New Models for Collaborative Regional Development?

5.2.12 | In the absence of regional government, leaders in some parts of the country are finding success with good old-fashioned cooperation.

We’ve written before about the challenges of regional governance. Because of our fragmented governmental bodies, municipalities, public utilities, school districts, public transit systems, for example, all have difficulty when they need to work across their own jurisdictional boundaries. The Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz has estimated that the United States has “19,492 units of general purpose municipal governments, 13,051 school districts, and 37,381 special authorities.”  Coordinating between these entities can be an administrative nightmare – with different public data systems and infrastructures, not to mention politics.

In a series of posts at the National Resources Defense Council’s Switchboard blog this week Kaid Benfield highlights these difficulties and points to a few exciting solutions. Benfield says that though regions may be one of the most effective drivers of economic growth and powerful scales for addressing environmental and social problems, without a regional governmental authority it can be very difficult to coordinate efforts.

In the Philadelphia-Camden region, for example, Benfield notes that it can take three separate tickets, from three separate transit entities, and over an hour, to go a mere five miles on public transportation. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, he notes “comprises two states, nine counties, and a staggering 353 municipalities.  No wonder transit systems are fragmented as well.”

BRR network members Kathryn Foster and Bill Barnes are studying models of regional governance and how this impacts a region’s ability to bounce back from economic or other kind of shocks. They propose new ways of thinking about what it takes to solve problems at the regional level, emphasizing capacities and purposes for example, instead of just governance structures. They suggest examining what has made regional efforts succeed or fail in the past, for example, or how competition instead of cooperation between regions is hurting all of the parties involved.

Benfield says metropolitan planning organizations need more legal authority to act. In Portland, where Metro, is one of the nation’s only elected regional governments with this authority, the region has had success in their redevelopment efforts, containing sprawl, protecting the environment, and streamlining effective public transit. The authority even has it’s own app to support sustainable living. “Walk There!” provides information on walks throughout the region – with directions, maps, and audio recordings that highlighting interesting regional details.

Benfield sees promise in California’s new planning law, SB 375, that is designed to reduce pollution of greenhouse gases, with regional metropolitan planning organizations leading the implementation on issues of land use and transportation investment.

But it’s the examples of communities voluntarily collaborating to improve their neighborhoods that Benfield concludes with, that I find the most hopeful. In Silicon Valley, for example, 19 cities, counties, and local and regional agencies, public and private, are collaborating in the Grand Boulevard Initiative,  to redevelop the El Camino Real corridor, a 43-mile commercial stretch of road in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The car-centric corridor includes many business that have not survived the recession and the groups are working together, voluntarily, to plan and revitalize the stretch and surrounding communities by introducing mixed-use development, bike lanes, and public outdoor spaces.

The neat part about this model is that the entities have agreed on guiding principles that set a framework for development, while leaving the choices about what the development looks like in each place up to the individual jurisdictions.

This kind of collaboration can be very difficult, Kathryn Foster says, and it’s often 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. Your interests, your resources, your policy goals are different,” she told me in a recent conversation. But she says jurisdictions don’t need to agree on everything in order to come together, as this Silicon Valley example shows.  “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.”

Plus, Benfield spoke about some of these issues in March at a forum at the New America Foundation on Defining Resilience. See the panel on “Resilient Cities: Rethinking the Urban Landscape.”


Map by The Grand Boulevard Initiative.


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