Metropolitan Governance and Strategic Planning in the US

A Report to the Strategic Metropolitan Plan of Barcelona by
Dr. Marc A. Weiss, Chairman and CEO
Global Urban Development

June 2003


The United States officially became a majority urban nation according to the US Census of 1920, but throughout the 19th century, rapid industrialization and immigration from abroad fueled rapid growth of cities and urban regions. The ability of city boundaries to keep up with the explosion of urban population and the expansion of urban land development proved a difficult challenge, with the main method being annexation by the city government of surrounding towns and villages, officially incorporating them within the city's newly enlarged borders through legal authority granted to the municipal corporation by the state government. Thus for a time, city growth kept pace with metropolitan growth. For example, cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago all grew -- through annexation and consolidation -- from their original boundaries of just a few square miles and an original population of a few thousand people early in the 19th century, to cities with hundreds of square miles and millions of people by the end of the 19th century.

During the 20th century many of the older US cities, especially in the northeast and middle west, stopped expanding their municipal boundaries, and metropolitan growth became largely a function of massive suburbanization of thousands of separately incorporated urban communities throughout the metropolitan region. In some areas of the south and west, however, growth of city boundaries continued through annexation, such that cities such as San Antonio and Albuquerque continued to cover the vast bulk of the urbanized population within the metropolitan area. This gap between the city and the metropolis led the US Census to create a new category in the earlier 20th century, the Metropolitan Statistical Area, consisting of a central city and a relatively contiguous urbanized population within daily commuting range, to reflect the new reality of an urban region with many different local government jurisdictions.

Since most of the major cities by the early 20th century no longer covered the entire metropolitan region, urban planning involving metropolitan cooperation of the public and private sectors became a new tool in support of a regional policy agenda. The famous 1909 Plan of Chicago was essentially a regional plan, and two of the leading business patrons of that plan, Charles Norton and Frederic Delano, moved to New York City a decade later and helped spearhead an even more ambitious effort, the Regional Plan of New York and its Environs. This plan, completed at the end of the 1920s, served as a blueprint for urban investment and development in the tri-state region for a generation. New York City, which was reinvented in 1898 by consolidating five separate counties to instantly become the world's largest city, was encompassed by the world's largest urban region that crossed three different states, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. A decade ago the Regional Plan Association (RPA), a private non-profit civic organization, published the third regional plan for metropolitan New York. In the 21st century the RPA is still playing a major role in strategically shaping urban growth and development patterns across this large tri-state metropolis with a total population of nearly 20 million people, as it has been doing ever since the 1920s.

In addition to the enlargement of general purpose local government and the expansion of metropolitan planning across multiple governmental jurisdictions, another attempt to address the growing challenges of metropolitan life involved the creation of regional special purpose government corporations to coordinate and investment, public works, and regulation of specific activities. I call this approach "functional regionalism." The first major institution of this kind in the US was the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, created just after World War I to jointly govern regional seaports, rail terminals, warehouses, bridges, and tunnels, later branching out to include airports, subways, and even the World Trade Center. Throughout the US, there are numerous metropolitan public authorities that finance, build, and operate regional airports, transit systems, highways, bridges, water and sewer systems, electric power, zoological parks, sports stadiums, performing arts centers, forest preserves, parks and recreation centers, parkways, and many other public facilities. These metropolitan authorities in some cases also regulate certain aspects of regional land-use, particularly related to sensitive wetlands, coastal zones, open space, transportation, air quality, and water quality.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected US President after serving as the Governor of New York. President Roosevelt was quit familiar and supportive of the regional planning and metropolitan authority experience in New York, and he appointed his uncle, Frederic Delano, to head a new federal government agency to encourage regional planning. Delano recruited a distinguished political scientist from Chicago, Charles Merriam, as his colleague, and together they launched a much more aggressive movement to address the challenges of metropolitan governance. During the 1930s and 40s this movement mainly focused on providing federal government funding to create regional special purpose authorities to construct and manage a wide variety of public works, such as the massive multi-state Tennessee Valley Authority, and also including something quite new in the US-- government-owned housing for low-income families.

The huge increase in federal government budget aid for local governments during the 1930s and 40s also led to increased support for the creation of a national agency to promote urban improvement and metropolitan governance. This movement finally succeeded during the 1960s with the creation of a new federal cabinet-level agency, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In the three decades of political and policy activism that culminated in the establishment of HUD, disciples of Delano and Merriam lobbied for greater federal government resources to be devoted to metropolitan planning and investment, and especially for the consolidation of urban local governments into one large metropolitan government. Accordingly, in the early 1950s a federal program called 701 was initiated to provide substantial funding for regional planning to be conducted through new coordinated entities called Councils of Government (COGs) that represented all of the local government jurisdictions within a metropolitan region. The intention was that the COGs would become the vanguard of creating truly regional governments, though this was to prove much more difficult than anyone imagined. The San Francisco Bay Area nearly created a comprehensive regional government during the early 1970s, but ultimately it did not succeed.

A decade later, Portland, Oregon established a limited-purpose elected metropolitan government (called Metro) with land-use and transportation planning powers, and Minneapolis-St. Paul developed the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council with certain revenue raising and tax-base sharing powers, in addition to land-use and transportation. More recently, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority was created to help improve metropolitan Atlanta's severe automobile traffic and air pollution problems. Another variation on this theme is the consolidation of city and county governments. In some cases these city-counties date back to the 19th century, such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Denver, and San Francisco, but as part of the movement toward regional government, there was another wave of city-county consolidations in the 1960s and 70s, including Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Nashville. Occasionally such consolidations still occur-just two years ago, Louisville joined together with Jefferson County.

Despite the various examples from the preceding two paragraphs, the movement for general purpose metropolitan government in the US essentially lost all of its momentum during the 1980s and has never recovered. Rarely does one hear any serious discussion today of creating regional governments. Even the existing framework suffered a damaging setback during the 1980s when President Reagan and the Congress eliminated the 701 regional planning grants, which greatly diminished the power and resources of the metropolitan Councils of Governments. Since then new movements have emerged, but no longer advocating metropolitan government. Instead, regional governance, planning, management, collaboration, and "smart growth" have become the operative terms. Today, Councils of Governments often develop strategic plans for their metropolitan regions, such as the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) or the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG).

One of the most important elements of this resurgence has been the federal government transportation legislation during the 1990s, which mandated that every urban region must create a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) as a coordinated group of local government officials, in order to jointly plan transportation investments and provide policy advice for state transportation and highway agencies. In many cases the regional COGs also reconstituted themselves as MPOs, and sometimes the MPOs were established as separate organizations. Either way, they are helping to focus renewed attention on issues of metropolitan governance. Some of the MPOs, like the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council in metropolitan St. Louis that serves an area located within two different states (Missouri and Illinois), have been very aggressive in developing and implementing strategic multi-modal transportation and economic development plans. Similarly, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required local governments in many metropolitan regions to work more closely together to get the region within compliance of federal air quality standards, or face the loss of billions of dollars in federal transportation funding. Indeed, it was the EPA's intervention that basically forced the state of Georgia to create GRTA for metropolitan Atlanta.

In addition, metropolitan chambers of commerce and regional economic development corporations bring together the private and public sectors to market an urban region for attracting and retaining businesses, investments, and jobs as well as promoting external and even international trade. Organizations such as the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce or the Akron Regional Development Board have been very effective in designing and implementing strategic economic development plans for their respective regions. These entities, like the Greater Baltimore Committee, are often supplemented by regional civic organizations, citizens who advocate for affordable housing, greater access to quality education and employment opportunities, increased equity in the distribution of public investment and services, environmental quality, racial and social justice, and many other vital issues, such as the Citizens Housing and Planning Council of metropolitan Baltimore. National organizations such as the Citistates Group and the Alliance for Regional Stewardship are providing encouragement and advice to assist metropolitan civic movements in growing larger and improving their methods of organizing.

Perhaps the issue getting the most attention is the problem of suburban and exurban sprawl, the excessive low-density urbanization of agricultural land and consequent loss of open space and natural beauty combined with an exponential rise in traffic congestion, air and water pollution, and highly inequitable economic and social patterns of spatial development patterns across the urban region and beyond. In response to these rapidly rising challenges, there has been considerable emphasis on developing alternative transportation that invests greater resources in public transit (especially light-rail, and bus rapid transit), in high-density mixed-use development around transit stations, in pathways for bicycles and pedestrians, and generally creating and strengthening a more urban-oriented environment for living, working, playing, and visiting. While there are many ways to approach and describe these issues, the more popular phrase in the US is smart growth, which argues for curbing suburban sprawl through a combination of open space preservation and directing more resources into rebuilding already developed urban and suburban communities. The best example of this approach was initiated in Maryland under former Governor Parris Glendening, and several other states, including Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, have promoted some combination of these types of land-use policies, with varying degrees of effectiveness. In addition, there are several national organizations, such as the American Planning Association, the Congress for the New Urbanism, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, the Rails to Trails Conservancy, and Smart Growth America, all of which focus on promoting such a policy and planning agenda.

Global Urban Development has over the past decade developed a new paradigm called Metropolitan Economic Strategy, designed to bring together all of the people, communities, and institutions within an urban region and its periphery around the purpose of generating and sustaining prosperity and quality of life for every person and place. I call this approach "identity regionalism" because it promotes a genuine common interest whereby everyone is better off by helping everyone else improve their future prospects and opportunities. People may not be "citizens" of a metropolitan government, but they certainly are citizens of a metropolitan economy. Teamwork and leadership are the keys to a successful Metropolitan Economic Strategy, and unlike narrower definitions of economic growth or development that may only benefit the few or harm the physical environment, Metropolitan Economic Strategy places a premium on maintaining and enhancing a sustainable environment and fostering equitable economic and social conditions, because urban regions compete most effectively in the global marketplace by retaining and attracting a talented and highly motivated workforce, and this can only be accomplished if there is a good overall metropolitan quality of life. Urban regions are the fundamental building blocks of national prosperity, because they are the leading centers of productivity and innovation in the world economy. In every country, rich or poor, urban regions contribute a disproportionately higher share of the Gross Domestic Product, far exceeding the percentage of the national population that is urbanized.

The US, with a national population that is more than 80 percent urbanized, is essentially a metropolitan country. Indeed, more than half of the entire national population lives in just the 25 largest metropolitan regions. It is highly unlikely in the near future that there will be general purpose metropolitan governments that cover the entire population and land mass of an urban region. On the other hand, metropolitan governance, land-use and transportation and environmental planning, coordinated public and private investments and facilities and services, economic strategy, revenue raising and sharing, and many other forms of metropolitan cooperation that help generate and sustain prosperity, quality of life, and community livability will continue to be a vital aspect of neighborhood, regional, state, and national policymaking and program implementation for many generations to come.