The Emerging Era of 'Citistates'


Across the United States and across the globe, the age of the "citistate" is upon us.

Great metropolitan regions -- not cities, not states, not even the nation states -- are starting to emerge as the world's most influential players.

Economically muscular, heavily populated citistates, from Hong Kong to Hamburg, Singapore to San Francisco, Miami to Milan, are increasingly in direct and instant electronic contact, exchanging capital and goods with scarcely a nod to the nation states that have dominated the world for the last 500 years.

The fundamental reason is that it's the marketplace, not military prowess, that defines significant power in the wake of the Cold War.

In an ironic way, we may be reverting to a world order similar to the flourishing economy of 14th- and 15th-century Europe, when the 80 member cities of the Hanseatic League created a vibrant network of intercity alliances that hosted trading guilds and their ambitious merchants.

Nation states subsequently arose to conduct great campaigns of transoceanic colonization and launch great land wars across the face of Europe. They eventually led us into cataclysmic world wars.

But today nation states are finding that the role they played best -- amassing huge armies and preparing for war -- matters far less. National 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.

World population seems to be blowing with hurricane velocity out of the globe's rural areas and into citistate metropolises. The thaw of the Cold War has sent ethnic waters racing in every direction. Today it's as tough for nation states to control their borders as to prevent wild fluctuations in their currencies brought on by world market pressures.

Nation states' basic sovereignty, in short, is eroding, even though we'll continue to need them for tasks ranging from social security and nationalized health plans to air safety and military police actions.

John Gardner, planning director for Metropolitan Toronto, suggests that the forces in the world today are simultaneously pushing power up, to the international level, and down, to the local level. Environmental issues become global (recall last summer's "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro), even while it becomes clear that big national economies are agglomerations of distinct regional economies, each centered around one or more great citistates.

Rutgers University's Benjamin Barber suggests, intriguingly, that "the planet is falling precipitously apart and coming reluctantly together at the very same moment." He calls the divergent trends "Jihad vs. McWorld." Jihad is bringing us "a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened Lebanonization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture." Yet there's also the McWorld phenomenon, forces propelling the world into one homogenous global network "tied together by technology, ecology, communications and commerce."

The incredibly fast-paced nature of current global competition poses special challenges for industries that used to be able to operate within a protective envelope of time and space. Now hardly any new product remains proprietary for long; competition is global and intense.

If a region is to be competitive, holding and attracting high-paying firms, it needs to demonstrate economic cohesiveness, cultural distinction, environmental safety, social equity, physical safety. It needs center cities that aren't physical and social disaster zones. Top-notch research universities, quality technical and secondary schools, a quality transportation system, all play in the equation. So do attractive downtowns, to which industries can invite their customers from around the globe.

A generation ago, a metropolitan-wide government was frequently proposed as a way to get suburbs to pay a fairer tax share, and to get government services delivered more efficiently. The political resistance was fierce, and today few people believe rejuggled government is the most promising choice.

But there's a growing acknowledgment that almost all public challenges in a citistate region, from economic planning to waste disposal, higher education, roads, transit, clean air and water, demand attention well beyond the competence or authority of any single government, city or suburban.

Expanding area-wide agendas and global competition are forcing "metropolitanism," some way to act cohesively and regionally, back onto policy agendas.

And in citistates from Atlanta to Indianapolis, Seattle to Pittsburgh, Austin to Louisville, hundreds and in some cases thousands of citizens are meeting in various forums to figure out the regional future, and agenda -- as opposed to individual city or suburban, futures.

The politicians, in many cases, seem the last to catch on to the imperative of cohesive, citistate-wide action that many community activists, progressive business leaders and academics are advocating.

Yet as Dean Jane Pisano of the University of Southern California's School of Public Administration notes, "This is not a 'good government' issue any more. It reflects, directly, the way the world is organizing itself economically. Form follows function. Looking from Los Angeles out, Seoul and Atlanta are equal competitors. If citistates fail to act consciously to plan and strategize, we lose the potential to be competitive."

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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