What makes cities and suburbs set aside old conflicts and collaborate to compete?

The Metropolitan Revolution: Denver

This story is adapted from The Metropolitan Revolution book and iPad app by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. View other stories on Medium.

Annexation and Disunity

The Denver metro is known for a high level of collaboration between the city of Denver and its suburbs—which work together to fund cultural institutions, for example, or to launch a regional transportation initiative.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the city and its suburbs waged a pitched battle over land, people, tax revenues, and race. It was a conflict happening, with regional variations, in metropolitan areas across the U.S. during that era.

The movement of middle- and upper-class whites to the suburbs made Denver officials anxious that the city would become, as one planning department study at the time put it, “the ghetto of the metropolitan area, containing in its population primarily the poor and uneducated and a few of the very wealthy.” One aspect of the struggle focused on integration. A lawsuit charging that the Denver school district concentrated black and Hispanic students in a few schools went to the Colorado and U.S. Supreme Courts, which ordered desegregation. The school board implemented an unpopular plan to bus students to achieve a better racial mix in schools.

Denver’s solution was to embark on a strategy of annexation, expanding the borders of the combined city and county. By extending its boundaries, Denver could capture economic and population growth on its edges. The mostly white families who lived in these areas would be brought into the Denver public school system, thereby easing busing pressures and mitigating white flight. Just as important, these land acquisitions would bring more of the region’s wealth into the city. Colorado municipalities depended largely on sales taxes for their budgets. As the annexed territory developed, the department stores, hardware stores, and strip malls within it would contribute to a stronger bottom line for the city.

A Growing City:
In the mid-1900s, Denver expanded its borders by annexing surrounding areas to capture economic and population growth around the city.

But many people living on Denver’s borders did not want any part of the city’s desegregation battles and busing schemes. Suburban towns like Aurora and Greenwood Village also wanted to be able to grow by taking a share of the territory between their borders and Denver’s—why should the city reap all the benefits of new development?

Between 1969 and 1974, a flurry of annexations and incorporations ensued, with both city and suburbs trying to grab unincorporated territory, and therefore the benefits of growth. A climate of fear existed on both sides, with Denver’s leaders worrying about being cut off from growth while suburban leaders and school districts feared being drawn into real or perceived “city problems.” In 1974, Colorado voters passed a state constitutional amendment that made it almost impossible for Denver to continue its annexation push.

These conflicts highlight the fact that the many governments within a metro are almost designed to fight among themselves. State laws make them largely dependent on locally raised tax revenues. People, cars, rails, and the nebulous entity known as the economy might flow seamlessly across their borders, but sales and property tax dollars rarely do. A dollar spent (and taxed), or a house built (and taxed), or a business opened (and taxed) in one jurisdiction is lost to any other. In metro after metro, individual communities that could work together—to harness their distinctive assets in innovation, to bring their region’s products and services to new markets, or to integrate new immigrants into their economy—often compete against one another for tax revenue. That competition can fuel a general sense of mistrust between neighboring communities, a mistrust that often derails regional action.

Although it took many years, Denver and its neighbors have moved from mistrust and outright “war,” as one scholarly article called it, to become productive collaborators on the metro’s biggest issues: economic development, arts and cultural amenities, and transportation.

Need Drives Collaboration

A nationwide recession and an oil-and-gas bust that started in the early 1980s walloped Colorado’s and Greater Denver’s economies. It also started to bring Denver and its neighbors together.

The state’s budget was so battered that in 1982 it stopped funding some of Denver’s most iconic cultural and scientific institutions, including the Denver Art Museum, the Botanic Gardens, the Museum of Nature and Science, and the zoo. Surveys showed that most visitors were from the suburbs, not from the city, so the big institutions and other smaller groups started an effort to get suburban voters to contribute to these institutions via a new tax district. About two-thirds of the proceeds would pay for cultural powerhouses in the city of Denver and about a third would go to smaller institutions throughout the region. Backers spent five years organizing support, and the tax district was put to voters in November 1988. By a margin of 75 to 25, voters agreed to create a $40 million fund for arts and cultural facilities, most of which were located in downtown Denver.

City Location, Regional Importance

People remember this vote for the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) as a turning point for the metro. John Hickenlooper, the current governor of Colorado and mayor of Denver from 2003 to 2011, has called the SCFD one of the “bedrock foundations of collaboration in metro Denver.” The tax district now raises $45 million a year. “We have the fourth-most-visited zoo, the highest number of paid memberships to the Museum of Nature and Science [of all museums] in the United States, and the second-largest performing arts center in the United States, all through regional collaboration,” said Hickenlooper. (Voters extended the SCFD tax in 1994 and again in 2004.)

The region’s business community was also waking up to the value of collaboration. Whatever their political differences, the communities in the Denver region had a shared economic fate, and during the recession and energy market tumble, it was not looking like a pleasant one. In 1987 the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce created a new arm called the Greater Denver Corporation (later renamed the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation) to advance a collaborative approach to economic development.

Rather than competing against one another to lure a company to Aurora or Littleton or Denver, Greater Denver Corporation suggested that local entities unite to bring a company to the metro area, trusting that their own communities and residents would benefit no matter where in the region the company chose to locate. “Prior to [this effort], we had forty different economic development corporations … going after every lead, and each one seeing all the others as their competition,” said Peter Kenney, a long time civic activist in Denver. All these groups came together and signed an agreement that they would no longer compete with each other but against Dallas, Salt Lake, Hong Kong, and other cities. Given the local dependence on unshared property and sales taxes, this was (and remains) a radically different approach to attracting jobs and businesses.

Peter Kenney: “Before this culture of collaboration really became standard practice, every jurisdiction had their own economic development corporation, and they competed hard against each other.”

Greater Denver’s economic development professionals took a leap of faith, but it paid off. Kenney explained, “We got ten times more positive responses than the [individual] economic development corporations had received collectively in the prior decade…. [C]ompanies said they’d never seen anything like that, they had never seen that kind of collaboration across the region that made them want to be here.”

Today, more than twenty-five years later, the Metro Denver EDC still exists and boasts on its website that it is “the nation’s first and only truly regional economic development entity in which many area economic development groups have joined together to represent, and further, the interests of an entire region.”

Shared Demographics and Economies

Cities and suburbs might have once thought that they were very different from each other, but over time, these places are recognizing their shared economy and experiencing converging demographics.

A handful of recent studies have found that city and suburban fortunes tend to rise and fall together. For example, a 2005 study from the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank of population growth in fifty-eight metropolitan areas from 1970 to 2000 found that:

“The faster a metro area’s city portion grew, the faster its suburbs tended to grow as well. The faster a metro area’s city portion lost population, the slower its suburbs tended to grow. This shared fortune of cities and suburbs held continuously throughout the twentieth century. The positive correlation between city and suburban growth is extremely robust.”

Source: Jordan Rappaport, “The Shared Fortunes of Cities and Suburbs” (Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, 2005).

Other studies suggest similar correlations between a city’s economic growth and that of its suburbs. “Correlation” is not the same as “is caused by,” but in general, research suggests that the prosperity of cities and suburbs depends on shared conditions in the wider metropolitan area. Most jurisdictions benefit from a strong metropolitan economy, and most suffer from a weak one.

Urban and suburban demographics are also increasingly in sync. Today, for example, the city of Denver is home to less than a quarter of the region’s total population. Nationwide, suburbs have more jobs than cities: about 23 percent of jobs in major metropolitan areas are within three miles of a traditional downtown, and 43 percent are more than ten miles out.

Denver’s Job Sprawl: As with other metros, residents in Denver work in communities sthroughout the region, with jobs distributed across the city and its suburbs

Suburban racial demographics have changed significantly. Instead of the overwhelmingly white suburbs of the 1960s, they are now pretty close to those of the nation as a whole: about two-thirds of suburban residents are white, 10 percent are black, 6 percent are Asian, and 17 percent are Hispanic. A majority of the poor in the United States live in suburbs, not in cities. In the largest metropolitan areas, 61 percent of foreign-born residents live in the suburbs. Denver is not quite at that level yet, but it is not far away: 46 percent of the region’s foreign-born residents live in the suburbs.

A Failed Transit Effort

By the beginning of the 1990s, Greater Denver was a different, more collaborative place than it had been during the contentious battles of twenty years earlier. Mayors in some of the metro’s communities started to wonder whether they could work together on a more regular basis. In 1993, Peter Kenney helped a handful of mayors form the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus.

Peter Kenney: “Mayors enjoyed the social interaction [of the Metro Mayors’ Caucus] as much as they did working on a problem, and we made that an important part of [it] early on.”

Transportation became one of the caucus’s main concerns, as it is an inherently metropolitan issue. With forecasters predicting that the Denver region would add almost a million residents by 2025, on top of the 2.5 million that already lived there in 2000, business and civic leaders feared that traffic congestion would choke the region. They needed a new way to accommodate all the growth that would flow into the region over the next several decades.

In 1997, the Metro Mayors Caucus backed a $6 billion plan called Guide the Ride, which would have built several rail lines, paying for them with a significant regional sales tax hike. Critics complained that the plan was too focused on getting people to the city of Denver rather than moving them throughout the metro region, and that the transportation agency in charge of the plan kept vacillating on costs.

Randy Pye: “We learned from [a previous] ballot measure: we weren’t just going to ask citizens for a blank check.”

Guide the Ride failed, with 58 percent of suburbanites voting No and only a tiny majority of Denver voters supporting it. It appeared that regional collaboration had hit its limits in Denver.

FasTracks Wins (And Struggles)

Six years later, the mayors, who had built up a deep reservoir of trust and goodwill among themselves through regular interaction, threw their unanimous support behind a new transportation plan, called FasTracks.

For some eighteen months before voters went to the polls in November 2004, political, business, environmental, and labor leaders campaigned for FasTracks. “We talked a lot about jobs, so the construction industry got behind this big time,” Pye recalled. “Businesses were talking to their employees about how important this was to the economy of the region. We [were] hearing the conservation side, hearing the job side and the economy side—it was a pretty strong argument when you put those three together. We had over five hundred individual town meetings.” In a sign of how collaboration was working, mayors in the southeast portion of Greater Denver campaigned hard for FasTracks, even though their constituents already had rail service.

Connecting Greater Denver:
In 2004, voters in the Denver region approved the $4.2 billion FasTracks transit expansion, funded with a sales tax and backed by a coalition of city and suburban mayors.

The plan was in many ways similar to the soundly defeated Guide the Ride plan: expensive, with a $4.2 billion price tag, paid for in part by one of the biggest sales tax increases the region had ever seen; and extensive, with six new rail lines, improvements to the existing lines, and new suburb-to-suburb bus routes. The region’s citizens approved FasTracks, 58 to 42 percent. What made the difference this time? Partly it was that more voters had experience riding and benefiting from other mass transit lines that had been approved earlier and paid for by means other than tax increases. But more than that, the region’s business and political leaders were firmly, unanimously, and vocally aligned behind FasTracks. “When you’ve got your mayors collaborating, that leads to your citizens collaborating,” said Pye.

Other metro-area leaders have also demonstrated willingness to work together for the common good. In the fall election, for example, all thirty-one mayors in the region came together under the umbrella of the Metro Mayors Caucus to support FasTracks, the proposal to build mass transit across the region’s major transportation corridors.

That was not the end of FasTracks’s trials, however. Almost as soon as the project was passed, the cost of materials to build the rail line skyrocketed. A few years later, the Great Recession caused sales tax revenue, which funds a significant portion of the project, to drop well under projections. It is clear that FasTracks will be over budget and finished late—though no one can say exactly how much over or how late. One estimate from spring 2012 put the total cost at $7.8 billion and the projected completion date in 2044. That estimate was already out of date by February 2013.

Cathy Noon: “Once we get over our hurdles and get moving, I think [FasTracks] is really going to be a success of the Metro Mayors and a great reason that the group stays together in the future.”

It’s possible that in the next few years, voters will be asked for a second time for the money to complete FasTracks by 2020. Cost overruns and broken promises can roil the public and fracture coalitions, but the Metro Mayors Caucus continues to support FasTracks and is deeply engaged in figuring out how to solve the financing problem.

Continuing the Collaboration

The proof that collaboration works for elected officials in metropolitan Denver is that mayors are still at it. And it’s a different generation of mayors than those who founded the caucus. Term limits have brought a lot of turnover; in 2012, half of the region’s mayors were newly elected. The region’s spirit of collaboration has persisted because its benefits are felt by all of those who participate, and it brings them back to the table.

“Typically, when we step away from our values [of collaboration], we move very little,” says Denver mayor Michael Hancock. “There isn’t a city in this region that can undertake some of these major [economic development] efforts by themselves…. If we don’t work together, then the people lose.”

The Metro Mayors Caucus makes decisions by consensus, not majority votes, and that makes compromise more palatable. Even when individual mayors are less than delighted with a particular decision, they know that they have been heard, and heard with respect. According to Peter Kenney, “Sometimes we have to talk and talk and talk so that everybody has said what they need to say, and every attempt has been made to find every possible solution. The big-city mayor and small-town mayor sit at the same table, as peers, and [have] the same strength in their voice. That’s been very important.”

Michael Hancock: “There are many cities around the world think about how they can out-compete Denver… As a region, if we work together, we can compete against everyone else around the world.”

Mayor Cathy Noon of Centennial said, “It’s compromise that holds the collaboration together. We’re not looking at each individual issue. It’s the overall picture. . . . On every issue [mayors] say they can live with this, realizing that the next time someone who might feel differently on your issue will say, ‘I can live with yours, too.’” The region’s business community feels very strongly about the value of the Metro Mayors Caucus. Mayor Hancock agreed. “None of us wants to say to constituents that stuff is not getting done because we’re not talking to each other. All you need is one business leader to say, ‘We’re not going [to tolerate] this mess.’”

Still, collaboration is not always easy. “It’s important not to paint a rosy picture,” says Mayor Hancock. “It’s not easy, because by definition, you have to put aside your self-interest for the greater good.”

The Takeaway

  1. The economy doesn’t stop, or start, at the city border. Cities and suburbs within the same metro area are part of the same labor and housing markets, and their economic fortunes tend to rise and fall together.
  2. Rather than fighting among themselves, cities and suburbs have to collaborate to compete on the global stage. That collaboration often takes root, as it did in Denver, during difficult economic times—that’s the time when collaboration is most urgent.
  3. Collaboration has to be cultivated and maintained, through good times and bad. Institutions like the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation and the Metro Mayors Caucus reinforce the culture of collaboration and make sure that people from throughout the Denver metro area have occasions to interact, share their concerns, and solve problems together.

This story is adapted from The Metropolitan Revolution book and iPad app by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. Story presented by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. iPad app, including the graphics and videos in this story, produced by Melcher Media and designed and developed by Crush+Lovely.

Learn more about The Metropolitan Revolution at http://www.metrorevolution.org