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Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide: Hope at Last?

Bill Dodge / Mar 05 2009

For Release Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bill DodgeThe bane of our polarized politics is nowhere more evident than in attempts to create effective partnerships among central cities (often politically blue), surrounding suburbs (variations of purple), and fringe rural areas (often red). Even when the logic of seizing common economic opportunities or thwarting common environmental threats is compelling, it’s difficult at best to reach agreements on how to deliver cost-effective services in such fields as roads, transit, sewer, water–indeed almost any critical service area. And when it comes to addressing such social challenges as fiscal inequities between rich and poor jurisdictions, the task borders on the impossible.

And that’s just in more urban regions. Pursuing partnerships between more urban regions (often blue) and more rural regions (often red) is usually deemed politically suicidal.

As President Obama strives to build bridges across the red-blue divide of our politics and society, a key pillar of that strategy needs to be regional cooperation.

A decade ago, I became the executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) and inherited a large-small–but mostly urban-rural–divide. My members were the regional councils of governments that guide transportation, air and water quality and land use planning, and deliver common services at the multi-jurisdictional level. Some of the approximately 500 regional councils across the country are predominately urban or rural, but many have a clear urban-rural mix.

NARC sponsored activities to bring the two factions together. But with little success. In fact, many of the smaller, more rural regional councils had already left NARC and joined the National Association of Development Organizations.

Yet, what NARC could not achieve internally has begun to take shape in regions across the country, as they respond to the challenges of the new century.

So what’s happening? More urban regions are becoming interested in preserving their rural fringes, to slow profligate sprawl growth and promote infill development that utilizes existing infrastructure and services.

Simultaneously, more rural regions have begun to encounter the same economic, environmental, and social challenges as the more urban ones–absorbing new immigrants from other regions and overseas, for example. Local leaders and citizens in both sets of regions realized that they cannot address their own challenges, especially tough ones like affordable housing, if they can’t engage all parts of their regions–red, blue, and purple–in resolving them.

What’s more, problems call out for joint approaches when they spill over the historic borders. This is especially evident in urban regions that are exploding into the greenfields of neighboring rural regions. But it is also evident in the growing realization that the real economic marketplace often cuts across neighboring rural and urban regions, making cooperation mandatory to compete successfully in the global economy.

More rural regions are now providing agricultural and other goods to neighboring urban regions and more urban regions are providing emergency preparedness and other services to neighboring rural regions. Soon, urban and rural regions could be jointly preserving the fields and forests that are critical to consuming the CO2 emissions that threaten the future livability of all regions.

President Obama has appointed Adolfo Carrion to direct a White House Office of Urban Policy, along with Derek Douglas as his special assistant on urban affairs. The mission is to bring unity to intergovernmental issues that, historically, have been addressed haphazardly throughout the “silos” of the federal bureaucracy. It’s an important initiative, but one that could easily cause the political “scar tissue” within and between urban and rural regions to itch, if not fester.

Is it possible to give this office a regional character? The toughest challenges require regional approaches. Moreover, by dealing with challenges at the regional level, red and blue interests can be brought together, either in individual, home regions or across neighboring regions that face common challenges. Regional approaches can also reduce the interjurisdictional friction that has undermined all too many well-intentioned efforts to address tough challenges. Regional approaches cajole central cities and counties, surrounding suburbs, and rural fringes to come together and develop common strategies that both address their crosscutting issues and tap their collective resources.

And regional cooperation can also engender meaningful state government participation–especially when the strategies require working across state boundaries. I recently facilitated a Wingspread Conference attended by regional councils stretching along Southern Lake Michigan. The only way they can address cross-cutting challenges, such as moving goods and people across their boundaries, is to have the collective support of at least four states for common strategies.

President Obama is committed to trying new approaches to bridge the destructive polarization that has divided the country. An Office of Regional Policy might begin to send such a healing message to a hopeful electorate. A lead role might, in fact, be taken by a reinvigorated Department of Housing and Regional Development, especially well equipped to breathe life into these policies through the appointment of a seasoned regionalist, Ron Sims, King County Chief Executive, as its Undersecretary.

Bill Dodge assists community leaders and citizens to build their capacity to address regional challenges. He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and can be reached at columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

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