One Answer to Sprawl: Regional Governance

9.23.11 | Land is being developed at a crazy fast pace in Maryland, growing at three times the rate of the population over the past few decades, according to a piece in the Atlantic Cities this month. Most of the development has been low-density single family homes which has created some major sprawl.

Sprawl, as we all know, is expensive with high costs for infrastructure development and people less likely to use public transit, not to mention bad for the environment.

The number of developed acres per person in Maryland has increased 84% since 1973. PlanMaryland, the state’s ambitious new smart growth plan puts it another way:

Picture a football field.  In 1973, every man, woman and child in Maryland each had the developed equivalent of about 15 yards on that field. Today, each Marylander’s living “space” runs to about the 27-yard-line. The State is going to grow by 1 million people by 2035, but we can’t make the field any bigger.

How to make space for these new residents? The answer, according to the plan, is more density and municipal collaboration.

PlanMaryland lays out a blueprint for the way state agencies and local governments should work together to stimulate economic development and revitalize neighborhoods, while protecting the environment. The beauty is they plan to save money along the way, about $1.5 billion a year in spending on roads, schools, and other infrastructure, if their projections are correct.

By focusing on increasing housing density in areas that already have infrastructure to support more people – roads, water systems and transit access – the state will save land and money. But the key is they have to work together, which is, of course, easier said than done. And the Atlantic piece goes into some more detail about why local leaders like county commissioners are objecting.

But whether or not it’s enacted, PlanMaryland is an important model and example of what researchers at BRR have been writing about.

Their work finds that regions whose leaders come up with creative responses to regional changes, like some of those suggested here, are more likely to successfully adapt to economic changes than those who stick to the way things have been done in the past.

In a paper on “Governing Cities in the Coming Decade: The Democratic and Regional Disconnects” BRR Network Member Bill Barnes finds that it is exactly this kind of cross-governmental collaboration that cities are going to need in the future.

“Over the next 10 years, jurisdictional boundary crossing will become essential to effective municipal governance,” he writes.  Barnes finds that though there are areas around the country where new collaborations are taking a shape, a disconnect still exists.

He argues that collaboration on everything from affordable housing to trash collection will improve cities’ ability to address problems and seize opportunities in the decade ahead.

Barnes advocates for a practical form of collaborative governance where  jurisdictions work together toward a common goal or a policy outcome, like the PlanMaryland is doing to reduce sprawl, for example.

And though Barnes predicts the resistance from local leaders that we are now seeing in Maryland, he does expect this disconnect to lesson in the coming decade. Let’s hope he’s right.

Barnes is working with fellow network member Kathryn Foster on a project to create a framework for regional governance with indicators to help understand how collaborative governance works and what affects this model has on outcomes for specific regions.  We’ll be covering more on their work in future blog posts.

Photo by La Citta Vita.

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