What Have We Learned about Building Resilient Regions?

After_Aerial_Photo_of_Greenway12.31.2013 |  By BRR Director Margaret Weir

When we launched the Building Resilient Regions network nearly ten years ago, urban analysts and advocates had high hopes that regionalism would be the way to address the problems of metropolitan areas. Our task was to assess regionalism –– well aware of its vague definition –– as a strategy for addressing critical challenges facing metropolitan areas. We divided our network into four groups examining economic growth, infrastructure and fast growth, immigration, and poverty.

What have we learned?

Perhaps the best way to convey the work we have done is to consider what we have learned about each of the components of our name: Building, Resilient, and Regions.

Let’s start with regions. When we launched the project we knew that it made sense to study regions. The economic integration of regions and the fact of regional labor markets were clear. Our work has only reinforced our conviction that the regional scale is the appropriate one for examining a host of questions that used to be considered “urban.” The majority of immigrants now live in suburbs and a majority of poor Americans live in suburbs. Regionals are the appropriate scale for studying not just economic questions, but demographic and social ones as well.

Resilience has proven less easy to pin down. Our group initially adopted the name Building Successful Regions. We liked the switch to resilience because it acknowledged that regions confront different challenges. We wanted to get away from holding up a single model –– such as Portland or the Twin Cities. Regions can move forward in multiple ways, despite their challenges.

Yet, questions abounded about how to know resilience when you see it. The group examining economic resilience took a quantitative definition: for regions that experienced an economic shock, resilience was a return to growth path after five years. Others disputed the idea that five years was an appropriate time frame for assessing resilience and that the growth path was too narrow a measure. Others looked a resilience as a capacity that regions could cultivate: the work on poverty, for example, defined resilience as institutional adaptation to new needs in new places. The resilience capacity index on the website, drew on a wide range of literature to create a single measure of resilience capacity.

These differing approaches touch on an additional tension in identifying regional resilience: are we talking about place resilience or people resilience? While much of the economic work focuses on the place, ultimately, a resilient region is one that builds the capacities of its residents so that prosperity is shared and opportunities for second and third chances are plentiful.

What about our third focus — the “building” –– of resilient regions? Much of the research on regionalism emphasizes collaboration among important regional actors as the key to regional governance. While we highlight the benefits of collaboration, our research also shows that the hortatory emphasis on regionalism misses some of the most important aspects of governance. Regional governance must work through governments, which ultimately have the authority to change laws. Understanding the interests of governmental actors is vital for efforts to build regional resilience. For example, the interests of local governments differ in a metro such as Denver, with a relatively small number of large municipalities and a wide distribution of the low-income population when compared with Chicago, with many small municipalities with more concentration of the poor.

Our work also shows that critical aspects of regional governance take place, not in regions themselves, but in states and in Washington, DC. Federal and state policies set the stage for regional action with their provisions for the availability of resources, the criteria for federal grants, and the requirements for participation. All of these influence what regional actors can do. Our research demonstrates that federal grants may have perverse results. For example, competitive grant requirements can reward regions that do not include equity considerations in their grant applications. In the worst case, exclusionary regions with little conflict can emerge as winners but regions where the efforts of voices for low-income communities create conflict may be excluded. This is particularly likely when conflicts make it difficult for regions to present a unified face to the federal agency. For example, conflicts over transit blocked Miami’s efforts to win transit funds but Orlando’s, which did not include the voices of low-income residents, succeeded.

Regulations and policy designs determined by state and federal policymakers can limit local innovation and saddle regions with unnecessary burdens. The continuation of predatory lending long after many local governments had sought to end it provides a case in point. As this case suggests, federal and state policy designs that confine the scope of regional action often reflect the work of powerful interests who can “venue shop.” If they don’t like something that localities do, they can go to the state or to Washington to change it.

Finally, cities, not regions, currently bear much of the institutional and organizational responsibility for addressing needs of low-income populations and incorporating immigrants. Regional resilience may require acknowledging this role and strengthening city-based organizations.

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