Academic journal article Cityscape

Epistemic Communities or Forced Marriages? Evaluating Collaboration among Sustainable Communities Initiative Regional Planning Grant Recipients

Academic journal article Cityscape

Epistemic Communities or Forced Marriages? Evaluating Collaboration among Sustainable Communities Initiative Regional Planning Grant Recipients

Article excerpt


Communities in the United States face complex issues of growth, decline, and sustainability that are challenging to address at the local scale or within agency silos, such as transportation, housing, or economic development. However, in the face of deep regional schisms about how to move forward and the lack of a formal regional government, regional problemsolving requires collaborative governance networks. Nonprofits, the private sector, and other nonstate actors often work with the public sector to help envision the region's future, design new policy approaches, and implement specific projects.

The rise of these regional governance networks is leading to a lively debate about their form and effectiveness. If the networks are inclusive, leaderships and resources are in place, and processes are nimble and adaptive, leading to a shared vision, regional governance may be effective (Innes and Booher, 1999; McKinney, Parr, and Seltzer, 2004). A variety of regional actors may come together in a "diverse epistemic community" or in the formation of a regional consciousness among stakeholders that leads to joint problem definition and solving (Benner and Pastor, 2012). When confronting a problem, networks of actors come together to ascertain facts, share concerns, and reach a shared understanding. In the process, actors begin seeing them as part of a region where fates are intertwined (Benner and Pastor, 2012). At the same time, even when they strive to be inclusive, collaborations may reinforce existing power dynamics if inequities among stakeholders are not addressed (Lester and Reckhow, 2013).

Because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Sustainable Communities Initiative Regional Planning Grant (SCI-RPG) program required participants to develop broad collaborations or consortia, it offers an excellent case to examine regional governance and collaboration, specifically the formation of epistemic communities. Funded by Congress in 2010 and 2011, the SCI-RPG program provided grants on a competitive basis for collaborative regional planning efforts supporting more sustainable development patterns. With $165 million awarded to 74 grantees from across the country, the program marks the largest federal government investment ever in regional planning in the United States.

Based on a mixture of quantitative data analysis and qualitative case studies, this article examines whether SCI-RPG grantees succeeded at forming epistemic communities, and more broadly, at engaging in regional collaboration and governance. Specifically, we ask-

* What factors, if any, led to the formation of diverse epistemic communities among SCI-RPG participants?

* How did the existence of epistemic communities shape the implementation and sustainability of the initiative in grantee regions?

This article begins with a review of academic debates about regional collaboration, focusing on the definition of epistemic communities. After providing a brief background on how the SCI-RPG program structures collaboration, we describe our methodological approach and data. Based on the unique databases constructed for this study, the following section describes collaboration and governance structures among grantees. Regression analysis of both partners and plan adoption is used to identify the factors that lead to epistemic community formation, and suggests the role communities play in implementation. Case studies both confirm and complicate the quantitative findings. A final section concludes and offers policy implications.

Conceptualizing Regional Collaboration

A rich literature establishes how collaborative planning can foster dialogue among diverse stakeholders (Innes and Booher, 1999; Forester, 1999). In a "community of inquiry," a cooperative and creative dialogue can build a common understanding that then motivates collaboration (Innes and Booher, 2000). An inclusive, equitable regional planning table, at which goals and definitions are aligned among stakeholders, can also help a diverse group of actors address complex social ills (Kania and Kramer, 2011). …

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