A central premise of Meeting of the Minds is that the flexibility, practicality, and focus of municipal governments make them ideal technological and social innovators. But can the ingenuity of U.S. cities be sufficiently amplified to effectively keep up with the pace of climate change, especially in the face of declining federal leadership?
Answering this question requires us to find the most effective scales for replicating urban progress. Metropolitan to regional scale programs can have the greatest impact, while household to district level projects are easiest to implement (Figure 1). Well-functioning cities and their staffs can help society achieve ambitious goals like reversing climate change and relieving global poverty, but that’s not what they are primarily paid to do. Instead, individual cities mostly aim their problem solving at local conditions. Fixing a pothole or increasing bus frequency can bring immediate relief to a neighborhood and kudos to a city council member.
Organizations like ICLEI and the US Conference of Mayors have long facilitated the sharing of these operational insights. As urban environmental issues have become more prominent, groups like the Urban Sustainability Directors’ Network and Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities have become more influential. With the advent of smart technology as an urban focus, new groups like MetroLab Network, Global City Teams Challenge, and the World Council on City Data are now emerging.
These networks help all member cities learn from one another. However, there are added benefits that come from comparisons with adjacent centers that share geographic, climatic, political, or cultural characteristics, either within a single metropolitan area or across nearby metros. Just as with scientific experiments, holding most policy variables constant, as is possible when looking at a set of like-minded cities, allows one to better understand the detailed effects of individual factors.
Forging links across neighboring metros requires a higher level of voluntary coordination, because there is rarely any government organization with overarching jurisdiction. In the 1990s and 2000s, regional planners began focusing on “megapolitan” regions, or “Megaregions,” most of which contain two or more metropolitan areas linked by relatively efficient transportation systems. The best known of these is the Boston-New York-Washington “Megalopolis,” but others in the U.S. include the Great Lakes complex centered on Chicago, the “Sun Corridor” between Phoenix and Tucson, and Florida’s I-4 corridor connecting Tampa, Orlando, and Miami. Figure 2 shows the Regional Plan Association’s representation of eleven megapolitans that contained 70% of the U.S. population in less than 20% of the land area in 2008.
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Originally written by Jonathan Fink