All for One
Filling the gaps between city hall and statehouse
Another 4,500 words of wonkery. Doing these kinds of pieces requires a great deal of homework, but unlike the equivalent work that one puts in toward, say, a university degree, the wisdom thus acquired is not an investment that pays off over a career. My next assignment almost always was on a topic new to me, about which I was just as ignorant as I had been about regional governments when I began this one, and which I had to work just as hard to master.
As one comes to expect in Illinois, the art of regional governing has not much advanced in the twenty years since this piece was published.
The Founding Fathers did not allow for regional governments in their scheme for the Republic for the same reason that Abner Doubleday did not allow for aluminum bats. Unfortunately, governments today are ill-matched with nature, commerce, transport, and communications systems, indeed most of the essential systems that sprawl across their borders.
The region is the natural scale of both human and natural systems, yet in most states no government fills the gap between the city hall and the statehouse. As an idea, regionalism dates at least to the previous century and British experiments in town planning. In the United States, regionalism as a movement dates from the moment its backers set up a lobby to promote it, which was the founding in 1923 of the Regional Planning Association in New York City.
In recent years, the devolution of federal authority, new insights into the nature of subnational economies, failures of past beggar-thy-neighbor development policies, even the dynamic of public administration have convinced a new generation of reformers in and out of government that the key to good government in the coming century is to think locally and act regionally.
Reports the National Association of Regional Councils, "Americans are seeing a burst of activity in regional partnering of unparalleled proportions." The choice of the word "partnering" is important. It includes not only regional government but governance, broadly considered—planning, civic education, coalition-building. Indeed, in most states citizen assemblies, think tanks, universities, do-gooder not-for-profits, and business organizations (business people, whose markets sprawl across political boundaries, are natural regionalists) are usually ahead of government in re-imagining the world in regional terms.
Regionalism is not a system but an idea, actually an attitude, the civic equivalent of cosmopolitanism. Regionalism is an administrative regime, a political mantra, a metaphor, an analytical construct. "Regional" describes bi-state compacts, transit authorities, metropolitan sewer districts, councils of governments, regional planning organizations, citizen assemblies, task forces, an ad hoc this and a standing that—lots of structures assembled for lots of purposes on any extra-local scale.
Regionalism ought to come naturally to the federal government and its agencies, as their authority transcends local, even state boundaries. And in fact Washington has been the impetus behind most experiments in regionalist approaches since the days of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s. Regionalism was revived beginning in the late 1950s, when the feds made regional planning a precondition for the receipt of federal categorical grants for sewers and roads. New "Metropolitan Planning Organizations" (MPOs) were designated by Washington to act as the medium of planning across local boundaries, as the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council does for the Missouri and Illinois bi-state region.
The MPO was not the only regionalist innovation to come out of Washington in the pre-Reagan years. Ecosystems by nature sprawl across boundaries of human systems, and by necessity the special-purpose federal commissions set up to manage precious lands and scenic rivers under such statutes as the National Scenic Areas Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act were regional in scope. Typical was the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area along the Washington-Oregon border, where development is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service under the direction of a commission whose members include affected local governments plus the two states and six counties with territory in the area.
Some hopeful advocates believed MPOs would emerge as a full-fledged fourth level of governance in the U.S. system. But as creatures of federal policy, MPOs are vulnerable to Washington's fitful attentions. Twenty years ago, there were nearly 48 federal programs that required regional planning as a condition of funding state and local projects; federal funding cutbacks in the early 1980s left nearly three-fourths of those programs defunct.
Regionalism was never merely a whim of federal fancy, but a response to enduring circumstances in the world that Washington lives in. So while some federal regional programs died because of budget cuts, federal regionalism merely took new forms. One was the "partnership park," the first of which was designated by Congress in 1984 in the form of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, and so-called because its creation involved the partnership of federal, state, and local governments in cooperation with private industry and interest groups, administered by a federal commission.
Among the federal bodies taking the regional view in the present administration are the President's Council on Sustainable Development, the Interagency Task Force on Sustainable Development, and the Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community program. As happened with the sewer programs of the previous generation, the Clintonians often find no agency of metropolitan scope exists to administer their regional initiatives. The Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1995 proposed to encourage communities to form partnerships for metropolitan economic growth but found no existing regional organizations qualified to run the program, and so instead funded 16 local experiments in regional administration run by existing metropolitan social service or housing organizations.
Nature was the original regionalist, of course, and both federal and state natural resource agencies have adopted the watershed and the ecosystem as jurisdictional models for programs in species loss and pollution prevention. A typical example is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs a multi-state waterfowl habitat enhancement effort called the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture. One part of this larger venture is the Cache River Wetlands Project, a cooperative effort to restore approximately 60,000 acres of wetlands along that deep southern Illinois stream to their presettlement character through a common management plan. Making the Cache Joint Venture work has spawned a complex set of public-private partnerships, consortia, and planning committees that rivals in complexity the natural systems they aim to protect.
Administrators of the federal Endangered Species Act have realized that saving rare plants and animals means saving the habitats they depend on. Doing that has led them to adaptations that, in bureaucratic terms, are as inventive as any in nature. The Natural Communities Conservation Plan designed to protect southern California's coastal sage scrub country is an interlinked system of natural reserves whose management involves five counties, approximately 50 cities, 40 development firms, and several Navy and Marine bases. Encompassing almost four million acres, the reserve is organized into 12 subregions, each of which has its own local habitat protection plan.
What began as a way to more effectively disburse federal money is being tried as a mechanism to disperse federal authority. Officially, the intent of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) was to maximize federal transportation investments by finding a mix of "modal" investments—roads, trains, bikes—that was appropriate to each region of the country. ISTEA delegated budget-setting power to MPOs via what is both praised and damned as perhaps the most substantive requirements for participatory planning of any federal law. The East-West Gateway Coordinating Council, for example, in 1992 seated three subcommittees to help draft the St. Louis region's long-range transportation spending plan under ISTEA. The committees represented 200 persons from across the social spectrum who brought to the deliberations concerns—from environmental to employment and regional economic goals—not usually considered under the old method.
ISTEA has not yet changed in any fundamental way the transportation system of the United States, but it may have lasting influence as a governance model, not just for the federal bureaucracy but for government in general. Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution, for example, is urging Congress to require each metropolitan region to qualify for all federal funds the way it earned transportation money under ISTEA, by developing an overall plan for the use of federal funds of all types. Noting that federal expenditures represent 15 percent to 20 percent of regional economies, the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology's Metropolitan Initiative seeks to "recraft the relationships" among the federal government, states and metropolitan areas by targeting existing federal expenditures to meet regional priorities.
Alas, the federal government as a whole functions in as fractured a fashion as the myriad governments that make up a big-city region. The federal bureaucracy (with key exceptions) is organized functionally (or by interest group, if you prefer) not geographically. Many agencies take the regional view, but the lines on their maps seldom enclose the same regions.
Accordingly, the Center for Neighborhood Technology proposed as part of its Metropolitan Initiative the designation of a federal interagency coordinating mechanism, such as the Clinton Administration's Community Empowerment Board, to facilitate direct federal relationships with metropolitan regions. These new ways of doing Washington's business are not universally embraced. Congress wrangled for months over reauthorization of ISTEA in the face of a traditional highway lobby unhappy with, among other things, its focus on regional perspectives in the planning process.
Meanwhile, HUD officials are among the many government professionals who have concluded that political realities make an incremental approach to regionalism the only plausible strategy for many federal programs. But however much it may be modified, and however slow its adoption, regionalism has already proved too useful an addition to the federal tool kit to abandon.
States both encompass their own, smaller regions and are parts of larger ones. For example, urbanized regions sprawl across not just local government boundaries but state lines as well. Multi-state planning and governance usually takes the form of bi-state authorities set up to smooth points of common contact such as bridges or transit systems. The Bi-State Development Authority, which operates the light rail line from Lambert Field International Airport in St. Louis to East St. Louis, is typical.
The problem with bi-state regionalism is that administrative authority, political interest, and—most important—tax money flow to and from a region's member cities to their respective state capitals, not to each other. In that sense, state lines are as formidable a barrier to bi-state cooperation as a mountain range. Nothing could make more sense than for New York and Connecticut to cooperate in economic development; nothing makes less sense than the border raids that each has reputedly carried out against the other's corporate encampments.
It is intrastate governance, with states acting with (and against) their own local governments, that has been the laboratory for state regionalism. Usually the motive is the preservation of precious natural areas or the management of urban growth. (The two agendas overlap; because it is development that usually threatens forests or wetlands, what stops one protects the other and vice versa.) In the 1970s, a handful of booming states asserted a pioneering interest in local development for the same reason the feds were then asserting a national interest in environmental protection against the states—because lower-level governments were making a mess of it.
Several states have some kind of statewide growth management apparatus in place, among them California, Vermont, New Jersey, Minnesota and Hawaii. It usually includes some kind of state land use plan, or at least a statement of planning principles meant to guide policy, and a state-authorized commission to implement it, usually by review of local plans required by the state.
Beyond these basics, state regional commissions vary considerably in the extent of their powers. Some merely collect data and publish plans. Others apply existing command-and-control regulations on a regional basis. Others acquire and own land, or manage land acquired by other entities. Some enjoy inclusive powers, and act as regional zoning boards, planning agencies, and sometimes economic development agencies rolled into one.
Most state land use and natural areas commissions take the form of the council of governments, or COG. Members consist mostly, if not entirely, of elected local officials of bodies within its jurisdiction. (Most regional entities are some form of COG, from MPOs to federal scenic areas commissions and regional planning commissions.) The states put them there officially to provide input, unofficially to legitimize the state's presence, and to make locals stakeholders in decisions they otherwise would resist out of reflex; the locals are there to keep nosy state paper-pushers as much as possible out of their affairs.
A model of its kind is the commission set up to manage the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, approximately 1.1 million acres in parts of seven counties and 53 municipalities under development pressure from suburbanizing Philadelphia and other nearby cities. The commission sets overall policy for development within the reserve, including the 60 percent of the reserve that is not owned by the state. The commission consists of seven county representatives, seven gubernatorial appointees and a representative of the U.S. secretary of the interior. Other examples of the type include the Long Island Pine Barrens Commission and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Program.
The assertion of state authority in such matters is seldom welcome, and most states don't even attempt it except in areas whose protection is support ed by broad consensus (usually of voters who live outside them) and where local management has proved more than usually inadequate. State-mandated restrictions on growth thus usually are limited to certain parts of the state (California's coast) or certain kinds of projects (ski resorts in Vermont) or certain kinds of land (Florida's wetlands).
Only a few states (usually those under development pressure) have undertaken land use planning on a statewide scale, and most of them only recently. Hawaii is one. Maryland has an ambitious new program, so far untested. New Jersey's Development and Redevelopment Plan of 1992 is to guide future public and private development toward compact land forms that efficiently use the existing infrastructure. The plan identifies more than 600 population centers, each of which must draw up "community development boundaries."
No state plan matches Oregon's for the scope of its ambitions or the comprehensiveness of its structure. In 1973, Oregon in effect declared the entire state a precious natural resource and adopted a statewide growth management plan that sought to curb urbanization's baleful effects by coordinating growth, transportation, housing, development, urban and preservation planning. The artifact of the system that receives the most attention is the "urban-growth boundary" that circles each of the state's 240 cities, outside of which new building is essentially banned.
"Pathbreaking" is one of the words used to describe Oregon's system. So is "socialist." Most states are content to inspire, cajole, and exhort local governments to improve land use regulation. Examples:
Minnesota circulated a "statewide vision" for land use planning to inspire locals.
In Colorado a coalition of state agencies prepared detailed case studies of successful planned development to educate them. The more assertive require local governments, as a condition of state funding, to draw up land use plans that at least vaguely adhere to state "goals"—and that are at least vaguely honored by municipalities.
Under its Growth Act of 1992, Maryland requires state investments to be made and state facilities to be located in existing urban or population centers, and provides tax incentives to locate private investments in the same centers. New Jersey does this too; their Division of Urban Enterprise Zones provides qualified businesses within designated zones various abatements, exemptions, tax credits, and rate reductions in state taxes.
Minnesota passed a law in 1995 that funnels money through the Metropolitan Council to award funds to communities in the Twin Cities region to create affordable housing, promote development, and clean up polluted sites.
Maryland's new antisprawl "Smart Growth" law offers incentives to cooperation in the form of grants of infrastructure funds to local governments that expand into approved areas.
Of course, many of the enticements offered local governments to encourage compliance with state goals are "incentives" in the same sense that a gun in one's back is an incentive to hand over your wallet to a mugger. Oregon can withhold local cuts of cigarette and liquor tax revenue from governments that don't comply with its statewide planning; the state of Florida reserves the right to sue locals who don't comply with its guidelines. Florida eschews mandatory state-directed natural resources planning in favor of "special areas management plans" meant to minimize development conflicts in watersheds or endangered species habitats through collaborative area-wide planning; while participation in SAMPs is officially voluntary, some local governments take part only to escape designation as state-regulated "critical areas."
Local government in all its forms may be the illness for which regionalism is the cure. However, local government officials are learning that they are as much the victim as the cause of sprawl, individually helpless against traffic jams or job loss. Increasingly they are joining in regional coalitions—not regional government exactly but regional-minded government.
At any given moment the conference halls of America are jammed with mayors and commissioners gathered as ad hoc coalitions, task forces and symposia. But the most popular enduring mechanism for regional action is the COG, a council of governments. The COG is a device by which local government officials—particularly suburban mayors and city managers—talk, share information and act in concert. Like real cogs, they transfer power from one machine—the local municipality—to another. A local government COG is created by joint agreement of the local governments they serve. The parties to a COG jointly define the role, mission, duties, authority, and geographic coverage of the COG, usually in accordance with state enabling legislation. Illinois law, as expressed chiefly in the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act, generously allows local governments to join together to do anything that any one may do alone.
Traditionally COGs tend to municipal housekeeping problems, such as traffic control or sewers. Of late, their reach has expanded as municipalities have gained (or had dumped on them) authority to regulate fields such as telecommunications. They hire staff, pooling costs of staff that any one member could not justify.
What better solution to the need for a new level of governance, in an era when distrust of government is at a peak, than a government that isn't a government? The COG appeals to the civic values of the small town and suburban reincarnations, being pragmatic, collaborative, voluntary, and cheapish to run. They pose no threat to local autonomy; if their benefits are modest, neither do they cost much in surrendered sovereignty.
The National Association of Regional Councils touts the COG and its variants as the best thing, govern-mentally speaking, since self-stick stamps. Of course, they have their drawbacks. Where municipal interests are broadly identical, and where problems can be dealt with by talking, COGs are probably the ideal way to solve them. However, because the COG has no powers to enforce any action against any member, COGs are useless for doing things that any one member does not wish to do, which are usually the very things that most reformers say need doing the most.
Lynn Montei of the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference states, in effect, that COGs are effective because they are not effective—that is, officials trust them because COGs are not liable to exploitation, like real governments, having no power to coerce.
Some regionalists thus argue that the cure for the ills of local government is not more local government but less—or more accurately, fewer local units of government. David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque and author of Cities without Suburbs, believes that sprawl and its ills will only stop when local governments no longer have reason to compete for taxable development across jurisdictional lines. The easiest way to do that is to erase those lines. Cities, he argues, must be able to expand their boundaries outward, making all suburban entities part of a single urban entity.
This consolidation may be accomplished by merging cities and the county in which they are located. Counties, of course, compose a crude form of regional government that has the virtue of being already in place. In the 1960s and 1970s, Nashville, Jacksonville, Fla., Indianapolis, Lexington, Ky., and Anchorage were consolidated with the counties of which they were a part. But while consolidation with the county rescales the regional dilemmas (in many cases helpfully), it does not solve them—one reason why fewer than two dozen city-county consolidations have been done in the whole United States.
The other means to consolidate localities into a regional entity is to do it piecemeal, using annexation to gradually bring a region's satellite towns under the authority of its central city. Columbus, Ohio, has annexed extensively, as have San Antonio and Phoenix. Annexation has led to fiscally healthier central cities where it has been tried, although its healing effect on other regional problems—maldistribution of wealth, neighborhood decline, traffic congestion—is much less clear.
Consolidation by merger or annexation is at best a makeshift solution to failures of regional governance. Two cities—Minneapolis-St. Paul and Portland, Ore.—decided that, rather than reinvent the county or the central city, it made sense to start from scratch with a custom-made regional government.
Since the 1960s, the Metropolitan Council has represented what is today 186 cities and towns and 2.5 million people in Minnesota's Twin Cities region. Originally a planning body, in 1994 this appointed council was given operational authority over all regional sewer and transit services, and thus was transformed from a typical planning agency into a $600-million-a-year regional government.
Portland's Metro Council is an elected regional government that serves 1.3 million people in that city's 24-city, three-county metropolitan region. Founded 20 years ago, Metro is empowered to raise and spend taxes for green space and parks, mass transit and sewers, garbage collection, and recycling. Most famously, it administers the state growth plan in greater Portland, standing guard over the urban growth boundary.
Portland and Minneapolis-St. Paul are to regionalism what Florence and Venice were to Renaissance art. However, politics in most states militates against new regional entities. Few legislatures volunteer to midwife general-purpose regional bodies that might compete with their own powers—a big reason why regional governance structure of any kind exists in fewer than a dozen of the nation's more than 300 metropolitan areas, though that model has been around for a quarter century. Most of those do not function as regional city halls; even Portland's metro government is in fact a special purpose district writ large—what might be called a multipurpose district.
The fact that only Portland has a popularly elected government with clout that operates on a genuinely regional scale reflects Americans' deep reluctance to invest real powers in new institutions. New government is seen as more government, even if it merely takes over services already performed by existing agencies. Americans find the metropolitan sanitary and transit district a much more congenial form of regional government, in part because it is limited in function. Americans trust their neighbors to help provide services, but implementing social policy is another matter.
To date, regional governance mechanisms have a kind of Rube Goldberg quality to them, an inevitable consequence of their having been devised for so many disparate places and purposes. Their designs reflect some underlying principles nonetheless, as any machine does. They are pragmatic; appeals to use regional mechanisms as agents of social policy rather than to improve services have generally been ignored. They disdain structural solutions. Visions of metro governments may dance in the heads of a lot of regionalism's activists, but most people seem to prefer ad hoc structures that borrow authority from existing governments, under whose control they remain. Authority properly remains in the hands of locally elected leaders. New Jersey's newest plan guarantees freedom of local planning ("consistent with" regional and statewide goals, of course). The Twin Cities' Metropolitan Council negotiates any conflicts with local government jurisdictions. And so on.
Perhaps most crucially, they assume that ideas and solutions should come from the "ground up." Indeed, regionalism is offered as much as an opportunity to create a more perfect democracy as to create a more perfect government. From the COG to the citizens assembly, regional mechanisms cultivate broad citizen participation, functioning as what could be called councils of citizens. As inclusive bodies that lack the stigma of the bureaucracy and the taint of politics, regional commissions, whatever their aegis, have proven useful forums for debate and consensus among contentious local interests, even when consensus-building and civic education was not always what they were set up to do.
Florida's "critical areas" environmental protection program was in effect appropriated by local stakeholders, and what had been criticized as an artifact of top-down paternalism reportedly was turned by them into a venue for participatory problem-solving. Julia Parzen, in a 1997 paper for the Center for Neighborhood Technology's Metropolitan Initiative, states, "many [regionalist] initiatives . . . are only a few years old. For them, progress generally can be judged, at best, by success in reinventing planning processes, engaging citizens, and developing thoughtful strategies which have relatively broad support."
This is itself a considerable accomplishment, and while not enough, it is not nothing either. Chattanooga Vision 2000 was a typical coalition-building and regional consciousness-raising effort, rather than plan-making. Chattanooga leaders involved 1,700 people in 39 meetings over four months, significantly less for the resulting plan—usually they are unremarkable—than for what people learned while planning.
"What we did was not modeled on Chattanooga, but we learned from it,” says Paula Wolff, president of Governors State University and an instigator of a similar project in Chicago's south suburbs called Regional Action Project/2000. "People learned that we're all in this together"—an essential insight for a democratic people, but an easy thing to forget.
As is true of ISTEA, what is new about region alist governance is a method, not machinery. It is too soon to say whether collective decision-making will endure, or whether its assumptions—in particular that the failures of government owe less to a lack of regional means than to a lack of a regional agenda—will support useful policy.
There is no lack of bright shiny ideas from other states. As Scott Goldstein, regional development director for Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council, says, "In the end, solutions have to be homegrown." Illinois is not Oregon; it is not even New Jersey, which it otherwise resembles in terms of population and political traditions, because development does not press painfully on as much of the Land of Lincoln as it does in the Garden State.
Illinois seems unlikely to experience a dramatic reorganization of local government a la Oregon or the vigorous assertion of state authority over it, a la New Jersey. Newly regional-minded governments, rather than new regional government, seems a likelier trend. Citizens are learning to think regionally; local government officials are learning to act regionally; both will be able to put old institutions to new uses. Rather than be superseded, existing systems of governance seem more likely to be knitted together with a web of committees, task forces, and alliances—a clanking, cumbersome machine, greased by talk.
This is not exciting, not romantic, and not at all revolutionary. It is what is possible, however, and probably all that is necessary. ●