America has never been a very curious nation. Sure, we’ve produced great inventors and entrepreneurs, but you could probably count the great “American philosophers” on one hand (at least one of whom, de Tocqueville, wasn’t even American). Americans are not prone to world travel, evidenced by the fact that only 37% of us own a passport. A lack of curiosity is not the sole blame, obviously it costs us far more to travel abroad than it does for Europeans, with flights so cheap they make Southwest look like a legacy carrier. But in the wake of the 9/11 security changes, lack of a passport means 2/3 of Americans aren’t even flying to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean, destinations which are often cheaper than, say, Florida.
I have long posited that we are victims of our own geography. The vastness and relative emptiness of the North American continent gave the young nation room to grow and flourish, while leaving it free from foreign influence. Immigrants were generally eager to assimilate, as the threat of repeated bodily harm at the hands of nativists would entice you to try and blend in. Europe consisted mainly of poor, oppressive backwaters in those days, so most didn’t see much point in holding onto the old ways in a land that gave them an opportunity to reinvent their identities.
Last month, I attended the Global Metro Summit here in Chicago. One of the panelists, Barcelona Deputy Mayor Jordi William Carnes, made the observation that “America is important to the rest of world, but spends too much time looking inward”. I would agree, but even within the United States, infighting and provincialism rule the day. As Richard Longworth has written extensively, the states compete against one another for finite resources, whether in the form of federal transportation dollars, or in wooing corporations to set up shop. This is a losing battle, since state borders are completely arbitrary lines which have no real effect on the life of metro areas, other than to unnecessarily complicate things. Eight of the twenty-five largest metros in the US span state lines that were established two centuries ago. In effect, we govern ourselves under a system that was designed for the 1820s.
This provincial attitude reared its tiny head again this past week, when Wisconsin Governor Scott K. Walker (that “K” is crucial to avoid denigrating the proper Scott Walker) slammed Illinois for it’s tax hike and invited businesses to relocate to his state. As James Warren wrote, this shows a lack of a broader vision on Walker’s part. He’s playing for votes within his own little fiefdom, seemingly oblivious to the fact that if Chicago’s economy were to fail, Wisconsin’s would go down right beside it. As much as I love our neighbors to the north, Milwaukee does not have the transportation infrastructure necessary to link it to a global marketplace. This is the same guy, mind you, who basically ran for office on his opposition to high-speed rail, which would be one of the best possible assets in building a regional economy.
So allow me to state for the record my philosophy of how the future is aligned: neighborhood – city – region – planet. Note that “county”, “state” and “nation” do not exist. These are eighteenth-century constructs that serve little useful purpose in a connected, digital global economy. The hard question is asking what it will take to achieve this in these “United” States. No politician has ever voted themselves out of a job, and yet a thorough realignment of local and federal governance is necessary. Industrialized Europe had to be more or less leveled in World War II for the stakeholders to recognize the value of cross-border cooperation and a free exchange of people and ideas. I certainly hope we don’t need such a serious jolt.
Wisconsin and Illinois, despite their football-based loathing, have too many issues which demand cooperation. And you can add Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario to that mix, as well. In coming decades, stewardship of the Great Lakes will become crucial to the region and to the world. Transportation linkages already radiate from Chicago like an octopus, in a common region with common concerns, these absolutely must be brought up to speed with the rest of the developed world. There is really no other option.
This post originally appeared in The Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong on January 17, 2011. Reprinted with permission of the author.