Type to search

Regions Rising

GB Geo-Blog

Regions Rising

Region will be more important than nation-state in ensuring the well-being of communities in the coming decades. Yet for those economic regions that cross international boundaries, there are no easily applicable governance models to manage political and economic challenges. Does this mean that economic regions – including global city-regions – that cross international borders are unlikely to succeed?

Not necessarily, but the challenges must be identified and understood. They include institutional and governance challenges, as well as tensions around competing interests on different sides of the border, which sometimes trump the complementary interests of building a coherent region. Most importantly, can citizens on different sides of international borders see themselves as having a common identity and shared destiny?

The answers to these questions are different in different regions. One such region where they are being tested is the Great Lakes Economic Region (GLER) – the heart of North America and home to the densest concentration of Canadian and American citizens.

This GLER includes major cities like Toronto and Chicago – cities that can be considered global city-regions – but also depressed industrial communities. Like all sub-national social formations, the GLER is undergoing major change due to its openness to the global economy and the concomitant free flow of people and capital.

In Canada, cities are constitutionally powerless, while regions do not exist at all in any legal sense. American cities tend to have greater ability to undertake ambitious projects, but they too lack stable tax revenues and constitutionally protected autonomy; their power is dwarfed by that of cities like Berlin, Vienna and Helsinki. Because of this, North American global city-regions – and the larger economic regions that depend on these global cities – require the engagement of civil society organizations and constitutionally powerful provincial, state and national governments to recognize the importance of region.

The decisions taken by national governments often have enormous impacts on populations outside of their borders. For the GLER, this means that decisions taken by the US government have implications for communities on both sides of the Canada-US border. This reality cannot be wished away without wishing away national sovereignty. But what can be done is to ensure that the interests of regions – including the interests of populations on the other side of an international border within regions – are considered. This can only be done once regions become conscious of their existence, and when residents become aware of their shared destiny with people across the border. To do so requires a powerful leap of imagination and identity within the population itself.

The governance hurdles for economic regions that cross international borders are high. On some issues, these challenges can be addressed by national and sub-national governments using traditional tools. Trade agreements form part of this picture, but sectoral agreements are equally important and fall under these broader trade and investment framework agreements. Labour mobility, mutual recognition of standards and border management agreements have all been used in the GLER.

Often, the simplest first steps include service agreements to share personnel under various circumstances, such as firefighters at the time of emergencies. It is difficult to object to these agreements, because they are so clearly directed at ensuring that governments provide services to the public, and do not arouse larger concerns about national sovereignty. Yet, when successful, these protocols establish precedents for more ambitious intergovernmental agreements.

One can also establish structures to help manage and adjudicate disputes, but such enterprises are only successful when parties on both sides of the border see a long-term interest in cooperation, and sense no large power imbalances. These conditions do not always apply in Canada-US disputes.

To complement these formal intergovernmental agreements, and for these regions to truly succeed, political actors must deepen informal civil society governance structures. These structures allow for more fluid definitions of ‘region,’ and do not require formal agreement about what is in, and what is out. They can often occur without formal government intervention, although they can be encouraged or discouraged by government actions.

In the GLER, universities have established agreements to facilitate the movement of students more easily across border institutions. These protocols are designed to manage their own relationships and advance their own interests, and do not require governments to agree, for example, which universities or jurisdictions are included.

The sectoral actors themselves define the relevant regional construct, and there does not need to be agreement from actors in other sectors – actors who may impose somewhat different boundaries on their definition of the ‘Great Lakes Region.’ Municipalities, environmental organizations and business associations have established networks and increasingly formalized structures of cooperation in the GLER, without necessarily sharing the same definitional boundaries as the post-secondary education sector. Global corporations, of course, manage intra-firm relations across international borders every day, and the management of these relationships responds to their own internal logic, which is in turn governed by their assessment of the supply chain.

None of this is easy. The Lille Metropole, for example – a cross-border city-region encompassing urban areas in France and Belgium – is confronting enormous administrative challenges. In a city-region like Singapore-Johor-Batam, political boundaries and economic boundaries do not coincide at all.

The Copenhagen-Malmo cross-border city-region (Oresund Region) can be considered one of the world’s most successful and integrated cross-border economic regions. It benefits from both local and European structures and processes to iron out and bridge differences, without formally harmonizing rules.

We know that the success of southern California is enormously important to Tijuana’s economic health. And, increasingly, Detroit, Buffalo and Rochester will have their economic futures influenced by the success of Southern Ontario in Canada. Thus far, we do not have formal governance processes or institutions to help manage these regions. In their absence, civil society and commercial organizations with a regional consciousness will have to emerge in recognition of their shared interests, and work to build the idea and identity of a proper Great Lakes Economic Region. Civil society and governments must both be engaged in the stewardship of these entities – entities that are so very crucial to the economic well-being of a growing number of people.


Matthew Mendelsohn is the founding Director of the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation in the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. Prior to that, he served as a Deputy Minister in the Ontario Government (2004-2009), and taught in the Political Studies Department of Queen’s University (1994-2004).


You Might Also Enjoy This in GB