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Volume 5
2010

Metropolitan Areas as Economic Engines

  • Joe T. Darden
  • Professor
  • Department of Geography
  • College of Social Science
  • Dean, Urban Affairs Programs (1984-1997)
Joe T. Darden
Joe T. Darden

For our 2010 issue, The Engaged Scholar Magazine asked three prominent scholars for their "Perspectives" on academic engagement with urban communities. This essay is Dr. Joe T. Darden's response.

The world is experiencing two major population changes: There is an increasing movement of populations to large metropolitan areas, and urban populations are becoming more diverse. Today, two-thirds of Americans live in the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Moreover, the United States population (due largely to immigration) is now one-third non-White and 68% of the nation's non-Whites reside in the 100 largest metropolitan areas.1

If metropolitan areas are to reach their full potential as engines of economic growth, university involvement is essential—via faculty research, knowledge-based community assistance, and student research internships. Michigan State University has had a long history of involvement in urban communities since the civil disorders of the 1960s. It is now time to elevate that commitment to meet the pressing needs of metropolitan areas during this period of economic transformation.

How the Transformation Occurred

During the 1980s U.S. metropolitan areas started to experience the negative effects of economic restructuring. The process of restructuring involved a substantial decline in manufacturing employment (which pays higher wages) and an increase in service employment (which pays lower wages). It also involved the spatial relocation of most jobs to the suburbs, creating a spatial mismatch for those left behind in the central cities.2

"If metropolitan areas are to reach their full potential as engines of economic growth, university involvement is essential—via faculty research, knowledge-based community assistance, and student research internships."

Joe T. Darden

Spatial Mismatch

Spatial mismatch, i.e., the separation of place of residence from place of work, is the result of discrimination and segregation in housing and employment.2 It systematically perpetuates socioeconomic inequalities between residents in the cities and those in the suburbs. These disparities manifest themselves most dramatically in higher rates of poverty and unemployment. This has been especially true for many central cities of the Midwest as manufacturing continues to decline. Today many cities and their metropolitan areas are experiencing high rates of unemployment. However, some are addressing the economic downturn better than others through innovation and adaptation.

Adaptive Efficiency and Adaptive Equity

Adaptive efficiency, i.e., the ability of companies and metropolitan economies to innovate and improve their efficiency so as to compete effectively,3 has made some metropolitan areas engines of economic growth. However, it's important that this efficiency be combined with adaptive equity, i.e., the balance of growth between city center and suburbs. To achieve this, successful metropolitan areas must maintain the proper private and public investment in the central city core, in order to ensure a high percentage of middle class residents who both work and live downtown.

Effective Political Leadership and Collaborative Relationships

Effective political leadership of the central city is also critical. The elected political leader of the largest municipality in a metropolitan area must establish cooperative and collaborative relationships and agreements with the many surrounding suburbs. This may involve the creation of a powerful growth coalition representative of the city and the suburbs, together with business, industry, and the educational and community sectors.3 This coalition must operate on behalf of the entire metropolitan area. It must engage collaboratively to: (1) recruit new firms and a highly skilled workforce (including immigrants); (2) work cooperatively with educational institutions; (3) prioritize investments in the infrastructure (aimed at balanced city and suburban job growth); and (4) improve the quality of life for all classes in the city and suburbs.

Key Strategies for Success

In conclusion, those metropolitan areas that are best able to combine adaptive efficiency and adaptive equity will continue to have higher rates of employment in both their central city and their suburbs, and will have a low unemployment rate gap between the city and its suburbs, e.g., Boston, Minneapolis, and Houston.4 Moreover, combined with effective political leadership, they will continue to be the best examples of metropolitan areas as engines of economic growth. Such metropolitan areas will likely be a top priority for federal funding under President Obama's federal funding to cities agenda. Michigan State University needs to be ready to engage with metropolitan areas when this funding is received.

  1. Brookings Institution. (2010). State of metropolitan America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.
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  2. Darden, J., Hill, R., Thomas, J., & Thomas, R. (1987). Detroit: Race and uneven development. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
    Go back to Citation 2
  3. Atkinson, R., & Gottlieb, P. (2001). The metropolitan new economy index. Washington, DC: The Progressive Policy Institute.
    Go back to Citation 3
  4. U.S. Department of Labor. (2010). Bureau of Labor statistics 2010: Employment statistics for selected cities and their metropolitan areas. Washington, DC: Author.
    Go back to Citation 4

Darden, J., Hill, R., Thomas, J., & Thomas, R. (1987). Detroit: Race and uneven development. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Go back to Citation 2

Atkinson, R., & Gottlieb, P. (2001). The metropolitan new economy index. Washington, DC: The Progressive Policy Institute.
Go back to Citation 3

  • Photograph courtesy of Catherine A. Gibson, University Outreach and Engagement