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Regionalism: Wonky but Real

Mary Newsom / Nov 19 2011

For Release Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mary NewsomIt’s as obvious as the air we breathe, as basic as the fluid geography of a watershed, as clear as the connection between a new highway and the strip shopping centers and subdivisions that cluster nearby.

But then again, the air flowing over city limits and state lines is invisible. And most people don’t stop to think that what goes down the kitchen sink or runs off a muddy construction site eventually flows into rivers or lakes and sometimes into other people’s drinking water supply. Even the idea that road building shapes how we live, work and shop is a foreign concept to most people.

In other words despite city limits, voting districts and state lines on maps, in the real world of air and water, of urban transportation and economies, city regions function in ways our American political systems may not recognize. Although environments, economies and living patterns create very real urban regions, those geographic areas don’t exist in the basic structure of the government of the United STATES. Under the Constitution, states have powers; cities don’t.

So is it possible to invigorate meaningful efforts to manage city regions as regions? Last month I spent several days chewing over that question with some two dozen business and nonprofit leaders, academics, writers and former mayors.

Pulled together by author and columnist Neal Peirce and his Citistates Group, we arrived at the the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Pocantico retreat center in Tarrytown, N.Y., with differing viewpoints but a base-level agreement that urban regions are too important to dismiss. But then what?

The concept of “regionalism” has been around for decades, but I have always filed it in the mental folder of “Worthy but Wonky.” Although it’s important, it’s also a topic that tends to make eyes glaze over. Yet the more I learn about cities, the more I see that problems and their solutions don’t stop at the city limits.

The idea that metro regions deserve heightened attention does get more fanfare these days, thanks in part to the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz, director of its Metropolitan Policy Program. Metro regions, Katz preaches, are essential to our national economy. Yet state governments are too often either apathetic about, or actively hostile toward, metro regions.

Peirce recalls that he and his Citistates colleagues have studied 25 cities over 31 years for Citistates Reports, and have heard repeatedly how state governments don’t take metro areas seriously.

On a more optimistic theme, at the conference I heard plenty of good ideas taking place at the regional level. Some — including Silicon Valley, Denver, St. Louis and Portland, Ore. — have metro-wide “greenprints.” Seattle and others have developed region-wide export-import strategies.

In one powerful example, the 10-county Atlanta region has won a long struggle to win a revenue source for its vast transportation problems. “Everyone in the region knew we had a transportation crisis,” Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, explained. The business community helped lead that years-long effort, which finally last year produced a state law to let voters in each Georgia metro region approve a 1-cent sales tax for a specific list of transportation projects. If it passes in July 2012, the Atlanta region’s tax is projected to raise at least $6 billion over 10 years. The project list runs the gamut: MARTA, streetcars, freeway interchanges and bike-ped projects.

One thread ran through many examples we heard: The regional business community took the lead. Businesses know the importance of quality of life, transportation and education. Williams even noted that relocation specialists who help businesses find new sites look at regional cooperation, along with other checklist items.

In today’s grim economy, state governments should recognize their enlightened self-interest in helping, not hampering, their city regions. But that grim economy has pushed the more obviously regional issues of environmental protection and growth planning to the back burner in favor of jobs and economic development.

And local officials in metro regions can be wary of power-sharing. Bill Barnes of the National League of Cities described a common reaction when groups of officials discuss regional-scale efforts. “There’s always a great sigh of relief when I say it’s not ‘the answer.’ ” But then, he tells them, “It’s not the answer. But it is a question.”

And that is where the Pocantico roundtable seems to have coalesced: With or without a formal regional government, smart metro areas will — often led by the business community — start working together.

As Barnes said, a regional approach may not be the answer, but should always be a question. Consider my own city, Charlotte. It has a half-dozen regional transportation planning agencies, none a part of the Charlotte region council of governments. The area has no regional Chamber of Commerce, no multicounty land use/transportation vision. It has no regional strategy for preserving land other than “hope.”

All are challenges for this once-rural and now increasingly urban region. Similar challenges — or others — face most of the country’s metro regions. Barnes described it well: “It’s all part of the messy problem of governance, problem-solving and people working together to do stuff.”

Or to put it another way, we no longer have the luxury of adversarial relations.

Mary Newsom is a longtime journalist and associate director of the nonprofit UNC Charlotte Urban Institute in Charlotte, The views expressed here are the author’s and don’t necessarily represent the views of the institute, its staff or UNC Charlotte, nor those of those of other participants at the Pocantico Conference, or of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, its trustees, or its staff. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Mike Koetting
    Posted November 19, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Of course you’re right on the substance. But unless the actual legal structures are changed, “regionalism” will stay on the outside looking in. (There isn’t even a place to occupy!) At some point, don’t we need to face up to the fact that the US is burdened with an archiac governmental structure designed, primarily, in reaction to the English monarchy. Fifty separate governments, organized around now largely irrelevant boundaries, each governed by its own gridlocked legislature and each competing against each other for resources as if they are zero-sum is hardly the recipe for 21st viability.

  2. Marc Brenman
    Posted November 19, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    In regard to “The area has no regional Chamber of Commerce,” creating or joining such an entity won’t help, as the C of C’s tend to be very conservative and not support an equity agenda. Regional transportation planning is supposed to be handled by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), but they tend to give short shrift to cities and people of color, and represent the whiter, higher income suburbs more. An excellent first step would be consolidating transportation providers and school districts across jurisdictional lines. These two steps would encourage greater social equity in transportation services and integration in education.

  3. Richard Wakeford
    Posted November 19, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    On December 5th OECD will publish its regional outlook. One highlight is the increasing shift towards functional regions as the basis of planning – rather than administrative. There are some very good examples from Germany. And the emerging proposals for European Union grant aid are also more urban region based. From my perspective, we just need to watch that rural areas are not overlooked if they don’t fit the new partnership structures being built bottom up.

  4. Posted November 20, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    There’s only one strategy for establishing effective governance and it’s born where there’s least resistance – at the metropolitan scale. All else follows – cities, towns, districts and neighborhoods – as we redefine the whole metro using new, more logical and legible patterns of representation.

    It’s about US, not THEM – a new way of thinking and, yes, acting. Ecologically based patterns of representation, once understood by more than a few, can become the language and structure of a parallel democracy, opening a completely new conversation regarding the Founders’ dream.

    This is not about wine and cheese events. Special interests defend to the end the inherited patterns and structures that serve them. Gandhi knew: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

    Mary reminds us, “eyes glaze over.” She’s right, that is, until the angry crowd pauses to reflect, organize and demonstrate according to a completely new way of thinking about patterns of representation. On that day, not a day before, we’ll see “eyes open wide.”

  5. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Michael Koeting. To put where US system is in context is to see that US is where England was before it established a system of integrated government. The British realized their system simply wasn’t working. Certainly the United States did as well from 1800s all the way to the present. But consider the Report also by the national Municipal League in the 1930s– that regionalism is a reality in other countries, even in Canada next door, but the Us continues to dance around the prospect. Well, time to dance around will close the window of opportunity. What Mary Newsom is talking about is change at the margin, which at the end of the day doesn’t deliver much. Basically she is making much ado about little.

  6. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Even South Africa has city regions. Consider the metropolitan municipality form made up of merged cities.
    The largest city regions are in China, the country US states, cities and counties are going hat in hand to to get deals from. I had hoped they would learn how China has used these city regions to grow its economy. But, I guess they prefer to remain blind to that reality as it would make them question the value of the outdated, inefficient and dyfunctional system they cling to.

  7. Posted November 21, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Anyone interested can download case studies on effective regional leadership in the 2010 release of the Council on Competitiveness. The title is Collaborate: Leading Regional Innovation Clusters. The download a PDF version at no charge.

  8. Mark Spitzer
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    Metro regions represent the next logical step in governing ourselves. We managed a long time with towns, cities, counties and states each solving some problems well and offering good governance opportunities. Now we need metro regions to manage the economic engines of the 21st century – but not just as business aggregations. Metro regions will only make sense with regional governance – the ability to balance competing interests. We also need to pay attention to the limits of metro regions. They won’t resolve agricultural concerns or resource extraction or transportation issues outside of the region. We need regional government here in the Puget Sound – the state and counties can’t keep up any more – but we’ll need to find a way to do it and keep the rest of ecotopia healthy at the same time. Now there’s a 21st century challenge !