Regionalism is not the answer, it’s the question

“All roads to regionalism go through local governance,” Bill Barnes told a gathering at College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at University of Illinois, Chicago, on October 10. Barnes is a Network member and director of Emerging Issues at the National League of Cities.

Yet it might be a tough road for regionalism, given the fiscal straits local governments face today. As the 26th annual City Fiscal Conditions report by the National League of Cities finds, the fiscal vise is squeezing municipal budgets, people are losing their jobs, road and bridge projects are being cancelled. Think your alley will be plowed by city workers this winter? Think again.

So what effect will this have on regionalism?

Will government officials, Barnes asked, be less willing to function outside their current level of governance as a result? Or will new agendas emerge–will regions, for example, get tired of the lack of response from Washington and develop a regional “jobs” plan? Will new groups emerge from the ashes? A Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street at the regional level perhaps? Will regions be the scale where municipal governments retreat to get things done? Only time will tell.

On paper at least, regionalism, Barnes says, has its backers. In the hard-scrabble pit of local politics, it’s often a different story. Regionalism–the deliberate effort by multiple actors to achieve goals in a multi-jurisdictional environment–is little like a Pelican taking flight. You know is should be able to fly, but getting off the ground is not a pretty sight.

There are local political territories to contend with, there are bright lines dividing states, not to mention a tendency of communities to cling to an identity that sets them decidedly apart from the nearest “big city.”

Yet regionalism has its role, even as difficult to achieve as it is. One problem, Barnes says, is that regionalism has too often been about “you should, you ought to.” As in, you three counties should embrace regional transportation. Or you three suburbs should band together on housing planning. Essentially, that position is an expression of “why don’t people make nice?”

That, he says, is not helpful. We need to move beyond this position to a more thoughtful question. Instead of “people should cooperate around regional housing plans, or governments should look beyond their power base,” we should ask, what is going on that makes regional efforts succeed or fail? How do we understand that competition between jurisdictions to, for example, keep low-income housing out or lure a business in? When we understand the answer, then we can begin to change the rules of the game.

Regionalism, he says, is not about simply collaborating or putting oneself aside for the greater regional good. It’s about working through interests or value positions surrounding publicly debated issues. Regionalism is rooted in self-interest, and mitigated by the local civic and political culture. Above all, regionalism is not necessarily successful– just as most things in the world are not.  Understanding why governments cooperate or don’t is the key.  Regionalism, in other words, is not the answer. It’s the question. Would we, for example, achieve the goal if we worked at a regional scale?

The time is now to ask these questions. Unlike what many local governments think, the economy is not like the weather: it comes, it goes, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Regional economies could respond in more productive ways if we get the answers to the question right.

Comments are closed.