Thursday, March 19, 2009

Regional identity could help Great Lakes cities leverage their assets

We’ve all heard of the brain drain—that powerful vacuum sucking all of the college-educated young professionals out of cities like Milwaukee. More recent reporting suggests that many who leave later return to the Milwaukee area. What do these returned brain drainers like myself have to say about their beloved but struggling Midwestern cities? Detroit’s Sarah Szurpicki and Abby Wilson of Pittsburgh have the answer. After stints in New York City and South Africa, the duo returned to their hometowns to co-found GLUE (Great Lakes Urban Exchange), an organization seeking to bolster regional identity among older industrial cities.

GLUE just completed its second annual conference in Milwaukee, featuring an inspirational mix of post-boomer urbanites from rust-belt cities like Buffalo and Cleveland sharing ideas about urban renewal, the green economy, sustainability, transit, community journalism and more. Following tours of the Growing Power urban farm, Menomonee Valley’s sustainable redevelopment, and the Great Lakes Water Institute, I’m still on a high from hearing so many people call Milwaukee a beautiful and impressive city. One participant from St. Louis commented, only partially joking, that he was now deciding between Paris and Milwaukee for his honeymoon.

If that didn’t warm my Milwaukee-loving heart enough, there was also serious information about how the Midwest can leverage its assets to compete in the post-industrial economy (covered locally here and here). Conference speaker Richard Longworth, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, first laid out some bad news: the Midwest has in some ways lost its embrace of change and its former knack for innovation and creativity. Moreover, independent-minded Midwesterners are not accustomed to working across borders to create regional, shared solutions. No Midwestern university teaches even one course on the Midwest. Fragmented efforts, such as the fact that each state has its own separate bioscience organization, lead to duplication and competition. Longworth didn’t mince words. “The good news is this era is so new. The bad news,” he said, “is that so much of the Midwest is already behind.”

The advantages that Great Lakes cities share include having existing infrastructure and appealing street grids, a density that can support development, an intense work ethic, access to bioscience raw materials, and, of course, plentiful fresh water. Opportunities exist if the region plays its cards right, in industries of the future such as clean water technology, bioscience, nanotechnology, green industry, and transit.

But how can the Midwest and its Great Lakes cities maximize assets? Multiple speakers at the GLUE conference stressed the need for regional planning and geographic unity (as did this recent local editorial), what Longworth characterized as a need for a Midwestern Marshall Plan. Tom Wolfe of the Northeast Midwest Institute described how sustainability should be a principle criterion for the distribution of federal dollars. Kate Rube of Smart Growth America showed how current zoning and land growth laws need to be revised because they often make “smart growth” sustainable development illegal. John Austin of the New Economy Institute highlighted affirmative, targeted immigration policies as a promising strategy for bringing innovation back to the Midwest, an especially important approach for Midwestern cities that are losing population.

The winds of change blowing off the lake appear to suggest that Great Lakes cities would do well to adopt an open attitude toward regionalism, the new green economy, and the feedback of young professionals who are reversing the brain drain in their post-industrial Midwestern cities and beginning to speak with a unified voice through organizations like Great Lakes Urban Exchange.

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