19 September 2011

Public-Private Regionalism

Just saw an unexpected commercial on television, on the surface a rare example of cooperation across state lines. An ad extolling the collective touristic amenities of the states along the Gulf Coast (Texas not included), rather than the time-honored provincial approach. As I watched, I thought to myself, "what a geographically unlikely and yet completely sensible idea". Right up until the end.

Y'all come on down to the Gulf and eat some gumbo, from your benevolent friends at British Petroleum! No wonder the states are involved in such a logical campaign. BP is facing billions in fines and clean-up costs (hopefully--the proverbial jury is still out), it makes sense that they would want to pool their resources, rather than paying each state's tourist board independently. The madness has even spread to the region's seafood processing trade group, whose executive director says "state marketing efforts are a mistake, trying to brand a product by a state label is inane." As true for shrimp as for steel beams or airplane parts.

So i guess all it takes for states and cities to rethink their spatial limitations is an environmental catastrophe. No doubt you've heard that local governments coast-to-coast are in trouble, and they increasingly look to corporations to finance everything from playgrounds to entire healthcare systems. Apple can spend $4 million to renovate one transit station in Chicago, or they can spend $10 million to spread the goodwill to five or six different cities through economies of scale. Probably a better investment than a Super Bowl ad.

Economy of scale also translates to a cookie-cutter attitude to projects. Rather than taking context-sensitive approaches, a company seeking some good short-to-medium-term PR can hire a design firm to create a playground/stadium/freeway interchange that "reinforces the brand" in some way, and offer the template up to cash-strapped municipalities across the land. Faced with crumbling infrastructures and lacking the funds to do anything about it, it's a deal many mayors and city managers desperate for tangible proof that they're doing something may be unable to pass up. It would be years (a couple of election cycles, at least) before folks realize whether or not a one-size-fits-all public works project in fact, does.