A new metro strategy

By Peter Calthorpe,
Calthorpe and Associates

Many of the nation's compelling issues now addressed at the federal, state, and local levels are truly regional in scope. More and more we live in an aggregation of cities and suburbs; a regional metropolis which forms one basic economic, multicultural, environmental and civic entity. Given this reality, our policies for economic development, pollution, open space, housing, and transportation have many dimensions that would benefit from regional strategies and regional coordination. Yet we lack the basic tools to respond to these challenges at the scale they can most effectively be resolved.

Perhaps because of this, we are at a political crossroads.
At the same time that frustration with centralized public programs has reached a watershed, local solutions seem unable to deal with the concentrated and self-reinforcing social, physical, and economic problems of our cities and suburbs. We are left between national solutions too generic, bureaucratic and large, and local solutions too isolated, anemic and reactionary. The answer lies between, in strategies which link regional resources with local programs.

But lacking regional tools of governance, policy makers have persisted in treating only the symptoms of our problems. We address inner-city disinvestment with CRA legislation, small community banks, and regulation rather than providing more fundamental tools to enhance and target regional economic growth. We control air pollution with tailpipe emissions inspections, fuel consumption with more efficient engines, and congestion with more freeways, rather than making cities and towns which are less auto-dependent. We limit lost open space with piecemeal acquisitions, habitat degradation with disconnected reserves, and farmland conversion with convertible tax credits, rather than defining regional forms which are compact and environmentally sound. Too often we address affordable housing by building isolated blocks of subsidized housing rather than zoning for mixed-use neighborhoods and implementing regional fair housing practices. Most now agree that these current policies, though well intentioned and partially successful, are insufficient to divert further deterioration in each area of concern.

Many have demonstrated how past federal programs helped to create the sprawl and inner-city disintegration which underlie these fragmented problems. Examples include environmental regulations that unintentionally inhibit urban redevelopment, a federal tax structure that favors low-density, single-family dwellings, and an infrastructure investment bias that allows motorists to evade the full costs of their driving. Given this context, our efforts should not only support locally initiated regional solutions, they should begin to rectify the imbalances created by past programs and policies.

Goals for regional effectiveness

Urban decay, middle class disaffection, and environmental degradation are paramount national issues that a regionalist agenda can help address. At the root of urban decay is a massive decentralization of jobs and opportunity, a loss of coherence and identity in neighborhoods (new and old), and a dysfunctional regional distribution of tax base. At the root of environmental degradation in cities is the unequaled physical expansion of the metropolitan region and urban forms too dependent on the car. At the root of middle-class disaffection is the sense that one cannot truly escape urban ills, that even with two jobs the quality of life is declining.

It is time to stop addressing inner-city problems, middle class disaffection, and environmental degradation in isolation. Effective regional governance can coordinate our patterns of development and renewal in a fashion that addresses the cause as well as the symptoms of these compounding issues.

Regional governance should focus on forging alliances around common interests rather than creating bureaucratic structures. These alliances tend to be organized around three broad areas of interest: economic development (including problems of uneven development and resulting fiscal disparity), growth management (infrastructure provision and environmental protection), and issues related to social inequalities. Effective regional governance does not displace local programs or government, it augments them with coherent coordination and adequate resources.

While the federal or state governments should not mandate regional policies, they could establish goals in this area, support their local implementation, and help level the playing field with respect to regional patterns of growth.

The economy of regionalism

In part, the justification for "a new metropolitan strategy" is simply to respond to the public's demand for more efficient public investments and more efficient government.

Optimizing public investments requires a regional approach.

Investments in inner-cities and urban businesses ought to be linked to regional opportunities, not isolated by gridlock, quarantined by exclusionary zoning, and drained by suburban growth. Investments in transit should be supported by land use patterns which put riders and jobs within an easy walk of stations and by a coherent regional plan which strategically clusters development. Investments in affordable housing should place families in economically diverse neighborhoods where services, decent schooling and transit are available. Investments in open space should reinforce regional habitat reserves, greenbelts, and urban limit lines. Investments in highways should not unwittingly support sprawl, inner-city disinvestment, or random job decentralization. As the fundamental vessel of these investments our regional form and local design codes should be restructured to enhance communities, not enclaves.

In optimizing public investment the needs of the urban poor are congruent with the working middle class; both are in need of a more frugal, sustainable, and community-oriented model of the American Dream. And both are in need of the new regional order which results from such a transformation.

Peter Calthorpe, AIA, Calthorpe and Associates, is a renowned architect/planner and author of The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream. He has been named by Newsweek as one of 25 "innovators on the cutting edge" for his work redefining the models of urban and suburban growth in America. This article is from a larger report prepared for the President's Council on Sustainable Development, and it is reprinted from the November 1995 newsletter of the Surface Transportation Policy Project.



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It is time to stop addressing inner-city problems, middle class disaffection, and environmental degradation in isolation. Effective regional governance can coordinate our patterns of development and renewal in a fashion that addresses the cause as well as the symptoms of these compounding issues.


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