The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 3, 2012

Regional Resilience Needs National Commitment

January 3, 2012

For decades, urban policy wonks in the United States and Europe have focused on how cities and metropolitan areas can govern themselves to adapt, innovate, and thrive—or at least survive—in the face of challenges. The MacArthur Foundation’s research network on “building resilient regions,” of which I’m a member, offers one example. By contrasting metropolitan areas with similar challenges (industrial restructuring, immigration, foreclosure, fast growth, and economic inequality), the researchers are building evidence about how decision-makers in metropolitan areas help their regions succeed in the face of short-term shocks and long-term stresses.

But American metropolitan areas face unequal challenges, not entirely of their own making, that their decision-makers will be hard-pressed to solve on their own. Economic restructuring has hammered the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, Texas has grown rapidly, increasing its need for new infrastructure and K-20 education. National policies on energy, defense, and immigration have contributed to Texas’ rise just as surely as trade policies have strained the Great Lakes. In none of these cases have national policymakers explicitly picked metropolitan winners and losers. Even so, that’s what we live with.

Houston and Detroit suggest the magnitude of the emergent but very different challenges confronting U.S. metro areas (and by extension, the nation). Today’s kids, many of whom are immigrants and their children, will be the young workforce that replaces retiring Baby Boomers. But while Boomers are retiring all over the country, kids and young adults have been fleeing the Great Lakes states. Metro Detroit is the extreme but not only example. Compare Detroit’s age profile in 2000 and 2010 to Houston’s in the graphic.

Population By Age Group In Houston And Detroit, 2000 and 2010

Source: U.S. Census of Population & Housing, SF1, 2000 and 2010 Metro areas in-year 2008 boundaries

  • About 1.4 million people aged 45 to 64 (i.e., Baby Boomers) lived in metropolitan Houston in 2010, compared with about 1.8 million people under 20.
  • Detroit, by contrast, had just over 1.2 million Baby Boomers and just under 1.2 million people under 20.
  • More stark still is the difference in the number of 20-somethings: 11.8 percent of Detroit’s total, 14.4 percent of Houston’s.

Detroit has offered too few prospects for young people in the past 10 years, so many have left for better opportunities. Houston, on the other hand, has attracted tens of thousands.

What would resilience look like in each case? Would it be simply bouncing back to the old normal? For fewer people to flock to Houston and more to Detroit? If so, it’s unlikely that either Houston or Detroit is going to be resilient. They’re both headed toward new situations, though perhaps unstable ones. If, on the other hand, resilience is more about protecting vulnerable people from harm and delivering benefits equitably, then maybe both regions can be resilient in the face of coming demographic and economic changes. Local and state leaders will respond creatively, assertively, and tirelessly to the challenges of educating young people in Houston, caring for those left behind in Detroit, and avoiding or repairing damage in both cities’ built and natural environments. But since these challenges are partly a consequence of policies adopted to benefit the nation, the nation also needs to maintain its commitment to these and other metro areas so that local responses really do protect the vulnerable and deliver equitable benefits.

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