Regional Planning Through Local Action

by Mariia Zimmerman


Seattle at night. (Photo: M. Zimmerman, 2012)

Seattle at night. (Photo: M. Zimmerman, 2012)

I’m headed this week to Seattle for the American Planning Association's annual conference. It’s always a good time to reconnect with several thousand others who are working to make their communities more livable, inclusive and economically strong. While yes it’s true, as "planners" we spend lots of time planning but increasingly I am excited by the innovation planners are leading through action. This is particularly true at the regional level -- often a rather opaque scale to work at where long-range plans are required for transportation, growth management and/or economic development plans but their implementation is largely a local affair.  As the patron saint of planning, Jane Jacobs, once remarked, “A region is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution.”

And it's true, the past decade has witnessed an explosion of visionary regional plans addressing complex issues that no single jurisdiction is able to tackle on its own. In southeast Florida different metropolitan planning organizations and local stakeholders are coming together for the first time at the regional scale to tackle sea level rise and resiliency. Sacramento remains at the cutting edge with regional scenario planning to show how individual land use, transportation and agricultural decisions influence the regional economy, greenhouse gas emissions, and costs of infrastructure. Smaller regions are tackling complex challenges to their rural economies, quality of life, and public health through new, integrated strategies. Many of their stories can be found at the HUD Sustainable Communities Resource Library.

Atlanta Regional Commission's Livable Center's Initiative supports many vibrant local projects helping to advance regional quality of life, air quality and transportation goals. (Photo: ARC)

Atlanta Regional Commission's Livable Center's Initiative supports many vibrant local projects helping to advance regional quality of life, air quality and transportation goals. (Photo: ARC)

Yet as any planner or elected official has heard countless times, "a plan is no good if it only sits on a shelf." An emerging trend that is unfolding in many of these same regions is the decision to more strongly support local implementation of these plans through targeted technical assistance, sub-granting of federal, state and regional funds to undertake neighborhood, corridor or station area planning, and more effective strategies to fund and bundle local capital improvements. These are referred to as “Regional Livable Communities” programs, though they go by many names. In the Greater Washington DC region the Transportation Land Use Connections Program provides focused consultant assistance to local jurisdictions on specific placemaking or mobility challenges they’ve identified. In Atlanta, the Livable Centers Initiative provides planning and capital funding to prepare and implement local plans consistent with regional development policies. The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission developed a regional complete streets policy and is helping members to implement locally by helping them design projects.

The list of places and types of programs is growing as more regions fine tune, develop and adapt programs that meet the needs of their local communities, reinforce the long-range goals and policies adopted in regional plans, and support local innovation. A quick overview of some of the leading programs is provided in the Innovative MPO Guidebook published by T4America.

I look forward to joining with other members of APA’s Regional and Intergovernmental Planning Division in Seattle to explore these programs further at the APA conference. APA will be producing a report later this year on best practices in regional planning with a focus on how regional planners are supporting local action. It is through this that we make good plans a reality!