'Citistates': A New Way To Define Regions

NEAL R. PEIRCE

August 02, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Measured by the standards of big-time metropolitan America, the university and regional trade center of Missoula, Montana (population 43,000), doesn't even make the charts.

But Daniel Kemmis, Missoula's imaginative mayor, insists Missoula is in many respects as much a ''citistate'' as the regions encompassing Denver or Pittsburgh, Stuttgart or Lyon.

On a map, Mr. Kemmis has drawn lines plotting Missoula's everyday geographic reach -- newspaper circulation and television market, bank depositors, retailing draw, medical services. The result is a region of some 200,000 people, extending 100 to 120 miles outward from Missoula.

''Why would a mayor do this?'' Mr. Kemmis asks. ''Because it is not possible for Missoula to understand itself, or its future, except in a regional context. The city draws its strength from the region. It can't be understood in isolation from its region.''

Large or small, Mr. Kemmis insists, the true sphere of a city's reach -- just as in the city-states of Greece, Rome or the Hanseatic League -- needs to be seen as organic, defined by function, by natural features and inherent social and economic community instead of borders drawn years ago on maps for reasons now obscure.

The boundary lines we draw around cities, he says, are almost always too restrictive. County lines, designated a century or more ago, are rarely adequate guides today. State boundaries are generally too broad to represent cohesive community. And the nation state is too big to deal effectively with many essentially local issues that it continues to meddle in.

Around the world, in citistates great and small, the need to think less of official borders and more of functional relationships, is compelling. Clark County and surrounding territory in Washington state is part of the Portland citistate, across the Columbia River. Seventy percent of the investment in Guanzhou province in the People's Republic of China comes from the Hong Kong citistate. Tijuana, Mexico, clearly falls under the orbit of the San Diego citistate, divided only by one of the world's busiest international border crossings.

In New England, suburban towns that thought they could forever wash their hands of the problems of their troubled parent cities are finding it just ain't so: Witness the current lawsuits and state-led efforts to re-engage the suburbs of Hartford and other suburban towns with the educational crises of their center cities.

In Europe, economic focus is moving rapidly to urban regions. Michael Parkinson of the University of Liverpool reported at a recent Pittsburgh conference on how citistates are changing with growing international competition. ''Power is going up from the nation state'' to European and global bodies, ''and down to cities and regions. We are seeing the rise of the entrepreneurial city region.''

Indeed, whether one's using Mr. Kemmis' checklist, or ''commute-sheds,'' or the radius of a city sports team's following, or the reach of criminal activity if a center city is left to rot, it's clear we need more flexible citistate definitions.

People live their lives this way: residing in one municipality, working in another, recreating or meeting friends in another on a single day. There seems to be a trend in which people identify first with the neighborhood in which they live, then with the broader region, but think a lot less about municipal boundaries.

Mr. Kemmis may be one of those rare municipal leaders to recognize that city, town and county boundaries matter a lot more to government officials than anyone else.

The new, functional way of looking at human settlements, without regard to government boundaries, means that all manner of ad-hoc business coalitions, regional planning and ''visioning'' organizations ought to be in on economic, health services, land use or any other kind of planning.

When that happens, of course, there's a real potential for clashes with local government officials who are uncomfortable with unconventional planning processes that flow across the boundaries they're used to. Another steep learning curve confronts state legislators, for whom citistates and their pivotal role in state's economies is a whole new thought.

What is clear is that each natural economic region has to start thinking cohesively, that all the parts from inner city to suburb to rural surroundings are mutually dependent.

''In terms of economic competitiveness, the inefficient way we draw lines on the map is just not affordable anymore,'' says Kemmis.

What Mr. Kemmis of Missoula reminds us is not just that citistate issues exist at all population levels, but that the issue is civic as well as economic:

''Politics in the original Greek meaning was simply the life of the city-state,'' he notes. ''We lost sight of what cities are really about in the centuries of the nation state.'' Now we need to return to ''a local, primal sense of politics.'' Only through the true city, the citistate, the geographic region of our shared fate, can we ''regain a sense of democratic citizenship.''

The new spelling of the term citistate, said the mayor from Missoula, ''helps us think about spelling citizenship in the same breath.''

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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