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What's Wrong With Regionalism?

Regional planning makes sense, but it won't just happen because it's "good planning."
June 10, 2002, 12am PDT | Rick Bishop, AICP
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Rick BishopWith an existing population of 17 million, Southern California will gain 7 million more people by 2020. The impacts of this growth, experts contend, are significant and will eventually bring the region to a planning precipice in terms of its collective ability to maintain, much less enhance, quality of life for residents and employers alike. Local governments - the nearly 220 cities and counties that comprise the seven-county region in our part of the state - are charged with planning for the social, economic, and environmental needs within their boundaries. But whether individual jurisdictions are "well-planned," the cumulative impacts of growth on the region's future sustainability are compelling. Western Riverside County, for example, will double its current one million population in 20 years, and double again twenty years after that. Challenges to the subregion's ability to accommodate this growth and provide adequate infrastructure, including roads, water, schools, libraries, public safety, and open space should concern more than just planners; they are critical if Western Riverside will have any hope of advancing itself from an economic perspective. And quality of life starts with a strong economy.

Despite the continuing discussion about the impacts of future growth, few seem to promote or engage in exercises that focus any significant attention on how best to accommodate it. It's hard enough to think long-term at the local level; regionally, it's darn near impossible.

Why is it that long-term regional growth planning processes lack significant engagement? Why is it that discussions of the future of Southern California usually generate only a smattering of interest, when discussions of whether a jurisdiction should allow a convenience store on the corner bring out the masses? There are probably a myriad of reasons, and a few are offered below:

1. The future's too far away
Let's face it. The doom and gloom growth mantra chanted by regional planners during the past 10, 20 and 30 years is a tired act. Although some might be astonished by the fact that "Southern California will grow by 7 million people in the next twenty years" most people could care less about what happens in two years, much less twenty. Generally, if it doesn't happen in our literal backyard, we don't sweat it. And our short term memory - what did you have for lunch last Tuesday? - speaks volumes about our general inability to even remember, much less learn, from the past as we plan for the future. That's why most long term regional plans use assumptions mired on recent or present trends.

2. What have you done for me lately?
There simply aren't too many planners and/or elected officials who can maintain their popularity, and thus their term of office/job, with promises like "If we do this today, we'll be better off in 20 to 30 years." Simply put, our collective focus on the present is a great barrier to our ability to plan for the future.

3. Regional planners are no fun
Really. When was the last time anyone heard a regional planner say anything positive about the future? "Urban sprawl will continue, traffic congestion will worsen, water quality is declining, etc." Who wants to be around THAT?

4. Being for or against growth isn't the issue
Unfortunately, most discussions about growth usually deteriorate into one of these two camps. The result is often that we lose sight of the most important aspect of growth - how to accommodate it with appropriate levels of infrastructure. Growth is inevitable, and if we properly plan for it and implement our plans, growth in itself is rather mute. And current popular planning terms, such as "smart growth," "neo-traditional development," and "urban villages," while well-intentioned, often trigger discussions about slow or no growth, or are otherwise somewhat limiting with regard to their applicability to broader, regional issues.

5. Where are the Planners?
Notwithstanding the fact that we're not the life of the party (see No. 3 above), the fact is that most discussions about regional issues occurs without much, if any, participation by local planners. Regional discussions are often confined - usually by circumstance, not by design - to regional "groupies," and the byproducts are plans developed without local perspective and input. Lacking such, regional efforts are usually DOA when transmitted to local jurisdictions for endorsement.

6. "We already visioned at the office"
Local jurisdictions have already done the "Vision Thing." It's called the General Plan, and represents a jurisdiction's blueprint for how a city or county envisions its future growth. While it all looks pretty good and balanced at the local level, modeling feedback on the cumulative impacts of general plan implementation demonstrate the significant regional imbalances in jobs and housing, worsening congestion, air quality issues, affordable housing, and the myriad of other urban ails that usually trigger calls for regional involvement. Still, the regional planner is charged with the nasty task of conveying to the local jurisdiction that their vision lacks, well, vision.

7. The "layering effect"
Just about anytime well-intended regional plans are developed, the catcalls against "regional government" start up. Local jurisdictions remain unthreatened by "regional governance" coming from loose knit agencies that lack specific authority, but strongly resist the additional layer of bureaucracy that might come such an agencies are given teeth. But resisting regional authority does not make regulations go away; they just rest with the next higher level, which in most cases is the state. Regionally-developed solutions by local officials should certainly be more palatable than mandates handed down by the state.

8. "What's in it for me?"
Perhaps more important than any of the above-mentioned matters presenting a constraint to successful growth visioning is money. Local jurisdictions throughout the state are already hamstrung in their ability to generate revenues, and one of the few methods they can use to generate funds for even basic operational and capital improvements is through the land use process. Competition for revenue generators in many locales is sometimes prioritized in the land use process, resulting in uses that might bolster coffers, but are far from what may - from a planning perspective - be the best use of land. But to engage in any substantive regional planning discussions without prioritizing fiscal issues up front is a prescription for failure. Collaboration on regional planning can only occur if fiscal incentives are enough to produce voluntary changes in local land use approaches and philosophies.

For all of the clear evidence pointing to the need for more regional collaboration and planning, it just won't happen because it's "good planning." These and other factors need to be addressed before true regional visioning can occur.

Rick Bishop is the Executive Director of the Western Riverside Council of Governments, and has over 20 years of intergovernmental experience in the public and private sector. During this time he has directed and assisted in the developpment of numerous countywide programs addressing growth, in diverse subject areas such as growth management, congestion management, air quality, and integrated waste management.

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