Planning for a Metropolitan Future
There are estimates that the population of the United States could increase to 438 million by 2050. Where will we house these new residents? What kind of metropolitan regions will they live in? Will these regions be sustainable or equitable or even livable? If past sprawling land use patterns are any indication, we should be concerned about protecting our nation's farmland, forests, water resources, and open spaces. With the prospect of climate change, we should be actively rethinking the way we manage our metropolitan areas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make our cities more resilient. By 2050, will we have a more sustainable metropolitan approach that promotes density, develops regional public transit systems, and equitably redevelops the city and inner-ring suburbs? Or will we continue to sprawl? A lot depends on our ability to develop more effective metropolitan governance that encourages local governments to plan sustainably.
While other countries have consolidated power at the metropolitan scale through annexation and the creation of metropolitan government, the United States has a hybrid metropolitan governance approach that is limited by a lack of authority and depends primarily on collaboration. Metropolitan governance in the United States is typically made in a two-tiered system in which local governments still maintain ultimate control over their land use decisions, but also work in a collaborative manner to plan for and make regional decisions. Most metropolitan regions have made some attempt to develop institutions responsible for planning and governance—whether through a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) that coordinates state and federal transportation funding, a council of governments (COG), a regional planning authority, a metropolitan transportation authority, or a combination of these; metropolitan agencies serve primarily as advisors to local governments. One exception stands out. Portland, Oregon, has been granted more authority by state government to insist on coordination of land use planning and development. However, Portland is largely viewed as an anomaly—not replicable and not reflective of broader trends in U.S. politics.
If we want to govern our metropolitan regions more effectively, we first need to understand how our current hybrid system of land use planning and metropolitan governance either supports or hinders cooperation and the development of more sustainable regions (environmentally, economically, and socially). This book is a start. It tells the story of metropolitan governance in three U.S. metropolitan areas (Boston, Massachusetts, Portland, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado) that vary in their use of collaboration and authority. By comparing metropolitan planning processes in Boston, Denver, and Portland, the book critiques how having more authority (moving from capacity building to providing financial incentives to mandating local land use) changes decision making and whether agencies with more authority are more effective at getting local land use planning to take account of the spillover effects of development within their borders. The hope is that by understanding the impact that various metropolitan governance arrangements have on regional land use decisions, we can start to think more critically about what political arrangements and tools are necessary to govern more sustainable metropolitan regions.
U.S. metropolitan regions grow because of thousands of incremental development decisions made by people deciding where they want to live, work, and/or invest. Individual land use choices made by millions of people in separate municipalities have a cumulative effect of creating serious local and metropolitan problems: little affordable housing, insufficient open space, stress on water supplies, unhealthy levels of air pollution, increased greenhouse gas emissions, severe traffic congestion, a loss of mobility and economic opportunity, traffic fatalities, poor health, crumbling regional infrastructure, and questions about regional equity and sustainability. These social, economic, and environmental costs of our current metropolitan development patterns are often ignored, but when they are quantified we see how serious they are.
Unfortunately, local governments do not have the capacity to respond to the interlocking set of problems facing metropolitan regions, and future challenges such as population growth and climate change will not make it easier. Just when we need to be reducing our ecological footprints and carbon dioxide emissions to mitigate climate change, our sprawling metropolitan development patterns continue to drive them up. However, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of America's metropolitan regions. First, most regions in the United States already have a system of metropolitan governance in place, albeit weak, that could be strengthened. Second, as a nation, we are starting to appreciate a choice in how we develop land: there is a recognition that sprawl is inefficient and causes a number of environmental, social, and economic problems. Millennials and empty-nesters are also demanding more compact and urban living. Even people who prefer a suburban lifestyle are recognizing that walkable streets, public transit, smart growth, and mixed-use development are beneficial. Under the Obama administration, we have also seen an interest in sustainability and regional planning. We can be hopeful that this sea change in the way we think about urban and suburban space may carry over into how we govern the region; however, making metropolitan governance work better will require us to first better understand our current approach and then to make necessary reforms.
Living in Fragmented and Sprawling Regions
Today American regions are governed by hundreds of individual jurisdictions, but many people may be surprised by just how fragmented metropolitan governance is. According to the Committee on Improving the Future of U.S. Cities Through Improved Metropolitan Area Governance, "The average metropolitan area consisted of 114 local governments: 2 counties, 42 municipalities or towns, and 70 special districts, of which 21 were school districts. There were 18 local governments for every 100,000 people in metropolitan areas." In a typical U.S. metropolitan region, local governments will make independent decisions about land use without much regard for how it impacts neighboring communities or what the externalities are. The resulting trend has been urban sprawl—low-density development on greenfields in the outer fringes of metropolitan regions. Without metropolitan planning, one town approves a subdivision on a greenfield. Then another town does the same. Soon we have a sprawling development pattern in the metropolitan region and cities and towns are scrambling to find the revenue to support the new infrastructure to maintain these unsustainable planning decisions.
We have known about the consequences of suburban sprawl development for decades, but U.S. land use and fiscal policy and weak forms of metropolitan governance continue to promote it nonetheless. Writing in 1972, David Mckee and Gerald Smith describe urban sprawl as "an inefficient allocation of resources for society." They argue that "sprawl suggests urban areas which are larger than necessary which may mean that transportation, communication, utility services, and local public services all become 'unnecessarily inefficient and uneconomical.'" The Real Estate Research Corporation's 1974 "Costs of Sprawl" study describes the phenomenon as "the most expensive form of residential development in terms of economic costs, environmental costs, natural resource consumption and many types of personal costs." Lower density development exacts more per person to service than higher density development. As Arthur C. Nelson writes, "It costs twice as much per unit of development to fully service two homes per acre as it does to serve four homes per acre." According to the American Farmland Trust, "For every tax dollar collected from newly developed suburban residential property, about $1.25 in services must be paid—a loss of 25 cents." Robert Burchell's studies on the cost of sprawl in Florida, New Jersey, Kentucky, South Carolina, and the Delaware Estuary find the duplication of public services. In order to accommodate new development, each municipality is forced to provide new infrastructure investment: schools, roads, sewer, police, fire protection, and so on. However, many of these smaller and previously rural jurisdictions are not prepared financially or structurally to provide the type of suburban services necessary. Some of the services would also be best offered at a metropolitan scale, but because of jurisdictional boundaries and current systems of municipal finance, they are provided at the local level without economies of scale. Two towns right next to each other have to finance their own school systems, planning directors, fire departments, and police officers.
Since new suburban development does not pay for the infrastructure that it requires, in order to generate more income, municipalities compete with each other to attract taxable development (retail development in sales tax states and industrial or commercial development that is taxed at a higher rate than residential development in non-sales tax states). Drier, Mollenkopf, and Swanstrom argue that communities compete for "favored residents and investments," and "each jurisdiction has a strong incentive to adopt zoning and development policies that exclude potential residents with incomes below the median for their jurisdiction or who require more costly services." Their research raises important questions about how equitable our metropolitan development patterns are, particularly those that are designed to attract high-tax and low-service residents and facilities. In addition, this tax-dependent approach to planning may not be sustainable in the long term, even for bringing in more revenue. Tax deals offered by municipalities to attract commercial and industrial development may serve as a temporary response to revenue shortfalls, but these developments can change the character of the area (e.g., creating a car-oriented environment that undercuts existing downtown economies). Developers who have learned how to game the system can leapfrog to a new location just when their last tax break runs out and the commercial development finally produces a positive cash flow for the municipality.
Unfortunately, our institutional and political arrangements prevent us from recognizing the problems of metropolitan fragmentation or taking action to reform it. Paul Lewis argues that "political fragmentation gives suburbanites the institutional ammunition to preserve land-use advantages, and provides little incentive for local politicians to consider the externality costs of their land-use decisions." Municipalities may prevent affordable housing from being built because they do not want to pay for the construction of new schools when more children move to the community. One way to do this is to zone out certain types of developments or to require large lot zoning. Fulton et al. found evidence of this practice: regions with more fragmented governance are more likely to have less dense development. Zoning out people and certain "unfavorable uses" also has negative environmental implications. When lot sizes increase, the amount of land converted from open space to residential use increases. The effect is dramatic. Between 1982 and 2007, the U.S. population increased by 30 percent while land consumption increased 57 percent. The Sierra Club estimates that we lose 400,000 acres of open space to development every year (about 1,100 acres per day). According to the 2012 USDA's Natural Resources Inventory, "44 million acres of land were newly developed between 1982 and 2012." As Robert Burchell and Sahan Mukherji highlight, the costs are real: "Sprawl produces a 21% increase in amount of undeveloped land converted to developed land (2.4 million acres) and approximately a 10% increase in local road lane-miles (188 300). Furthermore, sprawl causes about 10% more annual public service (fiscal) deficits ($4.2 billion) and 8% higher housing occupancy costs ($13 000 per dwelling unit)."
Suburban lifestyles can also impose negative externalities on individual communities and an entire region because of a significant increase in resource consumption. Matthew Kahn found that suburban residents "drive 31 percent more and consume twice as much land as their urban counterparts." This is troubling considering that the average American spends the equivalent of fifty-five eight-hour workdays driving every year. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic congestion in 439 U.S. urban regions in 2010 resulted in 4.8 billion hours spent in traffic, an added cost of 1.9 billion gallons of fuel, and associated air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Many Americans (about 138.5 million of them) might also be unpleasantly surprised to learn that that they live in metropolitan regions with unacceptable levels of air pollution and long-term health impacts.
Scholars and planners have long argued that planning at the metropolitan scale is the answer to the inefficiency, inequity, and unsustainability of our past development patterns. According to Myron Orfield, in the United States there is a pressing need for metropolitan reforms because "outdated metropolitan political structures are an important part of the problem. Highly fragmented governance systems contribute to increasing sprawl and congestion, growing racial and economic segregation, and deepening disparities in the quality of local services. Reforming metropolitan governance is essential for fair and sustainable national growth." The logic is that effective metropolitan governance will lead to communities working together to develop more compact regions that reduce urban sprawl, improve our regional quality of life, protect open space, promote regional equity, reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, and help us plan for more resilient regions. Reid Ewing and Shima Hamidi argue that promoting more "compact and connected" metropolitan regions will greatly improve people's quality of life because "people have greater economic opportunity in compact and connected metro areas, . . . spend less of their household income on the combined cost of housing and transportation in these areas, . . . have a greater number of transportation options available to them, . . . [and] in compact, connected metro areas tend to be safer, healthier and live longer than their peers in more sprawling metro areas."
While the benefits outlined by Ewing and Hamidi are desirable, changing our current planning processes to promote density and connectedness is another story. Scholars have tried to explain the resistance to metropolitan planning and governance. First, homeowners want to keep their home values high and perceive that local control is critical to this goal. Anthony Downs writes that many homeowners "believe that their economic interest in their home must be protected by preventing or limiting the construction of lower-cost housing in their community, and homeowners dominate suburban politics." Homeowners defend the autonomy of their jurisdictions as an important mechanism to "influence who their neighbors are." They feel threatened by attempts to remove decision making about planning and zoning from local control. Metropolitan coordination and planning are often viewed as efforts to limit property rights.
Also, since schools are primarily financed locally in many parts of the country, residents want to make sure that they maintain the highest quality school systems. Efforts at metropolitan governance are often perceived as threats to local autonomy and control over the local school districts. Citizens feel that if services are centralized they will not have the same type of influence over them. And localities that are doing well financially view efforts at metropolitanization as attempts to redistribute funding to poorer communities, which is not a welcome prospect. Initiatives to create more regional institutions threaten the order that exists in metropolitan America, which can only be characterized as segregation and inequity. In Cities Without Suburbs, David Rusk argues that "this is the toughest issue in American society. It goes right to the heart of Americans' fears about race and class. There will be no short-term, politically comfortable solutions." Rusk points out that traditional efforts at regional cooperation have focused on service delivery: trash, water, transportation planning, sewage treatment, and air quality. "Regional arrangements," according to Rusk, "usually avoid policies and programs that share the burden of inner-city residents." At the same time, it should be noted that not all city dwellers are supportive of metropolitan consolidation and control. John Powell finds that inner-city communities have also been reluctant to adopt more regional approaches "for fear of losing cultural control, cultural identity, and political power within their communities." When both residents of suburban and urban areas view metropolitan governance as giving up their autonomy, it is no wonder that regional approaches are viewed with skepticism. Unsurprisingly, there is no mass movement for metropolitan governance.
The Historical Debate About Metropolitan Solutions
While the average person may not be too worried about designing effective metropolitan governance, American planners and scholars have been debating it for decades. They agree that jurisdictional boundaries in metropolitan regions serve more as historical artifacts than as a representation of current environmental, social, economic, and political conditions. What they disagree about is the best strategy to promote coordination. According to early reformers, the problems that metropolitan areas were facing were really "inescapable housekeeping problems"; as Scott Greer put it: "The metropolitan household is in many respects one; but its housekeeping is organized in dozens or hundreds of families, each different (if not hostile) to the neighbors." Robert Wood's 1961 book 1,400 Governments argues that the political fragmentation of metropolitan regions makes governing them untenable as each of the 1,400 governments makes its own decisions. In 1964, Matthew Holden described the "metropolitan problem" as a diplomacy problem in which each municipality is maximizing its own "interest." Writing in 1957, Luther Gulick stated, "When it comes to zoning, land use regulation, and the system for circulation and traffic, the underlying problem becomes impossible of rational attack unless there is a single center for coordinated analysis, planning, and action." Gulick advocated the creation of a new model of governance that takes into account the metropolitan nature of the problems and their solutions, but also respects local autonomy. His bottom-up and top-down model represents an idealized approach. Unfortunately, creating a model that is both coordinated at the metropolitan level and respects local autonomy turns out to be exceptionally difficult. Today scholars and policy makers still grapple with finding the right balance.
In 1959, Arthur Maass and his colleagues argued that the "systematic functions of government" could be metropolitanized. In Area and Power, Maass recommends that power be divided according to the process of governing, the functions of government, or constituency. Maass's approach is consistent with the progressive reformers' rational approach to metropolitan problems. To make metropolitan coordination work, the "assignment of power" must simply be "spelled out carefully." Raymond Vernon sums up the challenge of metropolitan governance, arguing that the familiar problem in government structure is "that of creating a body of authority that is bigger than a breadbox but smaller than an elephant—more extensive in its scope than the localities but less extensive than the state." To solve the metropolitan problem, Greer argues that functional areas that could address specific problems on a metropolitan level would take the "garbage collection out of politics," and he was optimistic that metropolitan administration could create a highly rationalized system run by a "perfected bureaucracy operated by professionally trained managers and judged as a business concern." These proposed approaches would be highly rational and politically acceptable and might be modeled on examples of air and water boards that manage resources across jurisdictional lines.
Although rationalization and efficiency were held up as goals by scholars and policy makers, they also worried that new metropolitan governments would lack the political accountability of local jurisdictions. In addition, the division into different functions might produce a metropolitan area that was fractured in yet another way, according to function rather than accountability. Writing in 1961, Anthony Downs warned against coordination by function, arguing that "sooner or later the problem of coordinating the coordinators will also become acute." Downs highlighted the challenge of how to coordinate across various jurisdictions and sectors and levels of government.
Decades later, after numerous policy experiments and metropolitan reforms, scholars are still trying to sort out the most effective arrangement for metropolitan governance. They recognize that the current method of managing urban regions has led to urban sprawl, environmental degradation, and regional inequity. Peter Drier, John Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom argue that fragmented planning at the local level—without regional cooperation—"has encouraged unplanned, costly sprawl on the urban fringe." Bruce Katz agrees, writing that
America's metropolitan areas are experiencing remarkably similar development patterns—explosive growth at the exurban fringe coupled with decline and disinvestment in older established communities. Throughout the country, upper-income, residentially exclusive suburbs are capturing a disproportionate share of regional infrastructure spending and economic growth. At the same time, trends generally associated with inner-city neighborhoods—concentrated poverty, pervasive joblessness, failing schools, racial and social isolation—are becoming the norm in older suburbs surrounding the urban core.
Scholars interested in regional equity increasingly point to the need for metropolitan solutions. Myron Orfield suggests that "regional governance reflects the reality of modern metropolitan challenges—challenges that are too large for any one government to address alone and that are often exacerbated by excessive fragmentation." He argues that cities and suburbs need to learn to work together because the problems they each face are the same: his study of twenty-five metropolitan regions in the United States finds that "more than half of suburban residents reside in suburbs with social or fiscal challenges severe enough to be considered 'at risk.'" Since increasingly it is not just the central cities that are suffering, he argues that "coalition-building efforts that emphasize the links between core cities and suburbs can bring about reforms to increase equity for an entire region." The notion that coalitions could be built across metropolitan areas has been a focus of the "new regionalists" who, according to Allan Wallis, advocate for "cooperation versus coordination," "governance versus government," "multisector versus public sector," and "multiple versus single boundaries." The "new regionalists" realize the limitations of top-down planning focusing on government reform and instead see more voluntary cooperation and governance rather than government as the way forward.
Arguments for Why Voluntary Regionalism Is Politically Feasible (and Better)
Although the conversation about the need for a metropolitan approach spans decades, the structure of local planning in the United States makes it difficult to create metropolitan institutions with any power. Early experiments with annexation and special districts demonstrated that it was possible to scale up to a higher level for urban service provision and administration. However, while special districts for water and transportation have worked relatively well, political integration at the metropolitan scale has been more complicated. Local municipalities are not accustomed to thinking of themselves as a part of a community of communities, and in many cases local officials view efforts at metropolitan coordination as a threat to their autonomy. Most efforts at metropolitan government through consolidation have been abandoned in the United States in favor of more cooperative and often voluntary models of metropolitan governance. Scholars and policy makers argue that creating metropolitan governance with more authority is politically infeasible. Instead, they recommend focusing efforts on voluntary regionalism that relies on capacity building, consensus building, deliberative democracy, social capital formation, and networking. According to Richard Feoick, Jill Tao, and Linda Johnson, "Top-down solutions have been replaced by voluntary cooperation among governments and through public-private 'intercommunity partnerships.'" In the new model of governance, communities work together because it is in their collective interest to do so instead of being compelled by city-county consolidation or other forms of top-down metropolitan government. Metropolitan planning agencies that operate in this context have a limited role and are often careful not to overstep their mandates.
The focus on voluntary approaches to metropolitan governance in the United States is not entirely surprising. Planners and scholars argue that they are just being realistic: a property-rights backlash throughout the country is one of the main reasons that a more collaborative approach to regional governance will be required in the future. According to Harvey Jacobs, "Since 1991 every state has considered state-based legislation in support of the property rights movement's position." As property rights advocates gain political strength, the prospect of creating regional planning agencies with teeth diminishes because this would mean stricter controls over land use. Scholars are skeptical that citizens and local officials will support state-mandated regulatory approaches that take authority away from localities and restrict development on private property. They also question the effectiveness of regulatory models. Ronald Oakerson argues that "the actual use of coercion through command and control is a highly ineffective instrument for undertaking many of the activities on which governance depends." Instead, he recommends developing governance structures based on "willing consent" that "provide regularized means for identifying and diagnosing problems, elucidating information, arraying and assessing alternatives, and crafting rule-based solutions, as well as for monitoring those arrangements for both implementation and possible alteration." He concludes that
the absence of a local metropoliswide governmental jurisdiction with powers over subordinate units of government allows citizens and officials to create a metropolitan governance structure within civil society. . . . Metropolitan governance structures governed in this manner can be expected to be more participatory, to feature stronger representation, to engage in more effective problem solving related to the care of common goods (the maintenance of the public realm), to allow for more vigorous public entrepreneurship, and to strengthen the accountability of officials to the citizens they serve.
Oakerson is primarily arguing against city-suburban consolidation; however, metropolitan planning agencies that can veto decisions made by local jurisdictions (the case in Portland, Oregon) are also antithetical to the more cooperative, polycentric metropolitan governance model he describes (in which communities work together but maintain their authority).
The metropolitan governance debate in the United States takes place in the context of serious questions about using regulation as a means of dealing with collective action problems. Elinor Ostrom's famous studies of the management of common pool resources (CPR)—shared resources such as fisheries and forests that can be damaged by misuse and overuse—find that voluntary, cooperative management by stakeholders can be more effective than top-down command-and-control models. Ostrom posits that "by consistently taking the power to make decisions about the ways to innovate, adapt, and coordinate efforts away from those who are directly affected, policy-makers have created institutions that are less able to respond to the problems they were created to address." Instead, collective action problems could be overcome (without an outside enforcer) when stakeholders understand that it is in their best interest to preserve a shared resource. For Ostrom, participation in governing by people who are affected is critical because they understand what is at stake. This is antithetical to a more top-down metropolitan approach where decisions are centralized and imposed on stakeholders.
The sense that regulatory models of metropolitan and regional governance are both undesirable and infeasible has led to what Allan Wallis describes as a "third wave" in metropolitan studies. Proponents of this new approach argue that many of the goals of getting communities to work together can be accomplished through consensus building. According to Judith Innes and David Booher, collaboration can help to break down the institutional barriers to productive problem solving: "Such a process can be more quickly responsive and 'intelligent' than top-down guidance or highly structured action and more suitable to our near-chaotic times of rapid change and multiple conflicting goals and perspectives." Rather than evaluating only the measurable outcomes of a process, Innes and Booher are also interested in the process itself and how participation changes the way that participants perceive and act in the world: "While collaboration does produce tangible outcomes like agreements or actions, it has many other consequences that the more traditional rational/technical or bureaucratic approach to planning, program design, and implementation does not." Innes suggests that collaborative approaches can produce other forms of social, political, and intellectual capital such as "new relationships and trust, new partnerships and organizations, and joint learning"; that "it is not enough to evaluate consensus building solely on the basis of outcomes; the process itself matters." For Innes and Booher, "there must be networks and information flows throughout the system." In fact, the relationships among stakeholders are critical. Effective metropolitan institutions are those that build trust, share information, and promote interaction.
Deliberative democracy theorists also contribute to the argument that the most effective form of metropolitan governance may, in fact, be voluntary. Deliberative democrats like Benjamin Barber argue that coming together to discuss common problems transforms the stakeholders themselves. It is only through dialogue that people come to understand their true interests in relation to other people. "With talk," states Barber, "we can invent alternative futures, create mutual purposes, and construct competing visions of community." Jane Mansbridge argues that "deliberations should be as likely as possible to make the participants 1) aware of the implications of their own preferences and interests, the preferences and interests of others, and the interests of the polity as a whole, and 2) capable of transforming their interests in ways that they themselves, looking back on that transformation from a state of reflection and awareness, would approve."
The idea that through deliberative democracy local officials might recognize the regional implications of their planning decisions is a key rationale behind arguments that voluntary metropolitan approaches can be just as (and perhaps more) effective than more regulatory approaches. Patsy Healey argues that deliberative democracy can be a powerful tool for helping stakeholders overcome differences: "The power of dominant discourses can be challenged at the level of dialogue, through the power of knowledgeable, reflective discourse, through good arguments, through the transformations which come as people learn to understand and respect each other across their differences and conflicts, and as we learn to build consensus that respects difference." According to the logic put forth by scholars such as Healey, Mansbridge, Barber, Innes, and Booher, deliberative metropolitan processes rather than institutional reorganization and centralization might be enough to change the behavior of local officials who participate in metropolitan planning processes, and this ultimately can lead to more thoughtful local planning. According to this logic, metropolitan planning agencies that bring stakeholders together, provide them a forum for thoughtful dialogue, and help them with capacity building could be just as or more effective than agencies that have regulatory authority and/or control over fiscal resources.
Given the difficulty of changing the structure of metropolitan planning institutions, the United States has increasingly served as a test case for voluntary metropolitan approaches. A number of multi-million-dollar visioning exercises—notably Envision Utah, Boston MetroFuture, Portland's 2040 Growth Concept, Denver Metro Vision, and Chicago 2020—have been initiated in metropolitan areas across America to address problems of uncoordinated growth. Metropolitan visioning exercises are essentially exercises in deliberative democracy. They all have familiar themes and are often impressive in their goals, scale, and scope. They promise to help create a "new way forward" for the region. They engage citizens, businesspeople, politicians, and planners in a careful analysis of the current trends in the region. They project what will happen to the region if current development patterns continue. They ask stakeholders to define what type of region they would like to live in, and they propose policy changes that would be necessary to reach the desired scenario. The final outcome is usually a plan that advocates for a more compact, equitable, sustainable, efficient, and healthy region. Metropolitan planning agencies often initiate these visioning exercises since they have the ability to convene stakeholders and the capacity to conduct modeling of alternate futures. When the visioning is complete, metropolitan planning agencies use their expertise in capacity building as a means of implementing these plans.
Although the process of regional visioning can be an important educational tool for the stakeholders involved, the theory of change behind visioning exercises is that it can be made in spite of political and institutional hurdles. In an effort to remain politically uncontroversial (and hence feasible), visioning statements often do not recommend radical changes to the political institutions that shape land use planning. They stop short of restructuring the dynamics of metropolitan institutions. They often shy away from tough questions about regional equity or regional tax sharing. Instead, they focus on building coalitions (often ad hoc) of stakeholders who together will speak for the region. Since voluntary institutions convene the majority of these visioning exercises, they depend on the will of local officials for implementation. As a result, implementation remains a challenge.
Under the Obama administration, federal funding has strengthened some regional visioning efforts. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a joint initiative of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Transportation (DOT), attempts to coordinate housing, transportation, and environmental impacts. The Partnership aims to strengthen metropolitan planning through the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning (SCRP) Grants, which provide funding to regional initiatives that promote the Partnership's six livability principles: "1. provide more transportation choices, 2. promote equitable, affordable housing, 3. enhance economic competitiveness, 4. support existing communities, 5. coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment, and 6. value communities and neighborhoods." SCRP funding has helped support some of the ongoing metropolitan initiatives and has created opportunities for metropolitan planning agencies to partner with other stakeholders on regional projects. In addition, SCRP grants have made promoting equity a key goal of regional planning efforts. The SCRP grants recognize the importance of regional solutions; however, they serve primarily as pilot projects where the task of reforming metropolitan governance in the United States is much larger.
The Current State of Metropolitan Governance
While federal interest in strengthening metropolitan solutions is promising, one of the challenges of reforming metropolitan institutions in the United States is that metropolitan governance tends to happen in several ways and every region is slightly different. As a result, it is difficult to make one-size-fits-all suggestions for how to improve it. Councils of governments (COGs), membership organizations of local governments that meet to address common goals, are the weakest but most prevalent form of metropolitan governance in the United States. In general, these organizations rely primarily on capacity building as a strategy for ensuring metropolitan coordination and promoting various regional initiatives. COGs can offer planning support to local municipalities and can help them learn from one another by providing access to data, geographic information systems (GIS), model bylaws, and a convening forum, such as a visioning exercise.
Communities can also jointly create a new metropolitan or area-wide planning agency with sufficient resources to gather information, undertake professional assessments, prepare regional plans, and help build local planning capacity. Sometimes COGs can play the part of regional planning agencies in developing regional plans. In other instances, entirely new regional entities are created. But what makes regional and metropolitan planning difficult is that agencies that claim to plan for the region often lack regulatory authority or control over fiscal incentives. Instead, even regional planning agencies that produce elaborate plans and visions rely on consensus-based capacity-building strategies, which encourage stakeholders to come together to discuss regional goals.
In most metropolitan areas in the United States, regional planning agencies produce important planning documents that outline the path to promoting more sustainable regions; however, implementation of area-wide goals and objectives is essentially at the mercy of local governments. The unwillingness to give up local control means that regional and metropolitan planning agencies exist in an awkward space where they depend on localities to implement their vision. Implementation can depend on the extent to which a community identifies with the regional vision. In some cases, where the vision for the region matches the local vision, this is an easy relationship. However, in cases where these visions conflict, local visions typically trump the regional one.
One means of encouraging metropolitan coordination is to provide local governments an incentive to participate in regional efforts. Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) provide that incentive through their control over the allocation of transportation funds. The first MPOs were created as a result of the Federal Highway Act of 1962, which required that regions of more than 50,000 people have a dedicated organization for decision making about transportation investments that would use a planning process known as the 3Cs ("continuing, cooperative, and comprehensive"). In 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) and the 1998 Transportation Efficiency Act of the 21st Century (TEA-21) strengthened the role of MPOs and their connection to land use and transportation planning. MPOs are responsible for developing the Long Range Transportation Program (LRTP) and the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). The 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) and 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) granted additional funding and responsibility to MPOs.
There are currently 420 MPOs in the United States, and about half of them are also the regional councils for the area. When a metropolitan planning agency is also the MPO, theoretically the agency should transform from being a consensus-based organization that localities join because they are "good citizens" to one with important influence over scarce (and much needed) transportation dollars. In addition, being the MPO for the region should allow for greater integration of transportation and land use planning.
Planners and scholars who hope to see more regional influence on local land use planning point to Metro in Portland, Oregon, where in addition to being the MPO for the region, the state grants Metro sufficient authority to veto certain local land use decisions and require plan consistency. That means Metro can require localities to redo their master plans to ensure that zoning and other local land development regulations are consistent with regional goals and objectives. If a metropolitan planning agency has this level of authority, threats of vetoes over local decisions can be used to require more extensive consideration of each community's responsibility to the larger region. The theoretical effect should be that local land use planning reflects regional goals rather than an amalgamation of many, often conflicting, local decisions that fail to take into consideration the spillover effects of local decisions. However, as this book highlights, even in the case of Portland, having authority is complicated and requires complex mechanisms for collaboration.
Central Questions of the Book
Given the importance of metropolitan planning for the future growth of U.S. regions and the ongoing debate about the best form of governance, we need to understand how the various institutional arrangements of metropolitan areas outlined above affect outcomes. What is the best balance for metropolitan planning agencies between collaboration and authority? Is a locality less likely to be influenced by offers of technical assistance if a metropolitan planning agency lacks real financial incentives or the legal authority to override local decision making? If, in addition to capacity-building assistance, a metropolitan planning agency is also the MPO and can offer substantial financial incentives, will it be more effective at influencing local planning decisions? And, finally, if a metropolitan planning agency has a full toolbox available for it, with capacity building, financial incentives, and authority over local land use decisions, would these institutional arrangements guarantee that local planning will conform to regional goals and objectives? To address these and other questions, this book compares metropolitan planning agencies in Boston, Denver, and Portland, three regions with different metropolitan institutional arrangements with varying levels of authority (see Table 1).
By categorizing the metropolitan planning and governance arrangements according to their capacity, status as MPO, funding sources, statutory authority, and relationship to the electorate at large, the book explores the relationship between the powers that the metropolitan planning agency wields and its ability to influence local implementation of area-wide planning goals. Boston, Denver, and Portland represent three approaches to metropolitan governance, ranging from primarily voluntary (relying on capacity building in Boston) to including MPO powers (Denver), to adding a layer of state-mandated authority (Portland). Although there are other examples of innovative metropolitan planning in the country, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, these three cases were chosen because each represented a metropolitan planning agency with a particular type of authority. Specifically, Boston, Denver, and Portland vary in the amount of authority they have been granted by the state and the ability of each agency to deploy capacity building, financial incentives, and regulatory authority. Taken together, the case studies demonstrate how metropolitan planning institutions with varying degrees of authority are able to influence development decisions of regional significance, promote inter-municipal cooperation, coordinate with state and federal authorities, connect land use planning to transportation investments, and encourage local planning that conforms with and is guided by a regional vision.
Although Boston, Denver, and Portland vary in size, physical form, demographic composition, and growth rates, all three have invested considerable resources in metropolitan visioning exercises with the goal of creating a regional plan that will be implemented locally. These cases are comparable because they are matched in many ways—all three are metropolitan planning agencies in the United States that engage in capacity building and have similar goals of influencing local planning. They also differ in important ways—they have different authority given to them by the state and the federal government and they have different tools available to them to influence local planning.
Measuring the Effectiveness of Metropolitan Governance
Scholars are also reluctant to quantify the effectiveness of different metropolitan governance systems or to explain how different systems work to influence local land use decisions. Part of the difficulty of measuring the effectiveness of metropolitan intervention is developing the causal link: there are many other variables besides metropolitan governance that may be equally or more important in explaining changes that occur. For example, rapid development of land in one area may be a result of a strong economy, specific to that region, rather than the failure of metropolitan policy. Similarly, housing trends may be different in each area as a result of historical development patterns rather than specific policies initiated by a metropolitan agency. The age of the housing stock and infrastructure may play a significant role in dictating the physical form of the region, so the Boston region may have a better regional transportation system as a result of its history rather than because of metropolitan policy or governance. Since it is difficult to disaggregate these variables and say with certainty that particular outcomes are a direct result of metropolitan policies, the book's strategy is to look at the planning process itself to assess how local land use decisions and large-scale planning projects of regional significance were shaped or changed by the metropolitan agency's intervention or lack thereof.
Since the effectiveness of a metropolitan planning agency is dependent on the extent to which it can influence local land use choices, the book uses a set of criteria or "observable implications" to test whether and how metropolitan planning agencies promote changes in local behavior. Thus, if an agency is effective at influencing local planning, we should expect that:
- localities will adopt regional policies,
- local plans will be consistent with the regional plan,
- the language used to talk about policy at the local level will match the regional language,
- local officials will talk about how they have changed their planning behavior as a result of the regional plan,
- local officials will talk about the importance of metropolitan coordination,
- local elected officials will see the metropolitan planning agency as relevant to the work,
- local elected officials and planners will attend the meetings of the metropolitan planning agency and will be actively involved with policy making,
- projects of regional significance will be consistent with regional plan or goals,
- changes in metropolitan land use patterns will reflect the goals of the metropolitan plan (i.e., denser development; transit-oriented development [TOD]; communities following the urban growth boundary; communities changing zoning to match regional plan goals),
- transportation investments will support the regional plan, and
- local communities will work together to address problems that they share.
The book relies on firsthand reports of the individuals most involved (both local and regional planners and elected officials) to evaluate the policy effectiveness of various approaches to metropolitan planning and governance. Their insights are triangulated against an analysis of local and regional plans and policies.
Plan for the Book
Since the current trend in metropolitan governance is to rely on "voluntary" regionalism rather than top-down, command-and-control models of metropolitan government, this book questions what happens as metropolitan governance moves from depending on collaboration to authority. Although the lessons from Boston, Denver, and Portland will not apply to all cases, they offer us a window into the challenges and opportunities facing metropolitan planning in the United States.
The book consists of three cases of U.S. efforts at metropolitan planning and governance, told from the bottom up between 2006 and 2015. In each region, interviews with local and regional officials about policies provide a window into the policy-making process itself and the outcomes of various approaches. Taken together, they tell the story of local and regional planning successes and failures through the voices of the planners and policy makers themselves and an analysis of their plans and policies. Insights from these cases highlight ways in which metropolitan planning is working and where work needs to be done (Chapters 5 and 6). The book demonstrates how metropolitan planning institutions with varying degrees of authority are able to influence development decisions of regional significance, promote inter-municipal cooperation, and encourage local planning that conforms with and is guided by a regional vision. The cases also highlight the complex and hybrid nature of metropolitan planning and governance in America.
In each case, I search for evidence of land use decisions that take into account regional concerns and ways in which the metropolitan planning agencies are able to influence or alter local land use decisions. In addition to evaluating the plans and planning process in each region, the book examines regionally significant projects, such as the South Weymouth Naval Air Station redevelopment in the Boston region, the forty-square-mile Lowry Range in the Denver region, and the development of 12,000 acres in the Damascus/Boring Area in the Portland region. These examples provide insight into how the metropolitan planning agency deals with large-scale development projects that will affect the whole region and which may or may not match the metropolitan planning agencies' plans and goals for the region. The book also looks at the implementation of regional policies, such as the urban growth boundary in Denver and Portland.
Chapter 2 presents a case study of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) in Boston, a planning agency representing 101 cities and towns that relies primarily on capacity building. The Boston region has a relatively weak system of metropolitan governance in part because of a strong tradition of home rule in Massachusetts. MAPC tries to convince the cities and towns in the region that there are economic and environmental reasons to think beyond their borders. MAPC does its metropolitan planning work in the context of a weak state-planning system. It is a voting member of the Boston MPO, but it does not have full control over the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) funding. Without control over the TIP budget as a carrot or a strong state land use planning system as a stick, MAPC staff members have to be extremely creative to make their policies economically and politically relevant to their member cities and towns. MAPC uses capacity building tools to work with member municipalities to promote smart growth development goals that are consistent with a regional vision that the agency developed. Given the fiscal and political constraints that local governments face, implementing regional policies at the local level is often difficult. However, MAPC has become a much more relevant agency under the leadership of its current executive director, Marc Draisen (who was formerly a member of the state legislature). Through MAPC's MetroFuture regional visioning process, the agency has revived an interest in regional planning. The MAPC story highlights the challenge of planning without authority but demonstrates how under new leadership a metropolitan planning agency can use capacity building as a means of influencing public opinion and state policy.
By comparison to Boston, regional planning agencies in Denver (Chapter 3) and Portland (Chapter 4), the second and third case studies in the book, have more authority through their control over the allocation of federal transportation funding (because the metropolitan planning agency is also the MPO). The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), a voluntary association of fifty-six local governments, is the metropolitan planning agency and the MPO. As the MPO, DRCOG controls federal transportation funds. DRCOG uses its TIP funding as a mechanism to promote the adoption of regional policies, as transportation projects that implement the goals of Denver's regional plan, known as Metro Vision 2035, are rated higher in the TIP process. DRCOG (in collaboration with the Metro Mayors Caucus) also created a voluntary agreement among counties and municipalities known as the Mile High Compact (MHC). The Mile High Compact, signed in 2000, obliges signatory counties and cities to abide by the planning and development principles put forward in the Metro Vision plan. The signatories also agree to plan within the framework of the voluntary Urban Growth Boundary/Area (UGB/A) that limits the location of new development. As a result of the MHC and its UGB/A, DRCOG has been cited as a leader in making voluntary regionalism work. However, a key question remains: does the success of Denver's collaborative effort primarily reflect the voluntary nature of its approach, or has DRCOG been strategic in leveraging its MPO authority over transportation funds to promote local conformance with regional goals?
Chapter 4 focuses on Portland Metro, which is considered by many to be the "poster child" of U.S. metropolitan planning because of its state-mandated authority over land use and regionally elected council. Although Portland Metro is often discussed as the premier example of metropolitan governance in America, some practitioners and academics doubt the viability and replicability of the Portland model. Portland Metro is the metropolitan planning agency as well as the MPO for the twenty-five cities and three counties in the Portland metropolitan area. It also administers the UGB for the region and controls a number of land use planning functions under Oregon state law. Metro's authority comes from Oregon's strong state land use planning regulations; however, even in Portland, there is an important role for capacity building. Portland is the only metropolitan area in the United States with a seven-member elected metropolitan council, authority over federal transportation money (because it is the MPO), and control over the region's UGB. In the 2006-2009 TIP cycle, Metro allocated $385 million of state and federal revenue. About $240.4 million went to Tri-Met, the regional public transportation system, but $114 million was earmarked for "regionally flexible funds" that Metro allocates to the region. The money Metro controls as the MPO is needed by localities to maintain and improve their transportation infrastructure. As a result, local officials pay attention to Metro and participate in its planning efforts. State growth management regulation also gives Metro the authority to determine the UGB for the region and constrain local land use planning. Under Oregon state law every city must have a UGB that determines which land is urban and which will remain agricultural. Metro ensures that there is a twenty-year supply of available land for urban development within the UGB, and Metro Council reviews the land supply every five years and decides whether to expand the UGB. The state legislature has also granted Metro specific "land-use planning powers including: coordinating between regional and local comprehensive plans in adopting a regional urban growth boundary; requiring consistency of local comprehensive plans with statewide and regional planning goals; planning for activities of metropolitan significance including (but not limited to) transportation, water quality, air quality and solid waste." Portland Metro's combination of capacity building tools, control over financial incentives, and ability to wield regulatory authority make it an interesting case of metropolitan governance with authority.
Taken together, the three case studies demonstrate that in some cases authority creates cooperation and in others cooperation can lead to authority. The findings from these cases (Chapters 5 and 6) challenge trends in regional planning in the United States that privilege more cooperative and voluntary approaches and dismiss more regulatory models as out of step with American politics. Instead, these stories of metropolitan planning and governance highlight how complicated the process of metropolitan scale coordination is and the need for a more hybrid approach that consists of formal authority over land use and fiscal resources as well as capacity building, citizen education and engagement, and good old-fashioned politics. We start with Boston.