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Eight Offerings from the Academic Stacks

Kathryn A. Foster / Nov 05 2011

Delayed Release — March 2012
Citiwire.net

Kathryn A. FosterThe gathering at Pocantico included people of practice (MPO directors, chamber presidents, elected officials), people guiding practice (principals at foundations, policy think tanks, and federal agencies) and people from the academy.  I was one of the latter.

In settings like this, it’s not always obvious what role the academics could best play.  Especially compared to those in the trenches who grapple daily with regional governance challenges, scholars have a reputation for out-of-touch, concept-pure-but-practicality-poor insights.  So it was a particular pleasure when, midway through day two, a participant wondered aloud whether the academic literature might offer something to illuminate issues and enrich our conversation.

Perhaps it might.

Here, then, is an elaborated version of my off-the-top-of-the-head response.  It covers eight offerings from the academic stacks, four oldie-but-goodie traditional literatures and four newer literatures.  For some these bodies of thought will be too erudite and eye-rollingly useless for everyday governing.  But for others these check posts of scholarship may well present fresh perspectives on regional affairs.

Let’s start with four well-established literatures.

Regional Science.  As the name indicates, the common core of regional science, which embraces methods and theories from geography, economics, planning and policy, and environmental science, is regions.  Much regional science relies on sophisticated quantitative analyses, but not all does—the current volume of the Journal of Regional Science, 52 (1), has as many pieces sporting lucid prose and undemanding charts as it does econometrics.  Consider that the theme of the upcoming 2012 World Congress of the Regional Science Association International is “Changing Spatial Patterns in a Globalizing World,” a current flowing through much of the conversation at Pocantico, and it’s clear how regional science may illuminate regional practice.

Federalism and Intergovernmentalism.   Scholarship on federal systems, that is, those with divided authority between, say, national, state, and local government in the United States, has long been a backbone of political science.  The relevance to regional governance, the central challenge of which is figuring out how multiple autonomous players with no mandate to cooperate can make good decisions and act on them, is obvious.  Articles in the Fall 2011 edition of Publius, The Journal of Federalism, 41(4), for example, address “The States as Facilitators or Obstructionists of Local Government.”  They and kindred pieces from these literatures speak to a key Pocantico theme of how interactions with federal, state and local officials can help or hinder effective regional action.

Regime Theory.  For several decades now, captured vividly by Clarence Stone’s work on the public-private “regimes” leading Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s, regime theory explores how non-formal institutions and power relations influence urban and regional outcomes.  An instance of practice leading the academy—the role of business, civic, and other nongovernmental groups in metropolitan areas has been evident since colonial times—regime theory and corollary works emphasizing “governance not government” infused discussions at Pocantico.  Representative pieces show up regularly in the Journal of Urban Affairs and Urban Affairs Quarterly among other outlets in political science, policy, and public affairs.

Political Culture.  Those who wonder, as we often did at Pocantico, why some places—say, Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Seattle—seem to achieve more effective regional governance than do others can turn to insights from a longstanding literature on political culture.  Bolstered by Daniel Elazar’s 1960s typology of political culture by U.S. state—consider, notably, that the metropolitan regions mentioned above all fall into his category of “moralistic” political cultures favoring the public good over individual interests—political culture analyses have linked a society’s cultural orientation to everything from international relations to habits of public administration.  The suite of articles on the contemporary contributions of cultural theory, published in the October 2011 edition of PS, Political Science & Politics, offers a good entry point.

Add to these long-time literatures four emerging bodies of work.

New Regionalism.  It was striking how readily the gathering at Pocantico mentioned equity, citizen engagement, and environmental sustainability as goals of regional governance.  Even thirty years ago the list might have started and ended with service efficiency and economic growth.  That new “Es” have been added to the traditional ones stems from a movement linking equity concerns to economic ones, city fortunes to suburban fortunes, and regional sprawl to regional job creation.  The nature and extent of such linkages, as well as the untraditional coalitions emanating from them, are captured by New Regionalism.  Not only for the tip of the hat to our Pocantico organizers, start with Citistates by Neal R. Peirce with Curtis W. Johnson and John Stuart Hall (Norton, 1983) and follow descendents from there.

New Institutionalism.  More academic in tone and audience than New Regionalism, New Institutionalism examines how societies shape their institutions and how those institutions in turn shape societies.  We spent considerable time at Pocantico musing about how organized institutions of regional governance, including MPOs, COGs, business chambers, and environmental coalitions, influence the physical, social, and economic development of metropolitan regions.  New Institutionalism, which blends insights from sociology, law, organizational theory, economics, and political science, usefully reminds us that it is human choices—to move or to stay, to comply or to revolt, to form this kind of government or policy over some other kind—that “construct” regional outcomes, including the presence of and rules for MPOs, COGs and well, you get it.

Network Governance.  In contrast to schools of thought in federalism and intergovernmentalism, on the one hand, and the economic logic of markets on the other, network governance emphasizes complex decentralized networks rather than vertical hierarchies or utility-maximizing individual actions in explaining regional dynamics.  The literature informs our Pocantico discussions of “messy” regionalism, evolving region-global linkages, and the prospects for “leaderless” governance, among others. The rich academic literature may be most digestible in popular works such as James Suroweicki’s The Wisdom of Crowds (Anchor, 2005) and Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s The Starfish and the Spider (Portfolio, 2006).

Resilience.  The concept of resilience is itself not new: fields from psychology to engineering have used it to explain post-traumatic stress to bridge collapse.  Recently, regional scholars have adapted resilience to probe how regions anticipate, prepare for, respond to and recover from acute (think hurricanes and New Orleans) and chronic (think economic restructuring and Cleveland) challenges.  Most interesting to our Pocantico discussions is how governance choices may affect regional resilience, from the conservation of Chesapeake Bay to Seattle’s forays into international trade.  A collection of relevant scholarly articles is found in “The Resilient Region,” a special March 2010 volume of the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society.  For selfish reasons, I recommend a pithier introduction to the field, “Snapping Back: What Makes Regions Resilient?,” which I wrote for the National Civic Review in 2007, 96(3).

Combing through these stacks won’t itself solve pressing regional problems.  It may, though, give regional practitioners useful background and context for realizing their regional agendas.


Kathryn Foster is a visiting fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and immediate past director and senior fellow at the University at Buffalo Regional Institute, State University of New York.

3 Comments

  1. Posted November 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    This piece was so overly personalized that I couldn’t really read it.

  2. Posted November 9, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    A faithful recap of the crowd and the conversation Kathryn, thanks for authoring. I tried to sum up the Pocantico forum and came up with this blog post dated Nov. 1 – Six Key Points on Regional Cooperation. http://www.acce.org/blog/

  3. Richard Wakeford
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    There’s an interesting shift in the EU from administrative regions to functional ones as the basis of policy. As in the US, there are then different boundaries for different functions, making analysis hard. As a regular visitor to Phila, I guess the question always has to be “is Camden in or out?”. Admin boundaries rarely respect markets and economies.