The Cities vs. Themselves

New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, Minneapolis, Denver, Miami…. Question: What do they have in common? Answer: People live there. These places–our cities–account for most of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Cities are where products are produced, imported, and consumed. When you look at a population density map, the areas of the greatest density would largely be blue if placed over a recent election map.

Just over 75 percent of people in the United States live in an urban area (though they may live in suburbs). Though most published results are by county (which often include rural areas), other analysts have concluded John Kerry won every city with a population above 500,000, and half the cities with populations between 50,000 and 500,000. On an election map, the closer you get to the centers of population, the more blue you see. This is the result of a system set up to balance the power between populous states and places where few people live. New York, California, Pennsylvania, and Illinois together couldn’t elect a president. In fact, the nation’s 500 largest metropolitan areas together couldn’t elect a president.

We can’t say the cows were voting. It’s true that the Republicans won the popular vote. That wasn’t the case, however, in 2000. The situation presents an increasing divide between cities and rural areas. Compare the following population density map with a map of counties that went blue or red:

Population Density Map  Blue and Red Counties
If this feels like a country divided to you, it becomes an even more disturbing phenomenon when you realize the blue states are paying for the red ones, at least in terms of federal tax money. New York only gets 85 cents each dollar it sends to Washington, California only 76 cents. New Jersey gets an embarrassing 62 cents. There are exceptions, most notably Pennsylvania and Texas, but taken as a lot, the blue states pay for the red. So much for cities being financed by the feds–clearly the opposite is true.

Flow of Federal Tax Money
It really doesn’t do much good to see things in terms of states, though. Take a look at an election map by county in California. Most of the state is red, yet by vote the state becomes blue. In California, as in the nation, the red marks the areas of the country where few people live.

It’s hard to measure economic production on a state level. In reality, states make even less sense as an economic unit than nations. Cities, or more accurately, Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) and Primary Metropolitan Statistical Areas (PMSAs) are better representative of economic units–the true generators of wealth on earth, as Jane Jacobs would put it. Today they are at a true disadvantage in terms of political influence.

A recent report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors demonstrates that the nation’s 318 metro areas are indeed the engines that drive the US economy. The report showed that U.S. metros in 2003 accounted for 85.4% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product and 88.6% of the labor income.

The red counties are the welfare queens of the country, taking much and contributing little.

In 2003, the output from the ten largest metro areas ($2.7 trillion) was greater than the combined gross state product of the 31 smallest states ($2.6 trillion). In 30 states alone, the combined metro economies contribute 75% or more of the state’s total economic output. In nine of the largest states, metro economies account for more than 90% of the total gross state product.

Further, the USCM says U.S. metros are forecast to play an increasingly important role in the nation’s growth in the coming years. In fact, by 2029, 87% of the U.S. gross domestic product–approximately $39.5 trillion–will be derived from the nation’s metro areas. The top twenty metros in the nation accounted for 36% of national output in 2003, as well as 42% of total gross metropolitan product (GMP) output.

Real GMP growth is forecast to be 4.6% for the top 20 metros for 2004, and 3.7% in 2005. In 2003, a total of 109 million workers were employed in metro areas, amounting to 84% of total national employment. Through 2005, 90% of the nation’s job growth will occur within metro areas.

It may have been the “economy, stupid” in 1996, but analysis of the 2004 election indicated the results didn’t have much to do with the economy. “Values” might have been more of an issue for voters. It is far too easy for those on either side of the political spectrum to accuse the other side of not having “values.” It would be more accurate to say that the perceived lack of values is instead a different set of values, either progressive or conservative. If we could make a value map with blue indicating progressive values, and red conservative values, it would likely look something like the election maps.

The urban values may be a little more reddish purple in the midwest than in the northeast corridor, but its my guess the urban values would be more consistent than the regional values. By this I mean that values in urban Kansas City and urban Philadelphia would be more similar than those in Philadelphia to rural Pennsylvania.

City centers are also more likely to be blue than the suburbs, which turn purple and then red as you head to the exurbs. Suburban, still, is a form of urban. Suburbs, economically and socially, have more in common with, and ties to, the city than the country.

In order for urban America to be able to have its presidential choice elected, it will be necessary to appeal to these suburban voters. That’s a hard call. These are often people who left because they didn’t relate to the city. At the same time, they need it. It’s the job of cities to win back their affinity. It’s the job of cities, and urbanites, to explain why we need cities. To explain why cities are good for the environment. To explain why cities are good for society, and to make them great places to live.

At the same time, Democrats, or any candidate who cares about the places most people live, need to speak to urban issues.

Transportation, the environment, sprawl, immigration. These are all issues of great importance to urban areas, and consequently most of the population. They are issues which will determine our future quality of life and that of younger generations, and it behooves us to pay appropriate attention to them.

This isn’t a battle between the country and the city. Most people live in cities of some sort. Helping people understand cities and what makes them better, and relate to their city and its purpose, is our task. When we do that the purple will begin to turn blue.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me