U.S. Cities Are Getting Bigger, Wealthier, and More Liberal

Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

We live in an increasingly urban world. According to the World Health Organization, 3.5 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, lived in an urban area in 2010. This is up from less than 40 percent just two decades earlier, and it’s expected to grow to 60 percent by 2030 and to 70 percent by 2050. In North America, 81 percent of the population already lives in an urban area, while China has passed the 50 percent urbanization mark.

This trend may not be surprising, but it’s significant because urbanization has a huge impact on political and economic development and organization. Cities serve as both political seats of power and engines of economic growth, and, as UNESCO puts it, “have a strong effect on the establishment of public/private partnership that helps unlock the creative entrepreneurial potential and plays an important role in the new economy.”

Bruce Kats, VP and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, argues that cities are at the heart of the new economy, or the “next economy,” as he puts it. “Rapid urbanization is shifting the locus of global economic power,” he wrote in 2011. “In many respects, the rising nations are becoming more and more like the United States, the quintessential ‘Metro Nation.’ In our country, the top 100 metros alone harbor two thirds of our populace and contribute more than three quarters of our economic output.”

The locus of political power also shifts with increased urbanization. In 2012, for example, nearly every major U.S. city (population of 100,000 or more, of which there are about 285) voted Democratic, suggesting that cities do indeed push political sentiment toward the liberal end of the spectrum.

This kind of polarization can be incredibly divisive and create both political and economic friction between urban and rural areas. Take Texas, for example. Texas is a deeply conservative state punctuated by pockets of liberalism, which are largely focused around major cities. Conservative politics dominate at the state level, where a Democrat hasn’t elected to office since 1994, but cities like Austin are dots of blue in an ocean of read. Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently described Travis Country, which is the seat of Austin, as “the blueberry in the tomato soup”, and he hit the nail on the head.

Chris Tausanovitch and Christopher Warshaw, professors in the political science departments of UCLA and MIT, respectively, illustrated this idea in a March 2014 paper. The chart below evaluates the political alignment of cities with more than 250,000 people, and you can see at a glance that large conservative cities are few and far between. And even then, the most conservative big city in the country, Mesa, Arizona, isn’t even half as radical as the most liberal big city. The tilt of the distribution is enormous.

The idea of the urban-rural political divide is supported by data from Pew Research, which show that liberals tend to prefer to live in cities and conservatives prefer to live in rural areas. This gives a geographical dimension to the idea of “two Americas” that is often invoked to describe the U.S. political climate. Cities lean one way, rural areas lean another, and they appear to be moving farther and farther apart.


Unfortunately, the standing political framework in the U.S. can do little to smooth over this friction. The nature of the political distribution makes it almost impossible to implement holistic policy. Texas Democrats are effectively confined to just a few strongholds and doomed to exercise little authority at the state level. This is hardly the most effective way to govern.

But, as Katz put it, “Cities and metropolitan areas are networks, not merely governments.” Moreover, he said that when it comes to metropolitan areas, “there’s no overarching government at all.” For example, there is no single political institution that represents or governs metropolitan areas — regions of significant social and economic connectivity with populations over 2.5 million — like Dallas-Forth Worth-Arlington or Houston-Sugar Land-Bayton.

These metro ares are anchored by a core of large cities that exert social and economic influence over a large surrounding area. You can easily visualize these areas if you look at labor market integration, and one way to measure labor market integration is by using commute times. The image below, which is from the Boston Region Metro Planning Organization, shows how all roads lead to Rome, as annual vehicle miles traveled per person declines toward the core. This indicates high integration, and the same sort of pattern is true for all metro areas.

Businesses, economists, and policymakers have been thinking about metro areas in this way for decades. And as these metro areas have grown in size and importance, business, economic, and political institutions began to collaborate more and more. Although there is little in the way for formal governance at the metro-area level, there is necessarily a lot of coordination between local and regional governments. The construction and maintenance of transportation infrastructure, for example, necessitates collaboration between an urban core like Boston and its commuter belt.


Source: Boston Region MPO

But businesses, economists, and policymakers would be damned if they were caught idling. As the metro area as an economic unit grows in significance and popularity, people have begun studying how they interact with each other in earnest, and in particular, how they integrate with one another. For example, the northeastern seaboard of the U.S. is defined by a stretch of major metro areas that stretches from Boston to Washington D.C., encompassing New York City and Philadelphia. Call it the Bos-Wash corridor, or mega-region.

Like a metro area, this region is tightly interconnected, but instead of a single population core it has several. And where the reach of a metro area is large, the reach of a mega-region is enormous. Jiawen Yang, Jian Lin, and Ge Song unpacked mega-regions in a 2012 working paper published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “The past two or three decades have seen the rise of a new urban unit,” they wrote. “Mega-regions are more than just a bigger version of a city or a metropolitan region. Today’s mega-regions extend far beyond individual cities and their suburbs and exurbs. Just as a city is not simply a large neighborhood, a mega-region is not simply a large city — it is an ‘emergent’ entity with characteristics that are qualitatively different from those of its constituent cities.”

The map below shows the northeast mega-region as imagined by the Northeast Alliance for Rail. “It is defined by overlapping metropolitan development and commuting patterns, interlocking economic systems, shared natural resources and ecosystems, and shared utility and transportation networks that link these major population centers together.”

Because mega-regions, like cities, have interlocking commuting systems, and share natural resources, utilities, and transportation networks, it seems likely that they will meander toward the liberal side of the political spectrum as well. As the political alignment and living preference data show, this kind of economic inter-connectivity, coupled with high population density, attracts and fosters liberalism.

A separate study by Pew Research reinforces the idea from a different angle, suggesting that liberals and conservatives tend to want to organize themselves socially and spatially in different ways. “Given the choice, three-quarters (75%) of consistent conservatives say they would opt to live in a community where ‘the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away,’ and just 22% say they’d choose to live where ‘the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are within walking distance.’ The preferences of consistent liberals are almost the exact inverse, with 77% preferring the smaller house closer to amenities, and just 21% opting for more square footage farther away.”

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