Exports Report Boosts ‘Metro Revolution’ Meme

8.27.13 | On the heels of Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s “The Metropolitan Revolution,” which we noted argues convincingly that cities and metro regions are leading the way in cutting-edge social and economic solutions without waiting for state or federal seals of approval, comes another other sign that metros are the economic vanguard.

First, there was the U.S. Commerce Department’s July announcement that 29 metro areas hit record export levels in 2012. Canada and Mexico are U.S. metros’ biggest trading partners (natch). Whether that’s because of, or despite the North American Free Trade Agreement, I can’t tell. And while NAFTA decimated much U.S. manufacturing, an occasional phoenix still rises. Which poses an interesting resilience conundrum: It’s definitely resilience when a factory survives, albeit a shadow of its former capacity. But what, if any, regional factors mattered in those survivors’ relative success?

Second, for all its tsoris, Detroit is a big exporter — No. 4 on the list, ahead of Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, and even my own beloved Chicago, which suggests that even as the vultures land to pick clean Detroit’s fiscal bones, the region’s resilience is alive and functioning, if not completely well. Even so, I question the long-term resilience of a region so racially and economically segregated as Detroit; so has the BRR Network (here and here), and others (here).

Gary, Ind., is in a comparable, though not completely identical situation: over-reliance on one industry (steel) that got hammered by foreign competition after resting on its laurels for far too long, and extreme racial and income segregation. But Detroit doesn’t owe its very existence to the automobile industry the way Gary does to U.S. Steel Corp. Nor is Detroit in as dire a condition as Gary that it is giving away abandoned houses for $1.  Finally, Detroit is still able to attract “young creatives” and companies to town while Gary, which is only 30 minutes from Chicago’s Loop via the South Shore Line (the country’s last remaining interurban electric railroad), should be a thriving bedroom suburb. Further Detroit-Gary comparisons probably merit their own post.

Back to the export report, it’s good news inasmuch as it bolsters “The Metropolitan Revolution” meme that U.S. cities must form rich trading networks, but it comes with a caveat from Brookings’ Amy Liu and Joseph Parilla: It’s not enough to trade with neighboring regions. Metro regions must trade globally.

While the new Commerce data showed promising trends in metro goods exports, the reality is that 86 out of the 100 largest metro areas still underperform the nation in the share of their economy driven by international sales.

It’s also about inbound investment.

Regional leaders already have business recruitment strategies down pat. But in the future, metro areas must be more strategic in aligning foreign direct investment (FDI) with key specializations and integrating it with export strategies.

Not coincidentally, Brookings will release a report on foreign direct investment in 100 U.S. markets this fall, which should make for interesting reading vis-à-vis regional resilience. Stay tuned, fans.

Photo / Stephen M. Scott

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