Multi-city regions, mega-regions, "megapolitan" regions, super-regions, super-city regions, consolidated metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) - whatever you want to call them, there are about a dozen of these mega-regions that pack a lot of economic punch. They generally have strong business, transportation, and market interconnections and produce hundreds of billions - and sometimes trillions - of dollars in economic output.
Examples of top mega-regions include the Boston-Washington, D.C., corridor; Chicago-Pittsburgh; Charlotte-Atlanta; Southern California; and Southern Florida regions. All these areas are highly connected by transportation, economics, industry linkages, culture, and other criteria and would, in fact, be considered robust independent nations by European standards.
"Much of the projected population growth to 2050 is expected to take place in these multi-city (or mega) regions, which will also be the main locations for globally competitive economic activity," indicates Jonathan Barnett, professor of city and regional planning and director of The Urban Design Program at University of Pennsylvania.
Within these galaxy-like mega-regions are super-region "stars" that glow hot with economic potential - cities and/or counties that have banded together to create a regional entity that draws its strength from existing key industries, promotes its business opportunities, and adds value and influence to its mega-region.
"The super-region concept does seem to have some traction in the local economic development environment," states Robert Fountain, a regional economics consultant in Benicia, California. "It seems to be a way for small, detached cities or small MSAs with high growth potential to attach themselves to each other or to larger urban areas for recognition and marketing purposes. Smaller metro areas also get largely left out of federal grants for economic development and infrastructure, and often have little political leverage."
According to Fountain, the globalization of economic activities requires that cities "think at a much larger scale of economic integration, where most innovation occurs and where the aggregate total of resources and infrastructure can support global-level operations. Economic survival will depend on it."
Bruce Katz, a vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, agrees: "There is no national American economy. Rather, the U.S. economy is a network of powerful metropolitan economies, and metropolitan economies are powerful precisely because they bring together networks of large firms, small entrepreneurs, skilled labor, advanced research, colleges and schools, business associations, and yes, government. The top 100 metros together dominate our trade in goods and services, and given their edge in sectors like chemicals, computers, and consulting, they compete on the Frontlines of commerce with Brazil, India, and China."
Transportation Is Top Priority
Cities and counties that comprise super-regions work together within their regions or seek assistance from the mega-region economic development organizations around them. As they grow and develop influence, other nearby communities can join them, strengthening their base.
However, no super-region can be competitive without a high-quality transportation infrastructure - it is, simply, the number-one priority. For example, for the New Orleans-Baton Rouge super-region, which is still essentially on the drawing board, the top priority is transportation. The Louisiana Speaks recovery plan has acknowledged that improved transportation systems and transit-oriented communities are essential to meet economic development and quality-of-life goals. The initiative's key objective is improving connectivity by developing commuter rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Further south, Barnett is working with Tampa and Orlando to create a super-region plan for central Florida - high on his "must have" list is statewide high-speed rail. "High-speed rail is an absolute essential for regional growth," he says. "The state of Florida has a lot of destinations and having the choice of going by air or driving is not enough." Although a Tampa-Orlando link would be a good start, Barnett emphasizes that high-speed rail connections to Miami, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and Fort Myers will be essential for super-region status.
Transportation is also the name of the game in the Seattle/Puget Sound super-region. Government officials recently passed Transportation 2040, a detailed strategy for upgrading the transportation system over the next 30 years. By the year 2040, the region is expected to grow by roughly 1.5 million people and support more than 1.2 million new jobs. Transportation 2040's long-term proposals include high-speed rail.
Building on Strengths
Established and emerging U.S. super-regions include Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, N.C.'s Research Triangle Park, Louisville-Lexington, Orlando-Tampa, Cleveland-Youngstown-Akron-Canton, and New Orleans-Baton Rouge.
Brookings Institution and its Metropolitan Policy Program are working with leaders in some areas, such as Kentucky and Puget Sound/Seattle, to develop "metropolitan business plans." Each plan will outline a strategy for addressing each area's unique economic challenges, including improving or linking key clusters, upgrading work force skills, investing in infrastructure, and commercializing new technologies.
For example, Lexington and Louisville in Kentucky are working with Brookings to forge an economic partnership that builds on their combined strengths. The final assessment will include identifying economic strengths as well as weaknesses, infrastructure needs, labor capabilities, and supply-chain performance.
"Both cities have strong healthcare industries," says Jim Gray, mayor of Lexington. "Both are significantly influenced by the automotive industry. When we consider the full fabric of the opportunity, it is agreed that advanced manufacturing is what we should consider first."
New or enhanced transportation infrastructure will also be required for Lexington-Louisville to become an effective super-region. This might include passenger rail systems that could be built along existing railroads or interstate highway corridors, and even connect northern Kentucky and Cincinnati to Louisville-Lexington.
The shared strength in Cleveland- Youngstown-Akron- Canton is also a well-established manufacturing base. This emerging super-region has been busy mapping out a course of action that will best utilize the assets of this 16-county, 4.1-million resident, $170-billion economy. A regional prosperity initiative called Advance Northeast Ohio, founded in 2007, has established strategic economic priorities to create a globally competitive region. Part of this plan includes shifting its traditional manufacturing base toward global health and green energy. For example, the region's "advanced energy industry cluster" includes more than 400 organizations involved in energy R&D, manufacturing, testing, and education and training.
The biggest issue, in the eye of Hudson, Ohio, Mayor Bill Currin, is reducing the cost of local government. "The cost of local government in Northeast Ohio is [among] the highest in the country and hurts local economic development," Currin says. "There are more than 3,800 taxing agencies in the state of Ohio. Counties are replicating services. We feel that the $20 billion we spend on local municipalities is unsustainable. We are finding ways to collaborate, and are confident we can reduce the cost of local government by at least 10-15 percent, which will make the cost of doing business here more attractive."
Still at the Forefront
Even though it's more than 50 years old, Research Triangle Park (RTP) in North Carolina is still considered to be a model of collaborative regional economic development and continues to expand its influence throughout the region, using its "triple helix" business development model that fosters collaboration between industry, government, and universities.
One of the outgrowths of triple helix is the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP), a public-private partnership that brings innovative business opportunities to the larger, 13-county area. RTRP builds on the core strengths and reputation of Research Triangle Park, especially its reputation for innovation in the fields of medicine, biotech, clean tech, defense, informatics, nanotechnology, ICT, and pharmaceuticals.
This super-region continues to grow - in 2010 there were 108 company announcements, representing 6,607 new jobs and more than $1.5 billion in investment. As of mid-August 2011, there had been 71 announcements, representing 3,612 new jobs and $683 million in total capital investment.
"We are especially pleased with the growth of our clean technology sector," says Charles Hayes, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership. "Companies here are doing innovative research into `smart grid,' an advanced power network that moves electricity reliably and efficiently around the world in a manner similar to the way the Internet conducts data. Wake County, in fact, is now the nation's number-two destination for smart-grid-related company headquarters, ranking just behind San Francisco."
The Seattle/Puget Sound super-region has long been known for innovative high-tech industries, including advanced manufacturing, information technology, and green technologies. Part of the "Cascadia" mega-region, Seattle/Puget Sound is ready to expand its influence into other key clusters such as logistics, life sciences, food science, and aerospace thanks to the relatively new Prosperity Partnership - a coalition of hundreds of businesses, nonprofits, and governments dedicated to expanding the super-region's future economic base.
As a further demonstration of its commitment to regional collaboration, in 2008 the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) and the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle (Trade Alliance) created the first-ever International Regions Benchmarking Consortium. The goal of this partnership is to identify new economic development ideas and best practices from other forward-thinking cities around the world - international metropolitan partners include Barcelona, Dublin, Helsinki, Munich, and Vancouver. Both Microsoft and Boeing provided significant funding to launch the organization.
Although regional collaboration at the super- or mega-region scale will always be challenging and expensive to undertake, the economic stakes have never been higher.
"The next economy will be largely metropolitan in form and in function," warns Katz of the Brookings Institution. "Our major metro areas in this country generate nearly three-quarters of our gross domestic product. We may be nostalgic about small-town America, but it is metropolitan America that drives our national economy and determines our national prosperity."