Learn and explore the fundamental concepts of urban planning.

What Is Regional Planning?

Regional planning is most commonly practiced to address specific issues that cross local jurisdictional boundaries, like transportation or watershed protection. In other examples, regional planning offers a holistic approach to the interconnected systems and dynamics that shape physical and cultural landscapes.

Las Vegas Sprawl

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Regional planning is a form of planning defined by geographic area—usually comprising a land area that encompasses multiple cities and counties. In the United States, regions can also cross state lines. In part because of that large geographical scope, regional planning can have many meanings and take many forms. The political support for regional planning is also a constant source of fluctuation and debate.

Some of the slipperiness inherent to a definition for regional planning originates from the many synonyms for the term region. The U.S. Census Bureau uses a variety of specifically defined terms to describe regions, including both metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas. The Census Bureau is notorious for arbitrarily defining these terms and for allowing definitions to persist well beyond the onset of obsolescence. The commonly used phrase metropolitan area and the less commonly used phrase urban agglomeration also replace the word region from time to time. Conurbation, a term coined by Patrick Geddes in the 1915 book Cities In Evolution, is yet another synonym for region

Much of the variety implied by the term regional planning originates in the distinctions between regional planning efforts that focus on specific issues that cut across those regions—like transportation, air and water quality, economic development, and housing—as compared to regional planning efforts that holistically address region-wide environmental, social, and economic issues.

One example of a holistic approach to regional planning is perhaps most famously exemplified in the United States by the work of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), which, over the course of the organization's long history, has published four Regional Plans, each recommending a vision for a region expanding around New York City into the states of New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York. The fourth Regional Plan was published in 2017, following editions published in 1929, the 1960s, and 1996. The RPA is limited to the role of advisor, however, in creating these four plans, in addition to advocating for action on numerous other regional issues. Holistic regional planning with more legal power includes a few examples of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), such as the Metropolitan Council, in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota, and the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) process in California.

MPOs owe their existence to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962, which requires states to establish MPOs to manage transportation issues in regions (MPOs are also the regulatory power that oversees California's RHNA process, mentioned above). Thus, much of the regional planning power in the country focuses on transportation, especially automobile transportation. Public transit, on the other hand, often suffers from a lack of regional authority for planning and operations, as perhaps most infamously exemplified by Detroit and its surrounding suburbs.

Interstate compacts represent another form of regional planning power. Many interstate compacts are organized to correspond to the land area bounded by watersheds, potentially spanning multiple regions and states and regulating planning and development. Interstate compacts are also employed to plan and operate intercity rail. 

Quasi-governmental organizations, councils of government, and regional planning councils/commissions also exist in various forms around the United States, with varying powers to make and implement regional plans.

For the majority of U.S. history, however, states have tended to neglect the potential for regional planning to determine the future direction of the built and natural environments. Sprawling development patterns and a lack of strategic coordination between local governments have resulted from a laissez faire approach to regional planning. Throughout U.S. history, race and class dynamics have forged the development and migration patterns of regions: The "white flight" of the mid- and late- 20th century contributed to the growth of the suburbs with affluent populations and the decline and neglect of core urban areas. The 21st century has reversed some of those demographic trends, with many urban areas experiencing gentrification and displacement as a result of a trend toward urbanization, while poverty has increased in the suburban parts of regions. Local planning decisions, like the dominance of single-family zoning, have contributed to these regional trends in the absence of regional planning power.

The historic pattern of regional growth that sprawls out from central urban areas into surrounding open spaces and agricultural land—with freeways linking previously distant reaches of growing regional footprints—is creating numerous challenges and negative outcomes in the 21st century. Pollution and climate change, gridlock and congestion, and inequality are all defining characteristics of the history, or lack thereof, of regional planning in the United States. Lack of thoughtful regional planning efforts or not, a large proportion of U.S. population and economic growth predicted by 2050 is expected to take place around the edges of the largest of the regions in the United States.

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will also necessitate thoughtful regional planning. Remote work, e-commerce, increased car ownership, federal stimulus programs, and new political momentum to address inequality are all poised to redefine the terms of regional planning in the post-pandemic future.