Metro Vancouver needs Regional Economic Development Strategy

February 7, 2013
Jock Finlayson

In today’s global economy, the competition for talent, investment and high-value business activity increasingly is playing out at the metropolitan level. Indeed, urban regions are looming ever larger in the world economy. According to the Brooking Institution’s Global Metro Monitor, the 300 biggest cities and metro areas account for almost half of global gross domestic product, despite being home to only one-fifth of the world’s population.

The idea of the “global city” or “global city-region,” first coined by US sociologist Saskia Sassen two decades ago, has been taken up by academic researchers, business analysts and policy-makers. In BC, it’s clear that Metro Vancouver – consisting of more than 20 individual municipalities with a combined population that’s fast approaching 2.5 million – fits the definition of a global city-region, even though relatively few local residents or political leaders appear to think in these terms.

Two notable characteristics of most thriving global city-regions is that they serve as trading hubs for the provinces/states/countries in which they are located, and they host a sizable number of export-focused industries and firms. Engaging in trade and commerce with outside markets increases the prosperity of urban regions by generating external income and bringing in new wealth, ideas, knowledge and people. The importance of international (and inter-regional) trade is such that it deserves to be at the centre of the economic development strategies and policies adopted by cities.

Understanding the critical role of international and interprovincial trade in underpinning the economic well-being of Metro Vancouver has been hampered by the region’s division into a multiplicity of different-sized towns and cities – all overseen by a weak regional government that has no authority or competence in matters such as economic policy, trade, or business and investment promotion. Metro Vancouver lacks any kind of regionally defined trade strategy, business development plan, or relevant programming. But Greater Vancouver’s fragmentation need not preclude taking a more regional approach to these issues.

In this regard, Metro Vancouver policy-makers may want to take a look at Portland. Like Metro Vancouver, the Portland metro area consists of a host of individual cities and towns (some are actually located across the border in Washington state).

Several years ago, municipal governments in the region partnered with educational institutions and industry to create a single regional economic development body, Greater Portland Inc., which has gained traction and seems to be producing positive results. Its core mandate is to support the retention, expansion and targeted recruitment of businesses and jobs to the Portland region. The organization’s board of directors is made up of municipal leaders from across Greater Portland, along with representatives of business, universities, and other key institutions. Funding to support the agency’s economic and business development activities comes from area cities, two county governments, post-secondary institutions, and a number of large companies.

Recently, Greater Portland Inc. launched a regional export strategy (the Greater Portland Export Initiative, GPEI). Since 2002, the Portland area has doubled the value of exports, one of the most impressive records among all US metros. The goal of the GPEI is to build on this success by further enhancing the ability of local companies to access global markets, strengthen linkages with global supply chains, and grow high-paying jobs.

Metro Vancouver policy-makers and business leaders may profit by studying the model that has evolved in Greater Portland. There’s no doubt that Greater Vancouver should be looking at ways to bring greater coherence, coordination and effectiveness to the economic development and trade/investment promotion work currently being undertaken by individual municipalities in the region.

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