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Identity Theft for Cities

by Carol Coletta

November 19, 2009

How poor regional planning can suck the life out of cities.


Regionalism is all the rage. The Obama Administration is betting big on regional planning as a way to make smarter decisions on transportation, climate, the economy-all those things that don't respect political boundaries. The Administration plans to reward communities that work together across jurisdictions toward common goals and, by implication, punish those that do not.

Who can argue with that? I certainly can't.

But as I sit here in a brand name suburban motel room situated on a highway that could be anywhere, all my doubts about the wisdom of regionalism resurface. I can walk to the Shell station for some Fig Newtons, and I see a Checkers across the street, but there's too much pavement between here and there to make the trip.

I happen to be in this motel in City A because I landed today in City B for a meeting tomorrow morning in City C. Got that?

All three cities, plus two others, happen to share a single region. On their own, all of these cities have distinct charm. But string them together with the highway sprawl so familiar all over the country, and it sucks all the charm out of the idea of regionalism-fast. In this case, the sum is decidedly less than its parts.

This is by no means the only region to suffer this fate. In fact, it is more the norm than the exception.

Another recent trip produced an almost identical experience. My hotel was in the middle of a suburban parking lot. All that asphalt seriously discouraged a walk to the restaurant across the parking lot. Instead of experiencing the joy of being in a recognizable place that either of the cities that make up the metro area would have most assuredly delivered, I was staying somewhere between both near an expressway exit because it was "neutral territory" for a regional meeting. No one in attendance would feel slighted that the meeting wasn't being held in his city.

Did regional planning cause this outcome? It's doubtful, since we've barely had any regional planning to date. On the other hand, metropolitan planning organizations have had a hand in regional transportation planning and funding decisions for almost 50 years.

Regionalism makes complete sense conceptually. Our economies, our natural systems, and our transportation systems are, indeed, regional and require a regional approach.

Regionalism can be relatively easy to impose in regions with big, dominant core cities, such as New York and Chicago. In those regions, everyone knows what's powering the economic engine, and no one can risk killing it off. The dominant city is favored, as it should be, in regional decisions because it's in everyone's clear interest to do so.

(Of course, I've made it sound easier than it is. Inevitably, there are petty conflicts and a protection of narrow interests in most such negotiations.)

But in those regions with cities of equal size or with a weak central city, the conflicts are writ large. The conflicts are even sharper in regions with a history of racial and economic segregation. That's challenge enough. The real problem comes when, in the name of regionalism, decision makers become place agnostic. In other words, they can't favor any one place in the region for fear of offending every other place in the region. That translates into development anywhere in the region being labeled as good development. If a road is built in one part of the region, it must be equalized with a road in another part of the region. If a cultural facility is awarded to one place, the next sports facility should surely be built elsewhere.

The working premise too often becomes, give one of everything to every part of the region. After all, we're all in this regionalism deal together, and that means everyone shares the spoils equally. It's only fair, right?

Well, it may be fair, but it's hardly smart. The result too often is places with no strong center and blurred identity, places of no distinction and no vibrancy, places that force us to drive too much and generate too much carbon, places that are linked together not only by an economy and a transportation system but also by mind-numbingly repetitive development strung in between.

Which brings me back to my unfortunate evening spent stranded in this motel.

If we're going to promote regionalism-and we should-we need to go in with eyes wide open, knowing that we undermine regional strength when we fail to invest in making vibrant places. When in the name of regionalism the only politically correct meeting place is at an expressway off-ramp, we are consigning ourselves to ever more sprawl. For fear of putting a stake in the ground that any one place in the region matters more than others, we doom our regions to having no places of distinction.

If in the name of regionalism we undermine the region, it simply makes no sense.

Carol Coletta is the President and CEO of CEOs for Cities, and the host of the nationally-syndicated public radio show, Smart City.

Illustration by Will Etling.

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Identity Theft for Cities