Challenges Ahead for US Regional Planning Governance

By Foster, Kathryn A. | The Town Planning Review, September 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Challenges Ahead for US Regional Planning Governance


Foster, Kathryn A., The Town Planning Review


Challenges of governance complicate regional planning in the United States. With a backdrop of the emergence of new regional planning realms of climate change, homeland security, and shrinking regions, this paper outlines the nature of US regional planning governance challenges and its potential governance solutions. Numerous general and specific institutions shape US regional planning practice and set it apart from regional planning elsewhere. Regardless of the organisational structure and rules of regional planning, regional planners must address three governance questions for each planning situation: by what authority, exercised by whom, and in what territory? In the end, the quality of regional planning rests in the quality of regional planning governance.

Challenges of governance complicate regional planning in the United States. Unlike planning for a single jurisdiction - whether a small town, large state, or nation - regional planning entails multiple independent units, each with power to plan and act for part of the whole. Although autonomous entities may have a common interest in a territory, they often have different preferences, capacities and perspectives on the nature and means of addressing planning challenges. The challenge of regional planning is to devise unified goals and standards, manage resources, make and enforce collective decisions, determine fair and efficient processes for getting along and resolving disputes, and steward the shared space sufficiently well to keep it viable and intact for generations to come. In short, regional planning is governance.

In this essay, I take stock of regional planning governance in the US. Regional planning governance has long waxed and waned between centralised and decentralised power. Three emerging planning realms - climate change, homeland security, shrinking regions - demand region-scale attention, yet their management confronts obstacles of regional planning governance, making obvious solutions hard to achieve. One influence is US governance institutions, the norms, rules, and regular practices shaping regional planning practice and setting it apart from regional planning elsewhere. From these societal conventions come varied approaches to US regional planning governance. Regardless of the 'structural how' of regional planning, however, regional planners must address three governance questions for each planning situation: by what authority, exercised by whom, and in what territory?

The long arc and wide reach of regional planning governance

Over time, the pendulum of regional planning governance in the US has swung between local entities holding the strongest legal cards to voluntarily address - or not - a regional problem, and state or federal governments asserting their power to mandate or use incentives to tackle region-scale issues.

In a most general overview (see Foster, 2001 for elaboration), centralised power was the norm in colonial times with governors, constables and justices of the peace managing the large-scale economic, legal, fiscal, diplomatic and service realms of the largely unsettled colonial territory. As settlements proliferated and dispersed geographically, governors retained powers over major infrastructure - canals, bridges, ports - but readily ceded governing power over daily tasks to colonial sub-units - counties, towns, villages - the imminent nation's founding local governments.

The pendulum swing to local control over governance accelerated through the 1800s as the former colonial - now state - governments enthusiastically incorporated local governments, then granted them considerable powers to annex, tax, plan, spend, borrow, and operate largely without direct state interference. In the denser metropolitan regions, regional planning via intergovernmental cooperation - and consolidation and annexation in celebrated cases in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Chicago, and New York City - was a necessity for managing cross-border issues such as crime, public health, 'poor relief ' and utilities. …

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