Metropolitan Planners Leaning In to Make Regions Great

by Mariia Zimmerman


A dominant view these days is that any success of efforts to tackle climate change, social inequality, economic resiliency, public health and immigration is up to cities.  This has been true even over the past decade and with Republican control in a majority of state houses and the federal government not only will cities emerge as innovation leaders but also as places of resistance. A recent article by David A. Graham in The Atlantic provides a sobering look at the growing divide between “blue cities” and “red states.”  

Mariia Zimmerman was a contributing author and reviewer for the new Emerging Trends in Regional Planning Report released in January 2017 by APA.

Mariia Zimmerman was a contributing author and reviewer for the new Emerging Trends in Regional Planning Report released in January 2017 by APA.

To me, this is simply one more depressing indicator regarding the lack of unity that historically made our nation great and allowed us to once upon a time defeat facism, build the Interstate Highway system and Transcontinental Railroad, send men, women and even dogs into outerspace, and revive urban centers after decades of decay and disinvestment (to name just a few).  Yet, cities are not alone as change agents. Scratch the surface and we see that our spirit of collaboration and ingenuity remains in ample evidence not only in America’s great cities, but also at the regional level in many metropolitan areas and small towns.

Maybe it’s due to the fact I grew up a farm girl and moved to the city but the regional scale continues to fascinate me for its ability to address geographic, demographic and economic diversity that crosses individual jurisdictions, despite its opaque nature. We inherently recognize regions (e.g. when traveling and asked where you live people will say “Los Angeles, or Washington DC, or Richmond” even if they live in a surrounding suburban community), but most of the public doesn’t know that regional agencies exist, much less what purpose they may serve.  For regional planners this is a blessing and a curse.

Two new resources spotlight ways planners working at the regional and metropolitan level are "leaning-in" to solve complex social, environmental and economic issues through better use of data, improved partnerships and collaboration, and a mix of innovation, tenacity and leadership. “Emerging Trends in Regional Planning,*” released last month by the American Planning Association, celebrates the ways that regional planning is evolving across the country and spotlights regions large and small who are tackling water and land resource issues, economic development and housing issues, climate change and public health issues all through integrated planning strategies.  

Regional planners recognize we cannot do this work alone. New technologies and the commitment of resources to public engagement are resulting in visions, plans, and strategies more deeply embraced by a diverse set of public and private partners who are instrumental to their implementation. For instance, public agencies are partnering with private entrepreneurs to create new applications for using data to improve government transparency, educate consumers on costs, allow commuters to better use the transportation system and help taxpayers see where their money goes. Regional agencies are partnering with local jurisdictions through Regional Livable Communities-type programs to address neighborhood-scale issues and build the capacity for local partners to solve their own transportation, land use or housing challenges.

New federal planning requirements will take effect later this year to require Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to use performance measures. The idea behind this requirement is a simple one. The federal interest for investing trillions of dollars in transportation is to improve system safety and performance, and hopefully improve other things, too, like the environment and economy. Instead of providing states a blank check to build whatever, Americans should know what it is we are getting for this rather large investment. Do the things we invest in actually make a difference in meeting national, state and regional goals?

A new national survey by Transportation for America (T4A) details the experience of metropolitan planners to develop and use performance measures in regional transportation plans and funding decisions. The result, unfortunately, is a bit of a mixed bag.  Even prior to the new federal performance measures being in place, 75% of the 104 MPOs surveyed by T4A report using performance measures in some fashion. However, only 30% of these MPOs use performance measures to evaluate projects for investment. I get it. This is sort of like how every January I tell my husband I’ve set a goal to lose 20 pounds in the next 12 months, but then don’t change my eating or exercise habits, nor step on a scale. But unlike me, even those MPOs not currently using performance measures or who are not linking these to project evaluation would like to do better.  

Specific areas where they are plowing new ground is in developing metrics on public health and social equity. T4A reports “When it comes to additional measures outside of MAP-21’s modest new requirements, nearly half of MPOs surveyed chose equity and/or health as one of the five additional goals they are interested in measuring and assessing.” This is really impressive and a big change from just 5 years ago.

Both the T4A survey and the APA Emerging Trends report confirm what has been my experience in working with regional planning agencies for almost two decades. Size doesn’t matter when it comes to innovation and performance. Those regional planning agencies fortunate to have strong leadership from their Executive Directors and Senior Management, their Boards and/or their Policy Committees are achieving amazing things even with limited budgets and staff. The results are improved quality of life, greater economic competitiveness and local communities more resilient to economic or environmental threats. To paraphrase T4A, public agency culture and organizational structure may pose the biggest barriers to performance. The good thing about this, is that these are solvable barriers --- and ones that don’t rely on state or federal mandates, funding or permission.

Join MZ Strategies at the upcoming National American Planning Association Conference

New York City, May 5-8 2017.

Mariia Zimmerman, Principal of MZ Strategies, LLC, is Vice-Chair for APA’s Regional and Intergovernmental Planning Division, you can catch her during the conference speaking at the following sessions:

·         May 5 (8:30 am – 5:00 pm)          Regional Livable Communities Forum sponsored by Lincoln Institute for Land Policy and APA’s Regional and Intergovernmental Planning Division. Forum is free to attend, and not part of the National Planning Conference, click here to register

·         May 7 (9:30 – 10:45 am)               New Models for Regional Economic Resilience (Session# 9108613)

·         May 8 (10:30 – 11:45 am)        Private-Sector Planners as Change Agents (Session #9109446) 

Register for the APA National Planning Conference at: https://www.planning.org/conference/

* Note:  A huge shout-out to my colleagues, Rocky Piro, Bob Leiter and Sharon Rooney for leading this yeoman’s effort of volunteerism and scholarship to produce the Emerging Trends report!