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‘Sex and the Region’? Well, Maybe Not…

Mary Newsom / Aug 09 2013

For Release Friday, August 9, 2013
Citiwire.net

Mary NewsomAny day now, I figure the term “inner city” will go the way of “carbon paper” and “adding machine.”

Already, it has a sort of disco, big-hair-and-shoulder-pads aura – a relic of a time when to many Americans the heart of the city was a place of poverty, crime and social dysfunction.

Compare that image to today. Surveys, marketing studies, anecdotal reports and TV shows all point to a Millennial generation in love with city life. To them, “inner city” – if used at all – would evoke excitement and opportunity.

In the ’60s and ’70s, it was a tsunami of middle-class families moving to the suburbs. Today, what’s moving to the suburbs is poverty, a demographic shift documented in studies like those from authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution, and documented in their Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.

Yet both images – whether derelict “inner city” or hipster downtowns – focus on the central core. That illustrates one of the biggest challenges facing U.S. cities today: the need to address the whole urban organism of city plus suburb plus exurb. Call it a commute-shed, retail trading zone or metropolitan statistical area. Whatever you call it, study after study shows that cities and their outlying areas are linked. A weak city with healthy suburbs will fail to thrive. So will a strong center city with weak suburbs.

I recently came across a passage describing mycorrhizal mushrooms. As writer Amber Veverka describes it, what you might see as a mushroom in the woods is in fact just the fruit of one vast, underground network of mycelia, white webby connectors which wind around plant roots and in doing so bring nutrients to the plant, while the plant brings water and protection to the fungus. You see the mushroom. You don’t see that it’s one unseen organism. City regions are like that. Most people don’t recognize the connections.

Last month I was lucky enough to attend a small conference – pulled together by Citiwire founder and syndicated columnist Neal Peirce – filled with experts in metro regions. One significant question underlying the discussion was how to convey the idea that looking only at a city, or only at its suburbs, is like looking at only one leg of the elephant. Even the terms “commute-shed” and “retail trading zone” make clear that everyday lives in a metro region aren’t bound by city limits or county lines. How in the world can a region of dozens of municipalities and counties address things like transportation, protecting downtowns or preserving rural areas if all decisions are made by local governments or state governments? Local governments are, by nature, self-interested. And many state governments have historically been at best disinterested in city issues or, worse, downright hostile.

Because of the U.S. governance system, commented Bill Dodge, former executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils, we depend on higher levels of government – state or federal – to sort out regional issues. But today the national government can’t make decisions, and state governments aren’t stepping into regional issues. Without state or federal attention, addressing regional issues is far more challenging. In a recent “Regional Excellence” column, he writes, “Regions have continued to grow unhealthily, and our attempts to govern them have not kept up with either the scale or the substance of the challenges.”

Dodge has some interesting ideas on the topic. One is that of voluntary regional charters, which might move into the vacuum of state and federal disinterest. His April Citiwire.net column – “A Bay Area Grand Bargain: A Model for Future Regional Governance?” – goes into detail.

But I keep coming back to Millennials, sometimes called Gen Y. They are confounding many with a collective lack of enthusiasm for driving (“Is Gen Y really breaking up with the car?”) and heightened interest in bicycling, walking and transit. And while this is not statistically valid, when I’ve asked college students I meet where they want to live after college, almost all give the name of a large city or else “in a city.”

I note that they don’t say, “in a metropolitan region.”

I turned to a handy Millennial, my 21-year-old daughter. “If cities are sexy and trendy,” I asked, “why are ‘regions’ boring and dull? Or are they?” Her reply: “Cities sound like a place that you go for fun and excitement. Regions sound like something out of a textbook that details the watersheds of various rivers or something.”

I put the question out on Twitter. Raleigh city planner Ken Bowers replied: “Can you imagine a hit TV show ‘Sex and the Region’?” Michael Lewyn, who teaches law in New York and blogs for Planetizen.com, replied: “Regions sound like something invented by bureaucrats; cities seem real. Also, regions include suburbs.”

Dodge has another intriguing idea. Noting that public service opportunities such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, Teach For America and City Year programs don’t satisfy the demand, he proposes adding a Region Year program, “to engage the best and brightest in helping metropolitan and rural regions address the seemingly intractable challenges.”

My own hope is that the city-loving generation now coming to adulthood will, as they grow in both wisdom and wonkiness, learn that just as the old “inner city” image ignored the whole unseen organism, so too does today’s vision of the hipster city.


Mary Newsom is Citiwire.net editor and associate director of urban and regional affairs at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, where she directs the PlanCharlotte.org online publication, where this column also appeared. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted August 9, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    As I’ve discussed some time ago with my friend Chris Leinberger, we are seeing the evolution of “polycentric” or “multiple-downtown” regions, which makes the discussion even more complicated. I live in Silver Spring, but in my DC region, I can go to downtown Silver Spring, downtown Bethesda, downtown Rockville, downtown Rosslyn, downtown Ballston as well as several other “downtowns” in DC proper — and the same is true for most large metro regions. So the downtown or “urban” experience is not necessarily contained within the boundaries the the traditional, historic central downtown. This is turn gives Millennials great choice. They can live near or in any one of these downtowns and have all that city living has to offer — yet can also, using public transit, reach the other downtowns within their region. It’s one reason why city life is so appealing. It also is a very “green phenomenon” — I don’t have to travel great distances to get my downtown “fix.”

  2. Posted August 9, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Mary: Look at sports. There’s lots of examples where people have a harder time rallying around the “Florida Marlins” than the “Miami Marlins”. Though there is a ‘place’ called Florida, its easier to identify with Miami as a place, and Miami is much more the prime place of South Florida than Davie, FL. Over in basketball, you have the “Golden State Warriors” and most people can’t tell you where the team actually plays basketball. That lack of specificity makes it hard to understand a region, and it gets worse with political boundaries. You’re right that it is a muddy line, but a city has destination appeal, a region is more of a geographic function.

  3. Posted August 9, 2013 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    So many important observations and worthwhile questions here, Mary. Regarding city vs. region–if governing the uncontainable scale of urbanization is the issue that makes regions important for embrace, why stop there? Which is to say, in what way is regional a useful category, given how disinterested/disempowered are state governments to mobilize through them? If ‘city’ is the relevant economic growth unit of the future, oughtn’t we anticipate the eclipse regional governance altogether, in favor of a unit like city-web, where urban governance addresses supply/demand chains completely detached from national geo-political bounds?