state governments: key leaders in promoting regionalism
The following material is excerpted with written permission from How Smart Growth Can Stop Sprawl, a briefing guide for funders by David Bollier. (Washington, D.C.: Essential Books), 1998. 

Since it is virtually impossible for local jurisdictions to negotiate a consolidation on their own, much of the responsibility for promoting regionalism falls to state governments, whether that be modest forms of growth management or more ambitious regimes of tax-base sharing or regional governance.1  The federal government has a larger role to play in promoting regionalism than it currently plays, certainly more than the "regionalism-lite" of the Clean Air Act and the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. But state governments are the most decisive players in making regionalism actually work.

Nominally, at least twelve states have instituted some system of regional planning and growth management. But many of these schemes are legally toothless or ineffective for any number of reasons. Often consigned to bureaucrats and lacking clear, consistent political support from either politicians or citizens, some growth management programs have become political orphans. State officials in such circumstances have been understandably reluctant to show real leadership because of uncertain allegiances and accountability.

Some states, however, have developed relatively more advanced and effective land-use planning regimes. These include Oregon, Maryland, Vermont, New Jersey, Florida and Washington State. A number of other states are also giving serious consideration to adopting new statewide plans. The more successful ones will:

  • help local governments manage growth;
  • give financial incentives to towns and regions that have formulated comprehensive plans;
  • establish goals and performance measures to assess progress; and
  • educate communities, local officials, citizens and developers about the impacts of growth, and the tools that can address those impacts.
Full regional governance probably offers the best long-term solutions for growth management. But there are lesser alternatives that can also be useful:

Annexation. State governments could make it easier for suburban communities to incorporate into cities and towns (becoming more "elastic"), thus making it easier to set tighter limits on development. This is what the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is now seeking, to help prevent the unsightly sprawl in its beautiful desert region.

Annexation by itself is not a solution to sprawl. However, it can create more favorable circumstances for adopting regional solutions. At the very least, annexation can help a metro region capture and channel the fruits of its growth. That is the example of Charlotte, North Carolina, which has expanded from 30 to 225 square miles, capturing 50 percent of the region's population growth, through annexation.

Regional land use and infrastructure planning. This kind of regime, while still fairly rare, has been effective in a number of regions. Among the more successful regional planning agencies with strong regulatory powers are the Cape Code Regional Commission, the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, the Tahoe Regional Planning Commission, the Columbia River Gorge Commission and the Adirondack Park Agency. Most of these regional bodies were created by states, with federal endorsement, after it became clear that special natural environments were endangered and not being properly managed by local jurisdictions.

Establishing these agencies was facilitated by the fact that each region is well-recognized as a special, coherent place with distinctive social, cultural and historical traditions. Most of them were also established from the "top down" by the political establishment, rather than from a groundswell of the grassroots. The challenge of the smart growth movement is to promote new regional planning in areas that may not be as environmentally distinctive and where the political establishment may be resistant to the idea.

If that can be achieved, however, the new regulatory edifice is likely to deliver impressive results. An agency that is created through "bottom up" advocacy is more likely to have strong, powerful political backing for its mission. The Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities is a case study of what can happen if a regional entity does not have an organized political base. Myron Orfield contends the Met Council, operating in a political nether zone, found itself eclipsed by the superior political power of the state, counties and cities on controversies involving the siting of a racetrack, a zoo and the massive Mall of America. The Council became "part of the problem of regional economic polarization, helping exclusive, economically powerful communities to grow at the expense of the region.... The council has neither promoted economic stability and equity nor provided consistent leadership to deal with regional conflict." 2

State-wide goals and procedures, but local land use planning. A number of states, such as Oregon, Florida and New Jersey, use this bifurcated arrangement to try to manage growth. The state mandates goals, outlines how decisions should be made, and reviews the final plans proposed by localities. The scheme has a pragmatic political appeal and can work. But it is also highly dependent upon the rigor of statewide goals and oversight, and actual local leadership.3

Regional bodies to carry out specific federal mandates, such as the Clean Air Act.  Regional air quality management districts provide a way for a region to coordinate its activities, and to be prodded by federal law and sanctions.  This is a real advance.  On the other hand, such federal mandates cannot reach beyond a given domain (e.g., clean air) and thus are only an indirect tool for dealing with land use.

The thirst for new kinds of regional cooperation and governance is growing.  Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley told suburban leaders in August 1997 that it was time for regional cooperation. In trying to improve ties between Detroit and 239 surrounding municipalities, Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer said, "It's not Detroit versus Livonia or Auburn Hills or Grosse Point. It's Detroit versus Cleveland. So it's in our best interests to come together collectively."4

What is unclear is what sorts of political realignments are acceptable to existing officeholders (do city mayors really want suburban constituencies?) and what powers the suburbs are willing to cede in order to achieve regional synergies (can suburbanites understand how regionalism would serve their best interests?)

Convincing the suburbs to recognize their larger, long-term interests is a daunting proposition. But Maryland Governor Parris Glendening has done so through his smart growth initiative.5  In the Twin Cities, Orfield has helped push through important new kinds of regionalism by showing how the suburbs are not politically monolithic; inner-ring and outer-ring suburbs have distinct political interests that make them far more receptive to regionalism than "favored quarter" suburbs. Even many smaller towns can come together around cooperative planning arrangements, as the towns of Mesa County, Colorado, have shown.

What makes for a successful growth management plan in a state? Perhaps the paramount factor is sustained, aggressive and informed citizen pressure. Politicians and government officials may mean well and have good ideas, but without the grassroots political base to drive needed reforms, the best proposals will be pared back or defeated.

Other factors in successful growth management plans, according to Vermont Governor Howard Dean, include:6

  • Consistency in planning definitions and goals, achieved through mandatory compliance, incentives and/or disincentives;
  • Clarity in the goals and implementation process of growth management;
  • Coordination of advocacy for natural resources, economic development and affordable housing. Because these three realms are so interconnected, advocates in these areas must cooperate in order to win passage of successful growth management legislation;
  • Dedicated funding that does not fluctuate with changing economic fortunes;
  • Political leadership from the governor and legislative leaders; and

  • Consensus building from the outset of a growth management initiative (a criterion that some smart growth advocates, such as Orfield, would contest).
1 A fuller consideration of antidotes to Balkanized suburbs is contained in Anthony Downs, New Visions for Metropolitan America (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994), Chapter 9, pp. 169-182.
2 Myron Orfield, Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1997), p. 178.
3 See Anthony Downs, New Visions for Metropolitan America, p. 179-181.
4 Sam Walter, "Cities Making Allies of 'Burbs," Christian Science Monitor, September 4, 1997.
5 For more on Maryland's Smart Growth Initiative, see
6 Howard Dean, "Growth Management Plans," in Henry L. Diamond and Patrick F. Noonan, Land Use in America (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996), p. 144.