Celebrating Regional Planning’s Golden Anniversary

by Mariia Zimmerman


We’ve been celebrating lots of big anniversaries in America the last couple of years. Everything from the Beatles invasion to Civil Rights. Less on the pop culture radar are important anniversaries for those in the planning and transportation professions. Metropolitan planning was formalized in the 1962 Federal-Aid Highway Act and its Section 134 planning provisionsset the stage for Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs).  In 1967, the Metropolitan Council and Metropolitan Transit Commission were created in Minnesota’s Twin Cities region. A little over ten years later, the first (and only) regionally-elected regional planning organization – Metro - was created in Portland, Oregon. But Metro was actually the evolution of the Columbia Region Association of Governments (CRAG) created in 1966.

The Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments was established in 1957 and plays a critical role to plan regional development and transportation systems as well as engaging and educating elected officials, the business community and public stakeholders on housing, public health and safety, and economic competitiveness issues (Photo: MZimmerman, 2015 - Region Forward)

The Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments was established in 1957 and plays a critical role to plan regional development and transportation systems as well as engaging and educating elected officials, the business community and public stakeholders on housing, public health and safety, and economic competitiveness issues (Photo: MZimmerman, 2015 - Region Forward)

Last week was the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs and I found myself in Harrisburg, PA where the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission (TCRPC) was celebrating its 50th anniversary. All this got me thinking about the growth of regionalism fifty years ago and the continued need for regions to work together to address an increasingly complex set of problems. In some places, this is happening and is fascinating to watch. In others, parochialism continues to impede progress.

The Institute for Sustainable Communities has been working with a set of regions that are each working collaboratively to address climate adaptation and resilience, to site one example. Another is the work MZ Strategies elevated in the Transportation for America publication: The Innovative MPO which shows that large and small metropolitan planning organizations are using transportation as a lever to tackle much larger economic, social and environmental issues playing out at the regional scale. Later this year, the American Planning Association’s Regional and Intergovernmental Planning Division will be releasing a new publication spotlighting best practices in regional planning.

Yet, we also see continued threats and regional back-peddling. Last year, Cumberland County pulled out of TCRPC choosing to go it alone thereby reducing the ability to foster more economically-efficient solutions in the Harrisburg region. In the Twin Cities, suburban officials call for dismantling the Metropolitan Council. In Metropolitan Washington DC, the regional transit authority -WMATA – which has served as a pulmonary artery for hundreds of thousands of commuters each day is on life support. Yet, forty years this spring the agency was created to deliver on the regional vision for high-quality rail transit that would connect the growing suburbs to the nation’s capital.

This tension – between the need for addressing complex issues at the regional scale- and the challenge of working together across jurisdictions has been at the root of regional planning for at least the last fifty years. I’ve described in other work, the regional planning paradox. On the one hand, regions are completely natural. We see regional systems in nature, in transportation, in job and housing markets. Yet, regional agencies are a bit of an enigma, at least here in the United States where our constitution recognizes federal, state, local government and individual rights or authority but not the regional scale. For regionalism to succeed, authority must be delegated from the state or federal government, or ceded from local jurisdictions. We see this constant push and pull, and success in no way guarantees protection. Regional planning agencies often held up as role models (the Met Council in Minnesota, Portland’s Metro and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in San Francisco) have each been the target of attempts at the legislature or ballot box to limit their authority, change their structure or even dismantle the organizations.

Yet perhaps never before has the need for regional collaboration been greater. Demographic change, climate change, economic change, and technological change are all happening simultaneously and a rapid pace. These are issues that no single jurisdiction can tackle on its own. Regional collaboration allows for smart and efficient leveraging of resources and opportunities to create greater economic competitiveness and prosperity for all jurisdictions.

The Great Recession ushered in a new era of regional planning. The federal government stepped forward to provide funding to encourage greater cross-sector collaboration and deeper public engagement in regional planning. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Sustainable Communities Initiative provided $250 million in grants to over 200 communities. For the first time, integrated regional planning began to take root with intentional coordination of transportation with land use, housing and economic development. Emerging issues such as public health, food access and climate adaptation began to be considered in regards to these issues. Emerging today in long-overdue recognition that the built environment has a profound effect on people’s access to opportunity, we see regional planning working to tackle the intractable challenge of racially-concentrated poverty .

https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/EveryPlaceCounts_Final.pdf

The US Department of Transportation has stepped forward as an unlikely leader on regional planning. As noted, federal transportation legislation codified metropolitan planning in the early 1960s. Subsequent federal transportation bills continued to refine planning requirements and provide one of the few consistent sources of funding for planning. Yes, there is much more that could be done to empower MPOs including incentives to consolidate MPOs where it makes sense. But, this sustained federal transportation planning focus has provided an important backbone and leverage point for regional planning.

While the entry point is transportation, the process and outcomes can be much more than just how to get someone from Point A to Point B.  USDOT’s latest Ladders of Opportunity Initiative – the Every Place Counts Design Challenge – recognizes that past transportation projects may have damaged communities or no longer serve the need for which they were designed. We’ve consistently heard from this administration – both under Secretary LaHood and now Secretary Foxx – that transportation is a means to an end beyond just mobility. Regional planning is the key ingredient to recognizing this promise and when done well it engages local jurisdictions, state agencies and a variety of community stakeholders in the process and implementation.

In fact, despite its more than 50-year history, implementation is something that few regional agencies have the authority to do. By its very nature, regionalism is the art of collaboration. Here’s hoping the next 50 years will result in greater innovation and achievement in addressing the complex and inter-related challenges we regions today and those yet to come.