Confronting Housing, Transportation and Regional Growth

David Soule, April 1, 2004

Seeking to address housing affordability and transportation congestion issues, the executive directors of the 25 largest public-sector metropolitan regional councils gathered in Los Angeles in September 2003 for their second regional forum. The three-day conference was sponsored by the Lincoln Institute, the Fannie Mae Foundation and the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC).

Case Studies

The opening session featured presentations on three case studies that illustrate different approaches to growth and development: Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The Atlanta region is home to 3.6 million people in 10 counties. Charles Krautler, of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), noted that the commission was created in 1947 and in 1952 presented its first regional plan. “It proposed a tight development pattern with an urban growth boundary close to where I-285 circles our region,” he explained. “It was rejected outright. Instead, we adopted a plan with growth in concentric circles. We did not have unplanned sprawl, we planned for it and we got it.” However, he continued, “now we have two societies. Many people moved to the northern part of the region and took their wealth with them. We encouraged them to trade long drives for big houses. But poverty remains concentrated in Atlanta and Fulton County.”

No slowdown is forecasted for 2030, as the population is expected to grow to 5.4 million people and employment to 3.1 million jobs. That means more congestion, and Atlanta faces other constraints as well. The region is the largest metropolitan area with the smallest water supply, and there is no opportunity for significant expansion of the supply. “If we keep doing what we’re doing, then what we have today is the best its going to be,” Krautler stated. “We’re trying to encourage a movement back to the city. After losing population for the last 30 years, the city has grown by 16,000 since the 2000 census. In a further effort to rewind the sprawl clock, ARC has designated 44 activity/town centers as part of its regional development plan linking transportation and land use. Each center receives planning and, more important, infrastructure resources to concentrate development.”

The Chicago metropolitan area is the “hub of the Midwest,” according to Ron Thomas of the Northeast Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC). With more than 8 million residents in 6 counties with 272 incorporated municipalities, Chicago has built its strength around the waters of Lake Michigan. The NIPC region hosts almost 4.5 million jobs and 62 companies that are listed in the Fortune 1000. The 4,000-square-mile region stretches north to Wisconsin and east to Indiana. And yet, Thomas laments, “our urban growth ‘edge’ is beyond our region. That means that the people who are attempting to control this growth are not at our table.”

Building on the Burnham plan, the first regional plan in the country created in 1909, Chicago’s urban fabric is held together by a series of 200 town centers, an extensive rail network and an expansive highway system. The good news, Thomas said, is that “90 percent of the region’s population is within one mile of a transit line.” Three satellite cities, Elgin, Joliet and Aurora, create a polycentric region around Chicago’s western fringe. The net result is that the region still has the capacity to absorb the projected growth of more than 2 million new people in the next 30 years.

Like every metropolitan region, Chicago is experiencing immigration from all over the world, but especially an influx of Hispanic families. New immigrants enter a region with longstanding socioeconomic patterns of segregation, especially in the southern counties. Thomas explained there are pockets of diversity in some suburban communities, but exclusionary zoning keeps the barriers high. While NIPC has successfully brought together the mayors in the metropolitan area to discuss critical issues, “we suffer from a lack of major universities, most of which are either downtown or 100 miles out,” Thomas noted. “Our political leaders are organized, and so is our business community. However, we run on parallel tracks and talk in stereo.” To address this disconnect, NIPC has created a broad-scale civic leadership process to undertake community-based planning. “We have created a tool called ‘paint the town,’ which allows interactive meetings in local city and town halls,” he continued. “We have a future to plan and it needs to be grounded where the people live, work and raise their families.”

Los Angeles has more than twice as many people as Chicago and more than 4.5 times the population of the Atlanta region, and yet “the urban portion of our region is the densest in the country,” according to Mark Pisano of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). “We have 187 municipalities in 6 counties. With 76 local officials in our structure, our congressional delegation comes to us for solutions to the tough issues we face. We do have a region that is large enough to cover the true regional economy, but the economic and social forces are relentless. Our economic bases are shifting faster than we can plan infrastructure to keep up with the changes.”

Like Chicago and Atlanta, Los Angeles is a polycentric region; it spreads across all of Southern California except San Diego County. “We were one of the first regions in the country to become a majority of minorities. Immigration drives development in our region,” said Pisano. Some of the trends are good. “Forty percent of our region is doing extremely well, but that means that 60 percent is not. We have been called the ‘new Appalachia’ by some, and we are banding together with other states along the border with Mexico to create the Southwest Authority. This, like other similar efforts around the country including the Appalachian Regional Commission, would create a federally supported multistate compact to address critical infrastructure needs required to support the economy of this large area.”

SCAG forecasts another 6 million people will arrive in the region by 2030, more than twice the population of the City of Chicago. As the new immigrants arrive, cities and towns already cramped by the constraints of Proposition 13 are beginning to close the door on new housing production. “Housing is the most undesirable land use in Southern California,” said Pisano. “We are seeing the fiscalization of land use. Our leaders tell me that they don’t want any more housing. They say this is sound fiscal policy. However, this approach just puts more pressure on places that already have housing. The net effect is that Los Angeles is three times more overcrowded than the rest of the region and eight times more crowded than New York City.”

To address these big-picture problems, SCAG is focusing on macro-level regional development patterns. “We can’t build our way out of the traffic congestion, but we have two scenarios under discussion,” Pisano continued. “The first focuses on infill development; the second proposes creation of the fifth ring of development in the high desert. Effective land use will generate three times more benefit than highway expansion.” Using a creative strategy of building truck lanes, paid for by the truckers, “we can create some relief and target key transportation logistics, i.e., moving freight out of the port of Los Angeles into the rest of the country. This strategy also addresses a key workforce issue, since you don’t need a college education to drive a truck. To fund such major infrastructure expansion, we are exploring how to create a tax credit that would allow significant private-sector investment in regional transportation projects.”

Discussion Sessions

Ruben Barrales, deputy assistant to President Bush and director of intergovernmental affairs for the White House, presented an overview of the executive branch’s current national priorities. During the discussion Krautler asked if a White House conference would be a possible response to the critical issues facing the largest metropolitan regions in the country. Barrales said the concept was worth discussing but would require considerable advance preparation to be effective. Pisano offered the resources of the group, working through NARC, to help with conference planning. Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association (RPA) suggested an interesting theme. “We’ve had several major eras of planning in this country,” he explained. “When Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he spurred a major expansion in the nation’s land mass and then had to figure out what to do with it. One hundred years later Teddy Roosevelt appointed Gifford Pinchot to create the National Park Service. We’re due for another national planning initiative, but we now have many challenges that require a sophisticated response. We can’t build an economy based on people driving several hours to and from work each day. We need to focus on how we can create a place that is both pleasant and affordable.”

Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute asked the group to expand on what national policies are needed to support the large metropolitan regions in the country. Comments included:

  • We need to re-magnitize our regions, and modest incentives from Washington, DC, could help start that process.
  • We need to partner with groups like the Urban Land Institute.
  • We are flying blind and that’s dangerous. Even though we’re in the planning business, we need better data, better policies and different paradigms for managing our regional governance that include partners from our business and civic sectors as well as our political leaders.
  • We can use a structure like the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), created for transportation, to address other critical issues like water and housing.
  • The bad news is that we are growing, but the good news is that we are growing. We attract smart, entrepreneurial people from around the world.

Dowell Myers, director of the Planning School in the University of Southern California School of Planning, Policy and Development, moderated a session focused on transforming regional actions into local implementation. As part of the program, representatives of three regions commented on their strategies.

“Seattle grew a lot over the last 20 years and we grew in different ways,” said Mary McCumber of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC). “Our new growth was outside of our historic cities. We knew we needed to do something and we got lucky. We got ISTEA [Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act], a state growth management law and a new regional council at the same time.” Using these tools, PSRC created Destination 2030, which was honored as the best regional plan in the country by the American Planning Association (APA). “But we have planned enough. We are a land of process. Now we need to have the courage to act.”

Martin Tuttle of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) reported, “We used our federal transportation dollars to create land use incentives for community design and backed it up with $500 million. We asked people, ‘Is Atlanta what we want?’” Using the best data available and a sophisticated feedback planning process, SACOG brought the planning to the people and took the people’s plan back to the council.

Bob Yaro of RPA reminded the group that it takes “patience, persistence and perseverance.” He presented New York City as an urban success story, where 8 million people ride the transit system per day. “The Regional Plan Association, created in 1929, oversees a three-state region, and those states don’t like each other much. They have different DNA,” Yaro noted. Despite that history, RPA created the first strategy for a multi-centered region. Unlike the other regional councils, RPA is a private-sector organization. “The real power is in the civic community, if you can get people organized and move them in the right direction,” Yaro added.

Tom Bell, president and CEO of Cousins Properties in Atlanta, introduced a private-sector perspective on engaging in regional policy development: “I was surprised to read in Time magazine that the Atlanta region is the fastest growing settlement in human history. We are gobbling up 100 acres a day. There is no common ground. Democracy and land planning go together like oil and water. But you [planners] are the people who can make a change. Developers will do a lot of work if we can see a payoff. Visions are in short supply and the status quo is not an option.”

Addressing income distribution in the regions, Paul Ong, director of the Lewis Study Center at UCLA, reported that poverty rates among the elderly have declined at the same time that rates among children have increased. More distressing, poverty is higher and more concentrated in urban areas. “We are seeing a working underclass—not people on welfare but people who have jobs.” Rick Porth from Hartford and Howard Maier from Cleveland responded with case studies from their regions on income and social equity. In Hartford, Porth said, “the disparity is getting worse. More important, 20 percent of our future workforce is being educated in our worst schools.” Maier noted, “our economy is in transformation. The Cleveland area was a manufacturing center for steel and car production, but now we have more healthcare workers than steel or auto workers. As a region of 175 communities, we have 175 land use policies based on 175 zoning codes and maps. Each community’s plans may be rational, but together they project a future of sprawl without the ability for coordinated public services or facilities.”

In other sessions several regions that had developed assessment and benchmarking studies presented their current work, and the conference concluded with presentations by each of the councils on a best practice study, strategy or methodology that they have implemented.

The conference theme—confronting housing, transportation and regional growth—underscores the complexity of the metropolitan environment and the necessity for an integrated response to regional dynamics. Traditional regional councils are unique in their ability to link multiple regional systems to focus on specific regional questions. Housing affordability, a seemingly intractable problem overwhelming metropolitan regions, can only be understood against the backdrop of the local government fiscal policy. Transportation systems, often understood as infrastructure designed to service an existing regional settlement pattern, must be seen as a key determinant of economic development policy as well as a primary driver of land use change in regions. The metropolitan regions of this country are the economic engines of our states and the country as a whole. A new, enriched dialogue with the White House could stimulate a series of policy initiatives. As that conversation proceeds, regional councils are the key organizations to engage business and civic leaders with local elected officials around the regional table.

David Soule is senior research associate at the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston. He teaches political science and conducts research on urban economic development, tax policy and transportation systems. He is the former executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the regional planning agency representing 101 cities and towns in the Boston area.