Regionalism Reconsidered

What are the realistic outcomes of Regionalism? In Michigan, can it live up to expectations placed on it ?

Regionalism has been a recurrent theme that we have been exploring.  (See our post of two years ago, Is Regionalism Really A Good Thing?; we have now added Regional to our category list, which will make searching for related posts more feasible.) The subject keeps coming up. Many recent initiatives in the Ann Arbor area have been linked to this concept. In particular, transit and transportation planning have revolved around a regional vision.  But there has been little debate about the significance of regionalism to the overall health and long-term development of communities, in other words, to the public good.  Nor has the concept truly been explored and explained in any depth, at least not at the popular level.  (I’d welcome citations to some scholarly work that applies to Michigan or comparable states.)

Rather, a faith in the power of Regionalism has emerged as a category of received wisdom.  It seems that every new City Council candidate expounds on its virtues without the impediment of having studied its history or implementation.  As a very recent example, here is what Chip Smith, a write-in candidate for the Fifth Ward council seat currently held by Mike Anglin, had to say in an interview on the blog Damn Arbor.

Economic Development also includes developing regional transit solutions to more effectively move people into and out of the City…(it) has to grow our regional economy so we can continue to make investments for the future and provide the public services we need to be a great place to live. (skip)We also had a debate during the last budget cycle about making sure we keep five fire stations operating. What’s the return on this investment? Can we engage our neighbors like Pittsfield and Scio Townships to develop a regional partnership to more efficiently provide the same, or better, level of service than we have today?

Unfortunately, such rosy viewpoints ignore the actual structure of Michigan governance and the history of past efforts. Here is a white paper on Michigan governance that lays out the history and impediments to action across governments. Briefly, the history makes clear that the strong direction of Michigan legislation and law has been to strengthen the power of townships and to inhibit the ability of cities to expand.  This has also meant that the development of metropolitan governance so successful and celebrated in other states (think, Portland) (note, Seattle) has been virtually impossible in Michigan. We have previously discussed, notably in this post, township governments and their approach to funding, that make cooperative efforts difficult.

Washtenaw County regional planning groups active in 2005

Washtenaw County regional planning groups active in 2005

I confess to being a recovering regionalist.  As a county commissioner, I was intent to bring these concepts to Washtenaw County.  The County had a long-standing and successful Metropolitan Planning Department.  It was my mission as a planning commissioner and later as the first chair of a new Planning Advisory Board, to bring a new County Comprehensive Plan into being, which we achieved in 2004.  This was the springboard for many regional initiatives. At the time, Washtenaw County planning had been facilitating many regional planning groups.  Their discussions went beyond land use planning to many issues of mutual interest.

A countywide workshop was held in 2005.  The background material, Thinking and Acting Regionally, encouraged localities to engage in issues from solid waste disposal to farmland protection to transit, as well as sharing expenses for necessary services and using growth management techniques to avoid an undue demand for new services.

Unfortunately, it was all for naught.  As detailed in a scholarly paper by Carolyn Loh and Neha Sami (of Wayne State and University of Michigan, respectively), the Washtenaw Planning department came to an end even in the midst of a major burst of activity in initiating regional cooperation in the county. Here is the abstract:

Advocates have long claimed that a regional land use planning approach achieves gains in equity, efficiency, and environmental protect(ion), but few studies have empirically tested these claims. In this case study of a regional planning process in a weak mandate state, we find that the regional plan would have produced better land use outcomes, but its impact was severely limited by political conflicts at the county level, a recession that necessitated cuts to non-mandated services, and a lack of state leadership around regional planning. Ultimately, all these factors contributed to the eventual disbandment of the entire regional planning structure in the area.

After County finances suffered a collapse during the national fiscal crisis (and the collapse of housing values and thus taxable value), the Board of Commissioners decided to cancel the entire enterprise.  This memo to the Planning Advisory Board (which was soon to be disbanded) details the many regional initiatives that had been begun in the interim between the Comprehensive Plan (2004) and the memo (2009).  Most of those were abandoned.

Still, the golden gleam of regionalization still calls to those who hope.  The fire protection cooperation idea has been recurrent and its advantages are clear.  (Here is a Washtenaw Metro Fire Cooperation overview from 2006 of a county effort.)  Yet, it seems every time county townships consider it, there are very small steps indeed.  In this recent account, Pittsfield Township joined a cooperative effort based on a technological enhancement.  Here is what the Pittsfield Township fire chief had to say about it:

“I see it as a step in working together. There are good points and bad points to regionalizing,” he said. “In some places it works great and some places it’s not so great. So in Washtenaw County, if it ever happens, we’ll have to wait and see.”

In the next series of posts, we’ll continue to consider what regionalism really offers here and elsewhere.  Does it really improve the human condition?  Some thoughts to consider.

UPDATE:  Detroit’s water system is a case study in regionalization of a vital resource.  This editorial in the Detroit Free Press outlines the issue with some useful links.  It’s the same quandary as with other regional initiatives: control vs. who pays vs. cost vs. “equity” (i.e. supplying a service to those who need it but can’t really pay).

While it might seem that this is a problem for another set of communities, Detroit water actually serves a substantial number of Washtenaw County residents.  Ypsilanti City, Ypsilanti Township, and Pittsfield Township at a minimum rely on Detroit water, as does the neighboring Wayne County Canton Township.  Meanwhile, Ann Arbor has been a regional water source for some other communities, including notably Scio Township.  There are unanswered issues about the future role of Ann Arbor’s limited system in that regard.

SECOND UPDATE:  The effort to regionalize Detroit’s water system has apparently failed.  Here is the Free Press coverage of the latest developments.

 

 

Explore posts in the same categories: civic finance, Regional, Transportation

4 Comments on “Regionalism Reconsidered”

  1. Larry Krieg Says:

    I haven’t had time to read the references you cite, Vivienne, but this is very helpful and interesting. I look forward to reading the details.

    “Regionalism” is a potpourri of economic, transportation, and governance issues – probably more. The basic question is, What is the best (most efficient, most effective, most responsive…) size for regional cooperation? In each sphere, the answer may be different. For economic cooperation a larger agglomeration may be more effective, while for responsiveness the extent may be much more limited. I believe business and organizational management people speak of “scope of control”. The study and practice of regionalism should entail examination of each sphere of interaction and the positive and negative implications of various regional extents.

    You speak of being a “recovering” regionalist; perhaps “discouraged” would be more appropriate? While regionalism is politically challenging in Michigan, surely we need to find practical ways to incorporate the best aspects of cooperation between governments. That way, citizens benefit; let the politicians fend for themselves.

    You asked about studies. The idea of regionalism has not been neglected on either theoretical or statistical levels. One of the leading Michigan students of prosperity is Lou Glazer and his Michigan Future (http://www.michiganfuture.org/) mini-thinktank. They study what makes some places prosperous and other not, and one of the factors is the size of an economic area of cooperating governments – that is, what is the most successful scope of a “region” in terms of economic prosperity. (There are many other factors considered; for the last couple of years they’ve been focusing on the role of education at all levels in regional prosperity.)

    • varmentrout Says:

      Larry, I edited your comment somewhat for brevity. The comment section is not the place for an extensive bibliography. Yes, I am aware of the Atlantic Cities site (http://www.theatlanticcities.com/) and follow them on Twitter. I’m also aware of the Santa Fe Institute’s studies and will be citing some from a different author later.

  2. PeteM Says:

    I don’t have the experience of Vivienne or the academic expertise of Larry, but I do question whether we would structure municipal government as it is now if we were to start over from scratch. My assumption is that the current township/village/city/county structure had something to do with limits on transportation and communication when it was developed. And I suspect that if we could start from scratch that some of or all of our public transportation, safety, library and other functions would be handled solely at the county level. There are obvious impacts on local control when arms of government serve a larger population base, but to me the more compelling argument involves the efficiencies that would be created and more equitable allocation services that I think would arise from doing things on broader level.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Yes, I heartily agree with both your assumption and your analysis. I encourage you to read the white paper on Michigan governance linked above. It has a history that is quite interesting to follow.

      Quote from that article: “If one considers the nature of distant communication and the nature of travel during the time the state was being organized, it is easy to imagine what difficulty a state would encounter as it sought to carry out state government responsibilities.”


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