Can “Regionalism” Promote Equity?

9.26.2012 | Clogged freeways that snake through several suburbs, smog that thoughtlessly crosses municipal borders, urban sprawl that draws people and jobs out and away– all these are increasingly regional concerns. Globalization requires new forms of cooperation across political boundaries, internationally and within the U.S. These conditions, scholars and others are increasingly arguing, require new forms of governance that reimagine political boundaries. Locally, it means that the metropolitan scale is a key level of economic work.

Yet in a metro area with multiple governments and jurisdictions, who is responsible for fixing these issues, for setting economic policy, and most important (and overlooked) for doing so equitably?

Such questions are among those that Network member Sarah Reckhow and her colleague T. William Lester explore in their new article, “Network Governance and Regional Equity: Shared Agendas or Problematic Partners?” In it they meld the research on the increasing salience of the metropolitan scale with the growing amount of work on  “network governance” processes.

The authors explore how governing works in a network of interests that have come together to address issues of equity in a metro area.  As they note, networks are flexible, not top-down, and they are  built on reciprocal exchange and a shared commitment to an issue. As challenges become more “wicked” today — as they increasingly allow little time to react, come with a high costs to failure, address critical needs (such as health or transportation), and have seemingly no one person in charge, a networked form of governance, it is argued, is now necessary.

Yet the authors raise the question of whether this form of governance has the capacity to prevail in the face of difficult issues of equity.  Sharing in the tax base, setting wage standards, ensuring environmental justices: these issues of equity are particularly difficult to address in a regional way.

As they write:

“Yet the shift toward governance and away from government may result in decision-making paralysis and diminished political accountability….Governance networks, which ostensibly promote access to governing, may mirror or magnify power and resource imbalances in society.”

People may have a seat at the table, but is that seat equal for all? And, on the flip side, can those seats be equal and still get anything done?

Taking one example from BRR chair Margaret Weir, the authors point to the difficulties inherent in one form of regional (or networked) governance: metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) when tackling equity issues.

In a 2009 study “Collaboration is Not Enough: Virtuous Cycles of Reform in Transportation Policy,” Weir and her colleagues examined two different efforts by MPOs to move transportation-related projects from drawing board to policy change, one in Los Angeles and one in Chicago.

The study focused on the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), a 1990s law that aimed to reduce the harmful effect of transportation policy on urban areas. It deliberately brought many new voices to the table, including a variety of nonprofits with the hope that the concerns of ordinary consumers would “prod policy makers to consider the broader social and economic impacts of transportation.”

The authors find that though broad networks are important, key power brokers, often in the form of leading business/civic organizations—need to be at the table in order to move reforms forward.

As one Los Angeles activist put it, “Stakeholder groups can progress internally—reaching agreement, making recommendations—but there is no authority to implement them.”

Reckhow and Lester argue that when trying to implement regional change “no matter how inclusive and collaborative the networks or innovative the plans for regional transportation, they will produce little real change if not backed by vertical power.”

Another form of governance emerging is community-based regionally focused networks.  This form tries to address the tendency of other forms of governance to gloss over issues of equity. BRR member Manuel Pastor argues that groups of community-based organizations should work together across metropolitan areas. He points to successful efforts in Los Angeles when the city built the new Staples Center downtown.

As the Reckhow and Lester note:

Pastor argues that progressive actors in Los Angeles use a perspective of the regional scale not as a means to create new formal institutions, but to find critical leverage points at which to seek specific redressal against persistent inequality. A primary example of this form of regionalism is the community benefits agreement created around the construction of a new basketball stadium and convention center in downtown Los Angeles.

In that example, housing, labor, and nonprofit groups came together and successfully negotiated with the Los Angeles County Community Redevelopment Agency and the private-sector developer to provide jobs to local residents, ensure that stadium jobs paid a living wage, and contribute to an affordable housing fund. In his recent book, Just Growth, Pastor and Chris Brenner analyze this trend in more detail.

Yet these examples are still relatively rare and the jury is out about their effectiveness, mainly because these networks are still just one of many voices. They must compete to be heard among municipal governments, chambers of congress, and individual voters.

One lesson learned from a review of the research, the authors argue is:

that power imbalances are pervasive…. Business-led regional associations have vastly greater resources to construct and project their “vision” of regional problems. In this way, they may have more control over how “equity” problems are framed at the regional scale. Like the advocacy groups attempting to influence global governance, community-based organizations and progressive actors are often forced into direct political actions or protest.

The groups, in other words, don’t all sit down at the same table and work it out. Community-based groups focused on living wages, affordable housing, or other issues of equity are forced instead to protest as a bloc to gain the attention of networks of pro-business or economic pro-growth groups.

Regional governance has a long and storied history. Efforts to annex suburban governments to the central city were an early attempt at regional governance, and even at the turn of the twentieth century there were moves to unify metropolitan governments.  More recently, as the authors note, proponents of the “Smart Growth” movement have argued that a host of social problems can be ameliorated “through stronger institutional constraints (on the actions of individual local governments) at the metropolitan scale.”

Networked governance holds some promise, with a reality check. Reckhow and Lester end their article with an alternative perspective on networked governance in a metro area:

First, new institutions at the regional level—such as an MPO, a regional network, or a regional civic organization—are analogous to global institutions. Both sets of institutions must compete for legitimacy and authority with well-established political entities (i.e., governments).

Thus, regional equity advocates may have to pursue a dual reform strategy through regional institutions— pushing to strengthen the capacity of the new institution while also advocating for policies to enhance regional equity, even if such efforts are run through traditional venues or scales.

Second, much like the global advocacy networks, as long as regional equity proponents remain on the edges of metropolitan forums, they will have to compete in a fragmented and multilayered system, taking their victories where they can.

For network governance to help advocates build on their sporadic successes, proponents must not ignore the fundamentally political and strategic nature of the network itself.”


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