Whither the Region? Good Question.

Robert Goodspeed's picture

Last week I attended the Society of American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH) conference in Portland, Maine. The conference attracted a variety of notable planners and historians to my hometown for sessions on everything from radical 1970s public participation exercises to best practices in waterfront planning.

At the conference, outgoing group president and historian Greg Hise gave a provocative lecture titled "Whither the Region, or Why Ought There to Be an ‘R' in SACRPH?" In the talk he described how he believed there was a declining interest in the organization in studying regions, pointing out that the word was declining in use in the titles of papers presented at recent conferences.

His remarks spurred some interesting conversation from the attendees. Some suggested regional studies were still taking place, just under different names. Others pointed out there is not much true regional planning taking place in the U.S., and therefore studies of planning tend to focus the scale that planning actually takes place: state, city, or neighborhood. Greg rightfully responded that historians should not simply accept the categories created by planners. If the region is still a meaningful economic, social, or political entity (on which most seemed to agree) then historians should study regions.

I partly agree with those who thought the region is alive and well, just under a new name. The U.S. population is highly urbanized, with some 80% living in metropolitan areas, more than at any point in our past. Not only are more people living in cities, these metropolitan areas have often ballooned to unprecedented size. For example, the Washington Board of Trade uses the terms regional and metropolitan nearly interchangeably and uses a regional map that extends nearly fifty miles from downtown Washington. How would this map compare with a map of the mid-Atlantic region? Clearly the previously clear distinction between cities and regions is becoming less meaningful as our cities have increased in population and size.

Nonetheless, I thought I'd post here some of my reactions to Greg's talk and the subsequent discussion. I think the issue is important beyond the scope of one academic organization.

Although there may be a limited amount of regional decision-making in the U.S., there's a significant amount of regional study and some planning taking place within a variety of types of organizations. These groups range from regional planning agencies, councils of governments, public infrastructure agencies like regional transit or utility providers, and business organizations. Cursory web searching turns up a large number of public regional planning organizations, and a sample will convey their diversity: Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, South Florida Regional Planning Council, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, and the West Michigan Regional Planning Commission. In addition, chamber of commerce organizations, boards of trades, and other private organizations are also generally metropolitan or regional in scope.

There are so many such organizations they even have their own lobby in Washington, the National Council of Regional Councils, of which both regional and metropolitan organizations can be members. These organizations seem to vary according to state level policies. Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin, for example seem to have an unusual number of these groups. While the amount of actual authority they have can range widely, these organizations have an institutionalized role in large scale planning, particularly related to transportation and air quality.

If we concede there exists regional study, coordination, and some planning, there are a few pragmatic reasons for the limited number of studies at a regional scope.

First, the ideas of early planning advocates interested in regions have waned as the profession has matured. A source of ideas for Lewis Mumford and the influential New York Regional Plan Association was Patrick Geddes, a thinker who has all but been forgotten by younger planners. Any history of regional planning will mention Geddes, who thought of cities as embedded in a larger regional context. Although the profession has gained a much richer urban understanding in the ensuing years, along the way early planners' insistence on a regional scope has been diluted.

Second, the writing of history reflects the way information is recorded. Archives are maintained at the city and state levels, but generally not at the regional level. Big city archives and newspapers provide logical starting points for urban research, but neglect suburban growth and development. The documents necessary for a true regional analysis are spread among multiple small newspapers, various political jurisdictions, and private organizations.

Lastly, from the point of view of professional history, I think another trend also partly explains the dearth of interest in the region. For nearly a generation after they began to decline in significance, intellectuals of all stripes continued to study the central city to the exclusion to attention to the burgeoning suburbs. A series of suburban studies have brought a new metropolitan scope to history, with such works as Sam Bass Warner's Streetcar Suburbs (1962), Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier (1985), Joel Garreau's Edge Cities (1992), being some early innovators, and today the field has expanded so much we can now discuss the "new suburban history." In a sense, this work was a necessary antecedent to robust studies of a metropolitan or regional scope. Some recent work, like Hise's own Magnetic Los Angeles (1997) and Zach Schrag's Great Society Subway (2006), begins to synthesize urban and suburban history to present history at the scale of the metropolitan region.

What do you think: are regional distinctions still important? Why do we hear so little about them? Should we plan for regions even if planning authority is splintered among jurisdictions?

Robert Goodspeed is a PhD student at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.



Regional Planning is better than parochial planning

Just as a global approach is the best way to address climate change, regional planning is the best way to accomplish effective planning policy. The problem with fracturing planning policy over several jurisdictions is that a neighboring jurisdiction can completely undo the good work of the rest of the region. When inner suburbs adopt restrictive growth policies, development merely leap-frogs into the next county, thus exacerbating sprawl. A regional approach could limit leap frogging, as well as provide true regional, integrated transit options.

One should consider a tale of two Washingtons. The Washington, DC, metro area is spread over two states and one non-state territory (the Dist. of Columbia). Furthermore, DC's unique status as a Federally-chartered city allows Congress to intervene in any city decision. It is no surprise that planning in the DC metro area is a mess with different jurisdictions each pursuing their own policies with little thought as to how transportation networks integrate or how development restrictions promote leap-frog development into even farther exurbs.

As a result the transportation connections between the Maryland and Virginia suburbs (the suburbs are where most of the people live and where most of the economic activity occurs) are literally few and far between. One result of restrictions in inner Fairfax and Montgomery Counties is that development is driven beyond to Loundoun and Frederick Counties, respectively, creating even more massive jams in the former counties, which now must serve all the newly created pass-through traffic.

As for public education, the jurisdictional fracturing has created shocking dichotomies with some of the nation's best performing public school systems (Fairfax and Montgomery) bordering one of America's worst-performing public school systems, DCPS. A regional school agency would not only balance out the per-pupil spending, but could also help racially integrate DC metro area schools (after Brown, the Supreme Court ruled that inter-district integration was not Constitutionally necessary).

Contrast this with Seattle, Washington. Seattle and most of its suburbs are in King County and many planning initiatives are executed at the county level. As a result, the bus system that covers the city seamlessly covers the suburbs as well. The urban growth boundary was also a political action by the county in 1992 preserving the rural character of eastern King County. Additionally, King County frequently chooses to levy extra taxes on itself to pay for regional transit projects. As a result, money is drawn from the city and from the suburbs to fund transit projects that service both. This is not to say that metropolitan Seattle is a planner's paradise; indeed, it also suffers from sprawl, but it also has the political structure to address its problems at a regional level.

Though we could more effectively address regional issues in a regional body, it's only fair that I identify some disadvantages to regional planning. The main disadvantage is the same disadvantage of large-jurisdiction government: democratic power is further removed from the citizen. Some areas also have different priorities and regional planning is bound to reject the priorities of every area at least some of the time. If smart growth policies are a priority in one area, but sprawl is a priority in another, the smart growth-oriented area could be subjected to sprawl policies. One jurisdiction may already be so suburban that its citizens are absolutely unwilling to fund transit of any means and a regional body may thus be unable to provide transit options to the willing communities.

The list goes on and on, since this is a topic about which one could write a dissertation. However, to sum it up, regional planning seems like the best way to address regional issues (planning is always a regional issue), but there are a few drawbacks.

Mike Lydon's picture

Great post!

Thanks for the post Robert. As a fellow Mainer I was hoping to make this conference, but had a schedule conflict!

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