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.
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.
THIRD UPDATE: As we have noted before, another attempt at regionalism (the Regional Transit Authority) has a limited ability to provide the necessary services to the Detroit Metro area because of governance issues. This article from the Free Press examines the problem of Oakland County’s patchwork coverage. Rochester Hills and some other communities have elected to stay out of SMART, forcing one brave man to walk 21 miles daily in order to get to his job.
FOURTH UPDATE: With the eyes of the state turning to Detroit, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance is reconfiguring itself to “Metro Matters“, in a bid to be relevant to the greater Detroit metropolitan area. (“Suburb” isn’t exactly a classy appellation any more.)
FIFTH UPDATE: This article in the Free Press provides an overview of the problems of providing transit in a region where local options have made for patchwork coverage.
SIXTH UPDATE: As of May 2015, the Detroit Water Authority remains a poster child for the challenges of regionalization. As this article from the Detroit News describes, Detroit’s bankruptcy exit plan calls for a new Great Lakes Water Authority that would lease the water system from the City of Detroit. But some of the suburbs are resisting certain details. (Although Ypsilanti Community Utilities Authority receives water from Detroit, Ypsilanti does not have a representative on the new board.)
SEVENTH UPDATE: Apparently the greater Detroit area now has a regional water authority. According to this report from Crain’s, the deal has been finalized, but not with a unanimous vote of the Great Lakes Water Authority Board. A sticking point has continually been the boost to Detroit’s finances in the aftermath of Detroit’s bankruptcy. Macomb County executive Mark Hackel is quoted as saying “I wanted to make sure ratepayers weren’t paying for something other than for their water.” Macomb County did not vote for the deal but the rest of the board did, providing the required supermajority. Rates are likely to go up as much as 10% next year.
EIGHTH UPDATE: The Flint water crisis has been a national story for weeks now. This was only one of the consequences of the regional water conundrum that has resulted in part from the organizational issues surrounding the Detroit water system. This column about Flint presents a thoughtful viewpoint on how the community, and the crisis, can be tied directly to Michigan’s “hyperlocal” system of governance, and its neglect of cities.
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