinking, simply applied to foreign connections. And as far as it goes, there is surely nothing wrong about it.

The second approach broadens the camera focus quite significantly, to all the factors which have a pretty indisputable and direct linkage to a citistate's international positioning. Examples would be the international curriculum and outreach of local universities, advancing higher technology and financial service capacities, the outlook for attracting international gatherings over the coming decades and related issues of foreign language instruction in the local schools. Urban livability, tourism, sister cities, advanced telecommunications, getting ready for NAFTA, would all fit into such strategies.

Yet having said that, I believe a serious look at today's citistate and its international positioning can carry one to a third, even broader level of debate and analysis—a truly macro-view of citistate issues. Perhaps it's too wide a lens for many people. But think with me, for a moment, of the very broad picture that emerges when one thinks in the most expansive way about citistates. The land issue, for example, switches from local zoning disputes to a question of the physical shape and environment of a region, how decisions are made about where people work, where they live and recreate, and the consequences for the environment, for social cohesion, indeed for the viability of the entire region. The image of the cities' centers, their appearance and vitality, becomes not just a challenge for downtown leaders but a question of the entire citistate's image—to itself, and quite critically, its mirror to the world. Economic development becomes a question of whether the region's special niches in the new global economic order have been identified, and are being nurtured. Government efficiency becomes an international competitive issue, whether vital transportation and environmental and human resource needs are being satisfied.

Social issues become a question of a regional society's whole strength, and its capacity to see troubled peoples not just as a social burden but as potentially valuable human resources, waiting to become, one day, regional assets. Philanthropy becomes a question of mobilizing all sorts of civic capacities to meet compelling needs across multiple jurisdictions. School and university issues suddenly have to be viewed in the context of regional workforce preparedness in an era in which brains, not brawn, have become a ticket to economic success. And the leadership question takes on demanding new aspects: the need to supplement political leadership with strong business and citizen and nonprofit group efforts, perhaps better organized and coordinated than American regions up to now ever thought necessary.

Disabilities of American citistates

In my Citistates book, I focus heavily on those ultra-wide lens issues. And I do that not because I believe the narrow lens of the traditional economic development groups, or an intermediate approach, is invalid. But rather because of the three great disabilities which American citistates seem to suffer so grievously, over and against their keen competitors in Asia and Europe.

Gulf between city and suburb. The first of our citistates' great disabilities is the deep socio-economic gulf between their poor cities and affluent suburbs. "There are levels of depopulation in urban America," notes urbanologist Mark Hughes, "that on other continents would require war, famine or pestilence." And it does not even take semi-abandoned neighborhoods to cause incredible tensions. Consider immigrant-packed Los Angeles, for example, and the difference between the urban riots of the '60s, and Los Angeles rainbow eruption of 1992. Back in the '60s, the violence was contained to identifiable neighborhoods. Afterwards, indeed for the better part of 25 years afterwards, we simply tried to isolate and ignore the affected areas. But the outbreak last year refused to stay nicely contained to South Central L.A. The savage effects were felt quickly, fiercely, radiating outward to Hollywood, Pasadena, Long Beach, San Bernardino. The bottom line is that one can run, but in the long run not hide, from unattended urban woes.

Nor is our problem any longer one of center cities alone. Evidence has emerged—out of several carefully conducted studies —that suburbs which surround healthy inner cities stand a better chance of prospering than suburbs which surround sick cities. Suburbanites may believe they're shielding themselves from urban decline, but the fact is that the worse off the center city is, the more average suburban incomes are depressed.

Many working-class suburbs, in fact, are in severe decline, like the center cities before them. Each new spurt of residential development on the metropolitan fringe, notes Thomas Bier of Cleveland State University, drives down property values in older communities. Decline follows almost inevitably. Indeed, I have found Tom Bier's research [several examples of which are in this publication] so compelling that I cite it in my book and in my speeches around the country. In recent research, Tom continues to analyze the meaning of the successive rings of outward movement, first from Cleveland, then from its suburban rings, buyers each time going for more expensive, farther-out housing. "The wake of decline and urban pathologies that spread behind outmigration will not stop at the city-suburban line," he now projects. With such suburbs as Parma, Maple Heights and Euclid perhaps the most vulnerable, Bier warns that "the present risk is that over the next 20-30 years, Cuyahoga County will follow the city of Cleveland into distressed fiscal condition, which would in turn further jeopardize the economic condition of the multi-county Cleveland region."

Tom Bier also names the reasons—not just Americans' seemingly incessant desire to move to ever-greener outer acres, but higher governments' anemic support for housing renewal and the welfare of existing communities and the way federal, state and local governments alike have "used [their] power and influence to support the development of new suburbs through the provision of roads, highways, sewers, water, utilities, the tax code—and thereby supported outmigration."

Would there be a way to slow the migration out of Cleveland and the older suburbs...? I suggest you ought to focus on that in your deliberations, now and into the future. Because just modifying the trend some could have immense payoffs. Bier makes a point that's always seemed to me to be obvious: No one expects center cities to monopolize population as they did a generation ago. We just want to see them have a reasonable share, so they can keep a decent tax base and do well. Bier notes that in a 1986 survey, 11 percent of suburban homeowners in Cuyahoga County indicated an interest in living in downtown Cleveland. That's far from a majority, of course, but so what? If that 11 percent were to move downtown, the number of downtown households would jump from 2,000 to 27,000. "Downtown Cleveland would be transformed," says Bier, indeed, "it would be transformed if just five percent moved in."

Sprawl. The second and directly related American citistate disability is physical "sprawl"—the alarming environmental and social consequences of our inability or unwillingness to contain urban growth within reasonably compact geographic areas. Sprawl contributes directly to traffic congestion, vast numbers of hours in lost productive time, mounting levels of air pollution. It obliterates city and town identities. As new job locations go farther and farther "out there," we create an American apartheid, the poor stuck in old center cities without a way to reach the new work sites. Big lot zoning destroys the potential for coherent new community. Suburbanites live in enervating social isolation, driving their treasured little kids everywhere, denying them the pleasures of informal neighborhood life. Even while in inner-city neighborhoods, areas drained of employed role model adults, kids never see any reason to take education seriously and never make the normal contacts of a more socially integrated society, contacts that could lead them into productive lives of work. We are engaged, in short, in a form of development that, at its heart, is profoundly anti-community.

Sprawl is economically foolhardy, too. We have been squandering a massive share of our available national capital in recreating, on the metropolitan periphery, what already exists in our cities—road and bridge systems, universities and hospitals, retail facilities, office and sports complexes and more. In a capital-short era, such needless duplications means less capital available for investment in research and development, productive new technologies, in education and job training and our existing urban infrastructure.

Regional anarchy. Finally, American citistates are dismally ineffective in achieving coordinated governance. Their constituent governments seem continually at sixes and sevens, unable to reach the most fundamental cooperative agreements, fighting over economic scraps, pushing environmental or social problems off to their neighbors. The international image created is of a malfunctioning, divisive citistate. We all know that most American regions lack the most rudimentary systems to resolve differences between their cities and counties.

At a minimum, they need regional councils able to resolve conflicts and broker collaborative planning. In today's world, the challenge may not be so much to create new formal structures (though some are surely required) than to search for pragmatic arrangements, find ways to resolve conflicts, look toward a regional vision and capacity.

Road building, transit and the whole transportation sector are vital regional issues, for example. In my book I write about two bills—the Clean Air Act of 1990, and especially the so-called ISTEA—the big transportation bill passed by Congress in 1991—as the first federal legislation of the citistate era. The reason is compelling. All stakeholders across a region—not just the state highway engineers—have to be in on the discussion of which roads get built. Greenways, intermodal transit, mass transit all get in on the equation. And for the first time, there has to be a conscious policy of picking priorities, how to use scarce transportation monies. It's the kind of process which might, for example, pick rebuilding of existing roads, mass transit and similar improvements over new outer-loop superhighways.

It's the economy...

But let me stress—economics, not improvement of governance, should be the carrot leading most people to thinking seriously about citistate approaches. The fact is that virtually every monopoly in today's international economy, service or manufacturing, is crumbling...Today's industries don't enjoy a protective envelope of time and distance. They must, among other things, exercise rigorous control over their costs and have access to vital resources, human and physical. They must be able to hire a competent workforce, perhaps the most critical variable of all. They also need to move people and goods cost effectively. They must have basic water and sanitation needs fulfilled. They need clean air. They need an environment not plagued by crime. They have a major concern about the quality of life for their employees.

But think about it. Not a single one of those needs can be supplied, fully, by the single municipality in which a business is located. All of them are first and foremost metropolitan-wide, regional issues. Local governments may deliver most of them, but without regional coherence, the gaps and inequities are sure to remain immense.

Well, if these are American citistates' three great competitive disadvantages—first, city-suburban, rainbow-hued hole in the white donut problems; second, sprawl and its alarming consequences; and third, the lack of coordinated regional governance—what are the solutions?

Strengthening citistates

On that point, I have been working on a list of guideposts—formulas for citistate cohesiveness and strength.

  • Recognize the indivisibility of the citistate—the intricately interrelated region the visitor from outer space would see. We're "all in this together," President Clinton suggested in his February economic address to the nation. The same applies directly, maybe even more so, within individual citistates, the new "common markets" of our time.
  • Plan the regional economy to marshall internal strength and find a profitable niche in the new world economy. Citistates which hope to prosper in the international economy need to plan as carefully as the smartest corporations. They need to decide what they're good at and seize their comparative advantages.

The Seattle region, for example, knows it's good at aircraft and software manufacturing, but with a downturn in world markets recognizes it has to push diversification harder than ever. The Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle, created by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce together with Seattle and King County, is charged with making the region a premier gateway and trading port for North America...Pittsburgh, seeing its steel-based economy almost evaporate, has tapped its lead universities to become a formidable center of new technology research and development. Louisville, once bedeviled by industrial loss, has made itself a beacon of collaboration on every front, from new-style, cooperative manufacturing environments to shared regional economic development agendas and city-county tax-base sharing.

  • Reaffirm the critical importance of the citistate's heart—its historic center city and neighborhoods. Center cities continue to define a citistate to the world. The mere words "Paris," "Moscow," "Hong Kong," "New York," "San Francisco," "Chicago," "New Orleans," evoke powerful images. This means urban design, waterfront planning, streetscapes and historic preservation, are powerfully important issues for a citistate's entire presentation to the world. By contrast, a trashy, graffiti-laden, uncared for city landscape can herald serious decline and telegraph a negative message world-wide.
  • Remember quality of life issues and pay special attention to environmental quality. Once upon a time, quality of life may have been thought of solely as an aesthetic or social issue. No more. Today it is a critical economic issue profoundly affecting the future prospects of a citistate. As Dallas consultant James Crupi notes, there is a very real and increasingly recognized "symbiotic relationship between arts, culture, health care, crime, the environment and economic strength."
  • Focus on the growing link between social deprivation and workforce preparedness. This is one of the most compelling reasons regional cohesion now becomes an imperative, far more than 20 or 30 years ago. Not ore or steel, not capital or geographic position is the most vital component of a citistate's positioning. Today, rather, it's the quality of its workforce. We need to remember that a vast and growing proportion of our future workforce will be today's young people of color, whose education and well-being becomes critical to us all. In America today, one out of every three Hispanic children, one of every two black children grows up in poverty. Unless we do much better, where will our citistate employers find qualified workers in the years ahead?

Let us not deceive ourselves. The 1990s may represent the last chance to avert an almost complete suburban-inner city standoff in America, an appalling scenario of good jobs flying to the metropolitan periphery while entire cities sink ever deeper into disinvestment, underclass life, crime and despair, at horrendous cost to our entire civilization.

A broad agenda of remedial education, social service, community-based self-help and guaranteed work programs will be required to address these problems. Federal and state assistance will of course be required. But the recreation of mutually supportive community is a task well beyond the reach of higher governments. Indeed, if there's to be any realistic hope of success, citistates themselves must take greatly expanded responsibilities for designing and implementing their own systems of education, social support, and neighborhood rebuilding.

Just for an example: given the varieties and levels of skill needed for the Cleveland-Akron citistate's economy to prosper in the next years, what's a strategic, truly region-wide assessment of the quality of education now being offered from kindergarten up, what specialties are critical for high schools, community colleges and universities, where are the gaps, and how can they be addressed? And how can those capacities, and their development, be monitored constantly in the interest of the whole region's future?

In my Citistates book I make specific reference to Cleveland as a region of special resources in these areas...Though I would say that in practice, such regions as Denver and Louisville, Hamburg and Barcelona, Portland, OR, and Austin, TX, Toronto and Rotterdam and Singapore, are acting far more cohesively than what seems the Balkanized region of Cleveland, Akron and environs.

  • Make governance work. Along these lines, there is a lot to be said for the National Civic League's prescription—a two-tier type system, most existing subunits left in place, but new metropolitan authorities, with elected councils, formed with the power to plan regionally, and resolve conflicts between existing cities and counties.

To get there, we need very fresh thinking including citistate-wide accords in which all the players give up a little. Rotterdam provides an example of such fresh thought. Leaders believe there has to be political unity to modernize the port and transportation networks and thus maintain Rotterdam's role as a key shipping center for Europe. The suburbs are reluctant to cooperate with the city because it is so much bigger and might dominate any collaboration. So Rotterdam leaders are suggesting that the city proper be reorganized into 10 to 12 new districts comparable in size to the suburbs. Once that's done, they suggest, the municipalities would feel comfortable in creating a new metropolitan authority, without today's center city dominating the whole.

When will we Americans, in a land supposedly built on innovation, be ready for similarly bold experimentation? It's hard to be optimistic. Class, race, tax fears, the sacred cow of home rule, all too often stand in the way. The answer will have to lie in compelling campaigns of public education which link, quite explicitly, the governance issue to the citistate's growth and survival in the new world economy. Indeed, the public education part is critical. As I heard the president of the Lilly Endowment say in Indianapolis last weekend, we need to be far more creative than ever in mobilizing people, both the civically literate and those who normally ignore public affairs. One simply must mobilize the Public Will; otherwise, in familiar fashion, the Public Won't.

  • Undergird governance with strong citizen organizations for the citistate. I am thinking here of organizations like the Citizens League of the Minnesota Twin Cities area or the Citizens League of Greater Cleveland, but on a much broader basis, with thousands of members and strong representation from every city and suburb, class and race and income group. We need such broad-based organizations to assemble regionally-minded citizens to think through citistate-wide issues and propose the kind of thoughtful solutions we rarely get from the politicians who are locked into the tight little parochial boxes of their individual districts or municipalities. But I think we need citizen groups to join with the business and non- profit and new ethnic sectors, pulling some of the best strength out of each in what one might call new metropolitan or citistate partnerships, which in turn can broaden options and engage in productive dialogue with our progressive political leaders.

Every interested group of community stakeholders needs to be in on these kinds of efforts. We Americans have perfected special interest and ethnic and racial pleadings to a fine science. But it's time, at least a couple days a week, to can the conflicts. The understanding has to be common that everyone's goose will be cooked if the citistate fails to face its challenges and starts to slip, economically and socially. State governments have an immense stake in this too, because to a stunning degree, their prosperity, their tax bases, depend on healthy citistate communities.

Our regional identity

Recently in Indianapolis, the National Academy of Public Administration held a conference focused on the idea of citistates. I was astounded to hear how some of America's best minds not only grasped the idea, but in one way or another had been coming to it themselves.

Henry Cisneros, the HUD Secretary, in a major address to the conference, said a central challenge of our time is "to help citistates endure and progress."

Dan Kemmis, the very imaginative mayor of Missoula, Montana, a town all of us back here in the Big Bad East would call a minor league player, already had clear-cut ideas about citistates. Large or small, Kemmis said, citistates are organic, defined by function and the natural and economic community about them rather than by arbitrary government borders. The boundary lines we draw around cities are almost always too restrictive. State boundaries, by contrast, are too broad to represent cohesive community. Check where a city's newspapers circulate, its television stations reach, its banks hold deposits and deliveries get routinely made, and you'll likely have a closer definition of the citistate than any lines drawn on maps.

"Politics in the original Greek meaning was simply the life of the city state," Kemmis noted. "We lost sight of what cities are really about in the centuries of the nation state." Now we need to return to "a primal sense of politics." Only through the true city, the citistate, the geographic region of our shared fate, can we "regain a sense of democratic citizenship."

Virtually everyone at the conference agreed that a renewed sense of inclusivity and social justice must be critical to successful citistates—first because it is right and second if the citistate is to compete globally. "The concept of the citistate is organic, free form, it's not structural," said Astrid Merget of Ohio State, NAPA's current chairperson. "And," she continued, the citistate "elevates values, not issues of efficiency. It gets at racism, justice, and the moral order of our social contract."

Camille Barnett, the highly respected city manager of Austin, Texas, added, "The term citistate is not a fearful term, it is a powerful term. It broadens our lens for looking. It brings a sense of respect, and a sense of possibility. In it, there is a sense of unity. And in relation to the ancient city state, a sense of stewardship."

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Across America and across the globe, the age of the citistate is upon us. Great metropolitan regions—not cities, not states, increasingly not even nation states—are the key competitors in the world marketplace. It is the marketplace, not military power, which in the wake of the Cold War overwhelmingly defines our present, and our future. And it's the great regions that learn, as it were "to get their act together," which will prosper in the new world economy.

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