Thinking and acting globally and locally: Minnesota’s cities and our quality of life


“ ‘The world isn’t flat,’ writes Edward Glaeser, ‘it’s paved.’ At any rate, most of the places where people prefer to dwell are paved. More than half of humanity now lives in cities…

So begins a review of a new book about cities.*

Cities have, for thousands of years, constituted for us humans major centers for the production of goods and services, for commerce and finance, and for the development of human thought through institutions of learning and through media. Not to mention the opportunities which cities have offered for cultural amalgamation – the blending of traditions, beliefs, political views – and for the appreciation of many fine and exotic foods!

Despite globalization, what happens in our immediate communities often matters the most to people. And it should – as long as we continually view local events in the larger contexts of our region, our state, our nation, our world. “Think globally, act locally.” has become almost banal. However, let’s not discard it. Let’s revise that expression in a way to inspire us to realize that, in this globalized world, we need to think both locally and globally and to act both locally and globally. What we do in our locality affects others throughout the world; what others do in their localities affects us – not just in the short term, but in the long term as well.

What trends are most important right now, in Minneapolis, or Burnsville, or Duluth, or Moorhead, or Owatonna? Perhaps the employment rate? What about the poverty rate? Or the crime rate? It’s a trick question, of course. All have importance for the future of our population. We must address each, and our approach must include local, national, and global action.

How do the various levels, from local to global, interact? And what difference does it make, if we want to improve our quality of life?

Take the environment, for example. If we don’t address global warming – a remote, hard-to-understand concept for most of us – life will become so difficult and hard to manage on the local level that none of our efforts to improve our communities socially and economically will have any chance of success. (We may not find ourselves in the position of The Maldives, a nation with a high probability of disappearing during the next 100 years, due to rising sea levels, but our situation will differ radically from the present because of climate changes local and global.) So, local decisions to build up (in cities), not out (in suburbs and rural areas), for example, can, if wisely made, help both to improve local housing conditions and to ameliorate adverse climate conditions in the long term.

For one more, take jobs. Our best-laid plans for local jobs development will reach a futile end, if our country does not resolve its debt crisis. That does not simply mean making a decision about the debt ceiling. It means the creation of a new consciousness among elected officials nationally regarding how we move forward with entitlement programs, defense spending, and the government bureaucracy. Without that consciousness, along with a new framework for government spending, the currently leaking ship, which is the U.S. national economy, will sink. Quality of life indicators will sink as well.

The issue of raising taxes and/or cutting spending is a discussion for another time. Regardless of what we do, we must nurture local investment and entrepreneurial talent while simultaneously creating national and global policies and conditions that will enable local enterprise to succeed. Thinking and acting globally and locally.

Our Minnesota Compass quality-of-life project now tracks trends at the state, region, county levels, and when possible, at the city-level (populations of 20,000+). Those of us who want to push for local progress can use Compass to examine trends at all levels. To view geographic profiles, go to and click on your region of the map.

* Review in The Economist, February 10, 2011, of the book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. By Edward Glaeser.