Regionalism sounds good but the reality is messy

Getting local governments to work together is no end in itself but it can help solve problems.

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Getting local governments to work together is no end in itself but it can help solve problems.

Among the regional sages at the October Citistates convening at Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Pocantico Conference Center, I felt I could admit to a long-time failing — I’ve been a messy regionalist.

By messy, I mean “devoid of neatness and precision.” That sounds right — regional problem-solving is usually complicated, difficult, frustrating and full of surprises, and often not successful. In other words, it’s like most human collective action endeavors.

Addressing regional challenges is also urgent and important and worthy of special attention. But we would do well to acknowledge and accept the reality of what Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, calls the “on the ground stuff” in the regionalism picture — the mix of grit and public-interest vision that constitutes regional efforts. It’s really not about making nice; it’s about working through competing interests and values and about dealing with often fierce disagreements on matters of mutual concern.

The door through which the Pocantico discussions entered the regionalism topic was the roles that states play in promoting and/or obstructing regional governance. Much of the conversation centered around the issue of purpose — which public goals can be better achieved at inter-local and regional scales, rather than within individual jurisdictions? Attention focused mainly on economic challenges, often framed in terms of global competition, but a range of other topics were also broached, including sprawl, education, transportation, infrastructure, and reducing inequalities.

Another major theme of the sessions was the nature of regional governance. It’s a boundary-crossing activity exercised at a broader scale than the more usual partnerships within a jurisdiction. Regional governance is thus neither weird nor wondrous, nor is it a technocratic silver bullet. It is politics, policy, and problem-solving at the scale where there’s no authoritative governmental unit but there are shared concerns.

Regional governance varies by purpose, place, and time. Each multi-jurisdictional problem or opportunity has its own scale and scope, i.e., its own “region.” There’s no single space that is appropriate for all regional challenges, and thus no definitive size for an encompassing governmental jurisdiction. Furthermore, there’s no one best way to address the range of problems from water to economic development.

The relevant options for regional action are too often framed as either doing nothing or engineering major structural change, including jurisdictional consolidation. This is a false choice and not a useful way to frame the topic.

The measure of regional governance success is marshaling the capacity to achieve a goal — solving a problem or seizing an opportunity. This may or, more likely, may not result in structural change or governmental consolidation.

Thus, the regional governance discourse could very profitably shift to a less dramatic but more practical focus on regional governance as capacity and purpose. This would align the talk with the walk that is characteristic of practicing regional actors, whether the topic is transportation financing in Atlanta or freight routes in Long Beach or international trade in Seattle. Kathryn Foster and I have done a paper along these lines, based on our work with the MacArthur Foundation’s Building Resilient Regions Research Network. The paper offers an analysis of regional governance capacity, including five dimensions and associated indicators that can provide a means of measuring and assessing a particular area’s capacity for regional action on a specific problem at a specific time. (The paper is forthcoming in Urban Affairs Review; a version geared for practitioner use will appear on the National League of Cities web site by early 2012.)

It is also time to get beyond the grandiose rhetoric, the should’s and ought’s, and the inflated expectations that have too often accumulated around the regional idea. Like governance at other spatial scales, regionalism is better at dealing with easier things and less good at the really wicked ones.

Moreover, we can do without the judgmental rhetoric that suggests, on the one side, that regional approaches are idealistic, unrealistic dreams or indefensible intrusions on home rule and, on the other, that opposition to regional approaches is always selfish or racist. Any or all of those accusations may be correctly applied in specific circumstances, but jousting at caricatures as the default position is a diversion from the hard work of bringing people to the table. It also poisons the well for future efforts.

Regionalism is a means, not an end. It’s not the answer to everything; it’s a question about the most useful scale for solving a problem. So, it’s neither neat nor precise. But it’s important and we should get on with it.


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