Regional Planning in America

Updating Earlier Visions
Ethan Seltzer, November 1, 2000

Seeking to reactivate discussion of regionalism in the twenty-first century, Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and director of the Lincoln Institute’s Program on Land as Common Property, and Robert Yaro, executive director of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), convened a roundtable in New York last April, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Planning Association (APA). Invited participants explored the extent to which the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) shaped the vision of twentieth-century regionalism and how that vision is still relevant today. The Institute invited Ethan Seltzer to summarize the roundtable discussions and provide his own insights about new visions for regional planning in America.

The Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) was established in 1923 by a small, informal group of visionary planners, architects, sociologists and foresters. They laid out an agenda for building and rebuilding American cities and metropolitan regions, and for preserving rural and wilderness areas. The writings of several RPAA members, including Lewis Mumford, Clarence Stein and Benton MacKaye, have inspired students of urban planning and development for decades.

Elements of their vision were reflected in the activism of the New Deal of the 1930s, the new towns proposals of the 1960s and 1970s, and the metropolitan greenbelt and new urbanism movements of the 1990s. Despite these initiatives, RPAA’s broader vision was ignored by most twentieth-century policy makers, and many of the concerns first raised in the 1920s remain largely unresolved: the impacts of suburban sprawl on cities and countryside; how to reconcile the automobile and highways with the design of communities and regions; and the need for high-quality affordable housing.

The regional planning roundtable held last April began with the screening of the 1938 film, “The City,” which had been shown at the 1939 World’s Fair. The film features the ideas of Lewis Mumford and others who articulated RPAA’s values and visions. Many parts of the story showcased in the film have been realized: the automobile has become a dominant means of transportation; the nation’s housing has been upgraded significantly; and many open spaces have been protected.

However, there remain many unexamined ideas regarding the extent to which social problems can be “solved” by manipulating physical form, especially since the agendas of 60 years ago and today are not the same. Participants also noted that the film was naive about markets and portrayed a desire to turn back the clock. The film presented a limited vision of the regional problem, and the notion of social revolution through contact with nature still haunts us.

The film was regarded as an effective piece of propaganda and advocacy for RPAA’s vision, but today there are many voices and points of view, making such a clear-cut presentation very difficult to imagine. We now anticipate the need for regional planning to address even more diverse and complex social and economic issues: where to locate the still growing yet changing population; how to deal with NAFTA and other effects of globalization; increasing economic and regional disparities; and the whole notion of mass tourism, especially in cities. The panel discussed the need for a twenty-first century equivalent of the 1939 World’s Fair to establish a new vision and find common ground rather than to advance a single position.

Regions as Networks

Most often, regions are regarded as something in between cities and nation-states, something that exists relative to existing structures and institutions. But, regions also are shaped by the context of the host country, which introduces the notion that regions depend on networking to find their place and constituency. We can think and plan at a regional level, but we can’t always act at that level. In the last 20 years, there seems to be more confidence about the notion of strengthening regions and regarding them as evolving places. This all points to the need to take a systems approach to planning that is not too dogmatic. We need a solid regional planning process first, rather than seizing on new urbanism, urban growth boundaries or other such planning approaches as exclusive, “one size fits all,” solutions.

The roundtable participants discussed the consolidation of functions rather than institutions as a promising avenue for developing regional relationships and focusing on “what you can fix.” Regional consolidations of functions are happening in some places, but with little impact on land use or quality of life. In essence, the network approach might serve some efficiencies, but questions remain about its ability to yield results that can make the region a better or more effective place.

Nonetheless, better networks rather than new structures seem to be the avenue of choice today, and carrots and sticks from the state and federal levels could be very influential in moving regional networks along. Local governments compete more than they cooperate, and regionalists too often ignore that competition. More agents or vehicles for greater cooperation are needed.

What Would a Regional Entity Do?

How could a regional entity be formed to focus on sprawl, environmental quality, a sense of “home,” congestion, rates of change, etc.? Though crises can make things happen, congestion and sprawl do not seem to offer a particularly fruitful path to regional thinking. The lack of a creative, constructive regional vision or agenda today is telling. Do we, in fact, agree about why regionalism is important, what it ought to accomplish, and what ought to happen next? Perhaps key to the answer will be articulating what it would mean to live the regional “good life.”

We need to be able to make a case for interdependence within regions. We are all stuck in traffic but we can’t see a collective solution, and technology is only helping to make being gridlocked more bearable. We need a strong case for being a region and reinforcing a sense of mutual interest and accountability. Articulating collective versus individual interests is key, and the common chord struck by the environmental and landscape ecology movements might serve as an important unifying force. Much of what passes for regional planning is really regional engineering or regional plumbing, and stems from a basic unwillingness to address the behavior of individuals.

The world is governed at the federal/state/local levels but is lived at global/regional/neighborhood levels. How does this work? It is essential to understand the dynamics of these contrasting contexts to make regional planning a reality. The question is what government as a change agent (versus a preserver of the status quo) would look like. It can’t attack property rights or go after jurisdictions, or simply seek to create a new layer of regulation.

That leaves control of infrastructure as the key governmental tool, along with the use of the market. Perhaps, it was suggested, we ought to use the Fannie Mae approach of financing good things in the right places and a regional block grant for infrastructure. Pulling the plug on the subsidies for sprawl should be a high priority.

We also need to keep the consumer in mind and not forget about marketing. We need one good idea for what is good about regions. There is an ongoing need for community building at a region level. The key objective is, or ought to be, mutual accountability rather than merely efficiency.

Regionalism in America was born of a tremendous optimism about the future of society, and the ability of leaders, planners and others to perfect that society. Those roots are less evident in discussions of regionalism today, but should be kept in mind when considering the role for a revived RPAA. The value of a regional approach, or of embracing regionalism, must be articulated in light of the state of the nation today. Why elect to take a regional approach? What problem are we trying to solve, and how does a regional approach add value in ways that other approaches cannot?

The definition of “region” needs some rethinking. In the days of the RPAA, there were only six regions in the nation. Today, every city-suburb pair seems to be calling itself a region. Regions were always envisioned as parts of a whole, and regionalism was distinguished from its evil twin, sectionalism, by the contribution that regions made to the whole. Today we need to re-articulate the ways in which the parts work together.

The RPAA was a club, and a small one at that. The work of regionalists today occurs in a much more diverse and pluralistic environment. In fact, whereas early regional initiatives were clearly planning projects, today it’s not clear that regionalism is just a “planning thing.” Consequently, defining the scope and task for regional planning is critically important. The RPAA also was an advocate. The members had a point of view and they worked to advance it politically and, in the case of their film, popularly. A new RPAA would have to understand its role vis-a-vis advocacy. If it emerges as an advocate, could it even do planning, given the environment within which planning occurs today?

Key Themes for Future Action

Discussions of regionalism often center on governance and the structure of governance within regions. There are precious few examples of regions that have elected to either create new institutions at the regional level, or to consolidate existing institutions into larger bodies. There are, however, many examples of jurisdictions working together to advance service delivery in more efficient ways. The notion of a “network” region is emerging in practice: rather than perfecting institutions, the focus is on perfecting relationships and functions. Nonetheless, the challenge at the regional level is not primarily efficiency but developing a sense of mutual accountability. Building community and sense of place at a regional scale is a critical requirement for advancing on-the-ground regionalism. Developing new icons to represent regional territories of shared interest and responsibility is no easy task, but ought to be pursued.

Promoting an ongoing discussion of regionalism and regional planning, one that blends both applied and theoretical perspectives, is valuable and should be encouraged, but reestablishing expectations for the nature of regions and resolving differences between contexts will stand as important challenges. If the old RPAA was articulating notions of “better regions for a better nation,” today we need to discuss the role of “better regions for a better world.” There are roles for regions, regionalism and regional planning that need to be figured out, and that will happen only through moving this kind of dialogue forward.

These concerns lead to a number of possible focal points for ongoing work:

Studies of Sprawl – Sprawl is playing out at a metropolitan level, but is related to more regional and global forces. Further investigations could shed light on understanding the mechanisms that promote sprawl, regional responses and the prospects for intervening in the dynamics of sprawl.

Governance – Regional governance as a network function rather than an institutional structure can lead to understanding regions as something different than more traditional institutional forms. Further, moving from a regionalism based on efficiency to a regionalism based on mutual accountability is a critical need in the years ahead.

Regions and Regional Planning – These cornerstone concepts of the RPAA brand of regionalism need updating. Being more explicit about contemporary expectations for these terms will help to make the value of regionalism for today and the future more specific and precise.

A National Agenda for Regionalism – Currently no one is taking the lead to articulate a national agenda for regionalism. After the interstate highways, beyond smart growth and new urbanism, where are we headed? What’s next for regions, and what is the federal role?

The Film – The RPAA had their film. Can we develop a new one in light of the themes identified above? Trying to develop a film would force us to determine whether we are advocates or planners, and if advocates, what we are advocating. It would also force those involved to become more specific about areas of agreement and disagreement.

The original RPAA was a sociable club, but it also resulted in designing and building places. It published journal articles, connected with governments and presidents, and was casual and productive. Is that model realistic in the year 2000? We need to be pragmatic. We have more to do than we can currently manage. However, communicating at a higher level, focusing on ideas, does make sense. The notion of an ongoing conversation is very important, but it probably doesn’t warrant the creation of another organization.

There is a huge educational challenge here. Whether it is educating kids in schools, providing training and education for decision makers, or deliberately advancing the thinking of a network of citizens, the educational mission must be of primary concern. Perhaps the first step would be to educate ourselves through an ongoing discussion linking thinkers and doers. A good “curriculum” on regionalism also would benefit everyone working with these issues.


Ethan Seltzer is director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.