March 9, 2009
Internationally, Ireland is the gateway of the Atlantic. Ireland is the last outpost of Europe towards the West: Ireland is the point upon which great trade routes between East and West converge: her independence is demanded by the Freedom of the Seas: her great harbours must be open to all nations.
- Minutes and Proceedings of the First Parliament of the Republic of Ireland 1919 — 1921
I was provoked to post this after reading an article this morning in the Atlantic magazine. So, strictly speaking, this isn\’t really my idea. Its my adaptation of an idea to our circumstances.
Written by Richard Florida (Professor of Business and Creativity at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and a speaker on global trends, economics, prosperity, competitiveness and growth) How the Crash Will Reshape America asserts that ‘As the crisis deepens, it will permanently and profoundly alter the U.S.’ economic landscape.’ Florida also believes it will be considered the end point not only ‘of a chapter in American economic history’ but also a whole way of life.
Interestingly (given all the talk of the Great Depression) he cites historian Scott Reynolds Nelson who believes that in certain respects today’s crisis most resembles the Long Depression that stretched from the 1870s to the 1890s: ‘During that crisis, rising industries like railroads, petroleum, and steel were consolidated, old ones failed, and the way was paved for a period of remarkable innovation and industrial growth’.
So what does Florida suggest we focus on? First, the idea of mega-regions is central to future economic success. Contrary to Friedman’s argument that the world is flat, Florida maintains that the world is and will remain ‘spiky’ — ‘…place still matters in the modern economy–and the competitive advantage of the world’s most successful city-regions seems to be growing, not shrinking…Internationally, these mega-regions include Greater London, Greater Tokyo, Europe’s Am-Brus-Twerp, China’s Shanghai-Beijing Corridor, and India’s Bangalore-Mumbai area. Economic output is ever-more concentrated in these places as well. The world’s 40 largest mega-regions, which are home to some 18 percent of the world’s population, produce two-thirds of global economic output and nearly 9 in 10 new patented innovations.’
So regions, cities and nations wishing to achieve and maintain economic success need to hook into these regions in some way. I’ll come back to this.
Second, he argues that the sprawling suburbanization and car culture of the US (and recently of our own dear wee island home) is ‘the spatial fix for the industrial age–the geographic expression of mass production and the early credit economy…[that is to say,]“Fordism,” the combination of mass production and mass consumption to create national prosperity.’ Sound familiar, Fianna FÃ¡il? But this whole system of economic organisation and growth has, according to him, reached its limit: The physical character of the economy–the way land is used, the location of homes and businesses, the physical infrastructure that ties everything together–shapes consumption, production, and innovation. As the economy grows and evolves, so too must the landscape…Positioning the economy to grow strongly in the coming decades will require not just fiscal stimulus or industrial reform; it will require a new kind of geography as well, a new spatial fix for the next chapter of American economic history.
Considering how we Irish, much like our English and Scottish neighbours, have long taken our cue from our North American cousins, this suggests that we, too, shall require a new kind of geography.
And how shall we go about this? Well, first he demands that ‘homeownership [be removed] from its long-privileged place at the center of the U.S. economy.’ Government policies should encourage renting, not buying. Anyone who has pondered the difference in Irish attitudes to owning as compared to those found on the continental mainland might see this a delivering a positive alignment with broader European norms. What’s more, as Florida sees it ‘A bigger, healthier rental market, with more choices, would make renting a more attractive option for many people; it would also make the economy as a whole more flexible and responsive.’
Everyone with an interest in preserving the integrity of the Irish landscape while seeking to best realise our economic development and prosperity as a nation should also welcome another of his paragraphs: \’If there is one constant in the history of capitalist development, it is the ever-more-intensive use of space. Today, we need to begin making smarter use of both our urban spaces and the suburban rings that surround them–packing in more people, more affordably, while at the same time improving their quality of life. That means liberal zoning and building codes within cities to allow more residential development, more mixed-use development in suburbs and cities alike, the in-filling of suburban cores near rail links, new investment in rail, and congestion pricing for travel on our roads.’
But back to the question of mega-regions. In an article in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, coauthored by Florida, we learn that Europe\’s largest mega-region is the economic composite spanning Amsterdam—Rotterdam, Ruhr—Cologne, Brussels—Antwerp and Lille, producing nearly $1.5 trillion in economic output. Next in size is the ‘British’ (in truth, English) mega-region running from London through Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, producing $1.2 trillion in economic output. Various other such regions are cited thereafter, but the one of greatest interest to us should be one of the last — Scotland’s Glasburgh mega region.
At present, hopes for the creation of a Dublin-Belfast mega-region remain only that — hopes. Whether this is down to a lack of political will and foresight, or sheer antipathy on either side of the border is not important. What is important is to realise that we need to act now. And we need to act in a way that ensures the initial starting conditions will make the success of such a project almost inevitable. To do so, I believe we need to think beyond the bounds of this island, albeit with the interests of this island and all her inhabitants always foremost in mind. We need to envision the creation of a mega-region that stretches not only from Dublin to Belfast, but an arc of dynamic economic growth reaching from Dublin to Edinburgh. To take a quote from the article again: \’The University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Robert Lucas declared that the spillovers in knowledge that result from talent-clustering are the main cause of economic growth. Well-educated professionals and creative workers who live together in dense ecosystems, interacting directly, generate ideas and turn them into products and services faster than talented people in other places can.\’
This is what we need to create. With this link in, the potential for a real prosperity and expansion will increase. And how do we begin to do this? I go back, yet again, to Florida’s Atlantic magazine article:
In his forthcoming book, The Wealth of Cities, my University of Toronto colleague Chris Kennedy shows that only wholesale structural changes, from major upgrades in infrastructure to new housing patterns to big shifts in consumption, allow places to recover from severe economic crises and to resume rapid expansion. London laid the groundwork for its later commercial dominance by changing its building code and widening its streets after the catastrophic fire of 1666. The United States rose to economic preeminence by periodically developing entirely new systems of infrastructure–from canals and railroads to modern water-and-sewer systems to federal highways. Each played a major role in shaping and enabling whole eras of growth.
The Obama administration has declared its intention to open the federal government’s pocketbook wide to help us get through this recession, and infrastructure spending seems poised to play a key role. Done right, such spending could position the United States for the next round of growth.
We need to position ourselves similarly. We need massive public and private investment between Ireland and Scotland that will benefit both countries. We need to intensify our engagement with the Scottish parliament, government and citizens; we need to incentivize for the interaction and integration of the Scottish, Northern Irish and Irish economies. And this is potentially where unionist community and politicians will find a new purpose and niche. This is their opportunity to act as the keystone in an arc of dynamic political and economic activity stretching from Holyrood to Merrion Square. They may even discover they are less inclined to act as defenders of an old union with Westminster, but proponents, persuaders and partisans for a new union that would unite Ireland and Scotland in the pursuit of their mutual goals of prosperity and independence. Such a union already has a number of (albeit abortive) precedents in Hiberno-Scottish history; furthermore, it makes a geopolitical and cultural sense that would not be present were we to align ourselves as a subordinate part of the English mega-region.
Finally, it goes without saying that a further elaboration of this Scotic arc would eventually involve linking up to the Atlantic corridor running from Cork to Donegal which, however, needs to expand its focus beyond partners located in North America to include those based in Latin America and West Africa.
If we do this and if we do it right, not only might we fulfil our potential as the point upon which great trade routes between East and West converge. We might also discover that we have become very prosperous indeed.
But I encourage everyone who reads this to go to the original online sources, read them and have a think for yourselves.