Walking the Walk: How Messy Regionalism Offers Opportunity for Change

12.7.2011 | The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and The Citistates Group hosted an important discussion on regionalism in Tarrytown, New York, last month, where business and nonprofit leaders, academics, writers, and former mayors gathered at the Pocantico Center to discuss the role of states in promoting or obstructing regional governance.

Luckily for those of us who were not there, several attendees posted their impressions of discussions with blog posts at Citiwire.net.  Their ideas provide a helpful reminder of what options for regional action might look like on the ground, especially if we can look beyond the day-to-day struggles of planning and governance to a longer-term vision.

BRR Network member Bill Barnes says options for acting regionally are too often framed as a dichotomy between major structural change like jurisdictional consolidation or doing nothing. “This is a false choice,” Barnes writes “and not a useful way to frame the topic.”

Instead, Barnes, director for emerging issues at the National League of Cities, says regional solutions should be about finding the best way to achieve a goal by working out competing interests and differences on the ground – where messy, and often difficult compromises can be made. He calls regionalism not the answer but an important question that should be asked  “about the most useful scale for solving a problem.”

“Thus, the regional governance discourse could very profitably shift to a less dramatic but more practical focus on regional governance as capacity and purpose. This would align the talk with the walk that is characteristic of practicing regional actors, whether the topic is transportation financing in Atlanta or freight routes in Long Beach or international trade in Seattle.”

In a separate post, journalist Mary Newsom reports on the ideas she heard at the meeting, including some powerful examples of regionalism on the ground. Atlanta is case in point:

[T]he 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.

Bill Barnes along with fellow BRR Network member Kathryn Foster have a new paper coming out on regional governance in the Urban Affairs review in early 2012. The article “Reframing Regional Governance for Research and Practice,” lays out a framework for helping cities assess an area’s capacity to act regionally – examining things like the way leaders are able to recognize challenges when they are occurring, to understand the nature of the problem, to promote experimentation, be open to new ideas, and importantly, to be willing to cooperate and coordinate with other jurisdictions, when appropriate.

Foster, a senior fellow at the University of Buffalo’s Regional Institute, says the difficulty of collaboration is one of the key reasons regions fail so often to work together.

“Whether you are poor inner city or a struggling inner ring suburb or an affluent suburban community, you are probably not going to agree,” Foster told me in a recent conversation. “Your interests, your resources, your policy goals are different.”

But she says regions don’t need to agree on everything in order to come together.  “The only agreement you may need is that ‘we are all committed to be at this table to work together, but it doesn’t mean we have to get to yes all the time.”

In her own reflection post at Citiwire.net, Foster finds the “respectful disagreement” that took place at the Pocantico meeting refreshing, because, she says, it offers an opportunity for change. Referencing the Washington, DC, area, she says, that is either thriving or crashing, depending on one’s ideals–a place that:

“Fragmented by markers as varied as area codes and restaurant taxes to liquor laws and policies on exotic animals, and stuck with distinctive state cultures and stereotypes (“I can’t get past the thought I’ll live in Virginia,” said a District-based friend contemplating a commute-shortening move), the region oozes difference.

Thank goodness for that, and thus for the transcendent chance to be different together.”

What’s your take? Is regionalism possible? Is it necessary? What’s stopping it?

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