Reaching for Regionalism

by Mariia Zimmerman


Last week I had the opportunity to spend several days at the Sustainable Communities Leadership Academy with different regional collaboratives from across the country who are working on climate resiliency and adaptation. These diverse groups of public and private sector partners, academics and non-profits have come together in places like South Florida where rising sea level is already impacting drinking water and transportation systems; California where state legislation both requires better coordination between environmental, transportation and economic planning AND is generating over a $1 billion in new revenues to fund climate solutions; and New England where several regional collaboratives are working to address infrastructure systems shown to be especially vulnerable in recent years with events such as Superstorm Sandy.

The Sustainable Communities Leadership Academy  is part of the Institute for Sustainable Communities’ exciting new effort to help regional collaboratives that are working on climate resiliency. MZ Strategies was asked to share reflections on the history and key elements for successful regional collaboration. During my time as Deputy Director for the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at HUD, I saw firsthand the innovative work that is occurring in large and small regions in rural parts of the country including by Tribal governments in South Dakota and Arizona, in the nation’s largest mega-regions like San Francisco, the tri-state New York, and in the booming southern regions such as Houston and Miami-Dade.

If you haven’t noticed, we are in a time of “renewed regionalism” and the common theme across these efforts is how to integrate issues to better respond to the complexity of the challenges that no single jurisdiction alone can address. Climate adaptation and resiliency clearly fits right in this wheelhouse -- whether collaborating to recover from a major regional weather event or coordinating to reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions.

This was also a great opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the great work of regionalists like Ethan Seltzer, Bruce Katz, Bob Yaro, Kathryn Foster, and Robert Fishman (among others). I found it fascinating (and disheartening?) that the 2000 Brookings Institution publication “Reflections on Regionalism” is as salient today as it was then, despite the phenomenal investment by the Obama administration to support regional and place-based work.

Through this work we can see an evolving history of regionalism:

The History of Regionalism shows its emergence in the 1920s with growth of suburbs and its evolution into more integrated and collaborative governance models today. (Source: MZ Strategies, LLC 2014)

The History of Regionalism shows its emergence in the 1920s with growth of suburbs and its evolution into more integrated and collaborative governance models today. (Source: MZ Strategies, LLC 2014)

In looking at the efforts that have succeeded, and those that have failed, regional expert Kathryn A. Foster has noted 5 different types of authority that are central to regional governance models. To paraphrase these include:

  1.  Planning Authority – do you have authority to undertake cross-jurisdictional planning for a particular geography or issue(s)? 
  2. Professional Authority – are you seen as an authority to provide technical assistance and educational services, develop and track performance metrics and other data? 
  3. Regulatory Authority – do you have the authority to review and approve local plans, grant permits or waivers, etc.? 
  4. Financial Authority – do you have the authority to tax, toll, issue bonds or other funding tools? 
  5. Political Authority – are you seen as a political body through involvement of elected officials and/or do you have the authority to represent the region with state or federal agencies? (K.A. Foster in Regional Planning in America: Practice and Prospect, edited by E. Seltzer and A. Carbonell, 2011)

What is fascinating is how regional collaboratives may have these authorities delegated to them by the federal, state, or local governments, or they may derive them through building technical capacity, partnerships, and leveraging the assets and existing authorities that they do have. Thus, we create our own destiny, even in the world of regional planning!

Over the coming months, I look forward to working with ISC to publish a piece that further describes the key factors for successful regional collaboratives. Stay tuned, or drop me a note if this is a topic you have a particular interest in or are doing work to analyze. Perhaps we can collaborate on the art of collaboration!

Additionally, the American Planning Association’s Regional Planning and Intergovernmental Division is another great venue for sharing ideas and best practices. To learn more: visit the Division’s website