Will states let the metropolitan regions thrive?

Across the country, cities and their neighboring suburbs face challenges fueling their prosperity under a system in which they are creatures of their states.

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The Bellevue skyline.

Across the country, cities and their neighboring suburbs face challenges fueling their prosperity under a system in which they are creatures of their states.

It’s as obvious as the air we breathe, as basic as the fluid geography of a watershed, as clear as the connection between a new highway and the strip shopping centers and subdivisions that cluster nearby.

But then again, the air flowing over city limits and state lines is invisible. And most people don’t stop to think that what goes down the kitchen sink or runs off a muddy construction site eventually flows into rivers or lakes and sometimes into other people’s drinking water supply. Even the idea that road building shapes how we live, work and shop is a foreign concept to most people.

In other words despite city limits, voting districts, and state lines on maps, in the real world of air and water, of urban transportation and economies, city regions function in ways our American political systems may not recognize. Although environments, economies, and living patterns create very real urban regions, those geographic areas don’t exist in the basic structure of the government of the United States. Under the Constitution, states have powers; cities don’t.
So is it possible to invigorate meaningful efforts to manage city regions as regions? Last month I spent several days chewing over that question with some two dozen business and nonprofit leaders, academics, writers, and former mayors.

Pulled together by author and columnist Neal Peirce and his Citistates Group, with a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, we arrived at the fund’s Pocantico retreat center in Tarrytown, N.Y., with differing viewpoints but a base-level agreement that urban regions are too important to dismiss. But then what?

The concept of “regionalism” has been around for decades, but I have always filed it in the mental folder of “Worthy but Wonky.” Although it’s important, it’s also a topic that tends to make eyes glaze over. Yet the more I learn about cities, the more I see that problems and their solutions don’t stop at the city limits.

The idea that metro regions deserve heightened attention does get more fanfare these days, thanks in part to the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz, director of its Metropolitan Policy Program. Metro regions, Katz preaches, are essential to our national economy. Yet state governments are too often either apathetic about, or actively hostile toward, metro regions.

Peirce recalls that he and his Citistates colleagues have studied 25 cities over 31 years for Citistates Reports, and have heard repeatedly how state governments don’t take metro areas seriously.

On a more optimistic theme, at the conference I heard plenty of good ideas taking place at the regional level. Some — including Silicon Valley, Denver, St. Louis, and Portland, Ore. — have metro-wide “greenprints.” Seattle and others have developed region-wide export-import strategies.

In one powerful example, the 10-county Atlanta region has won a long struggle to win a revenue source for its vast transportation problems. “Everyone in the region knew we had a transportation crisis,” Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, explained. The business community helped lead that years-long effort, which finally last year produced a state law to let voters in each Georgia metro region approve a 1-cent sales tax for a specific list of transportation projects. If it passes in July 2012, the Atlanta region’s tax is projected to raise at least $6 billion over 10 years. The project list runs the gamut: MARTA, streetcars, freeway interchanges and bike-ped projects.

One thread ran through many examples we heard: The regional business community took the lead. Businesses know the importance of quality of life, transportation and education. Williams even noted that relocation specialists who help businesses find new sites look at regional cooperation, along with other checklist items.

In today’s grim economy, state governments should recognize their enlightened self-interest in helping, not hampering, their city regions. But that grim economy has pushed the more obviously regional issues of environmental protection and growth planning to the back burner in favor of jobs and economic development.

And local officials in metro regions can be wary of power-sharing. Bill Barnes of the National League of Cities described a common reaction when groups of officials discuss regional-scale efforts. “There’s always a great sigh of relief when I say it’s not ‘the answer.’ ” But then, he tells them, “It’s not the answer. But it is a question.”

And that is where the Pocantico roundtable seems to have coalesced: With or without a formal regional government, smart metro areas will — often led by the business community — start working together.

As Barnes said, a regional approach may not be the answer, but should always be a question. Consider my own city, Charlotte. It has a half-dozen regional transportation planning agencies, none a part of the Charlotte region council of governments. The area has no regional Chamber of Commerce, no multicounty land use/transportation vision. It has no regional strategy for preserving land other than “hope.”

All are challenges for this once-rural and now increasingly urban region. Similar challenges — or others — face most of the country’s metro regions. Barnes described it well: “It’s all part of the messy problem of governance, problem-solving and people working together to do stuff.”

Or to put it another way, we no longer have the luxury of adversarial relations.

The views expressed here are the author’s and don’t necessarily represent the views of the institute, its staff or University of North Carolina Charlotte, nor those of those of other participants at the Pocantico Conference, or of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, its trustees, or its staff.


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