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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

It’s time to adjust to the new metropolitan reality (continued)

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 26, 2009

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One of the recurring themes of my writing (for example, here) has been that, to achieve sustainability in our cities, suburbs, and rural areas, we need to get beyond the accidents of history that comprise our local jurisdictions.  Environmental, economic, and social patterns do not respect jurisdictional lines, and it is essential that our solutions not be confined to them, either.

     Chicagoland, connected (satellite image by Google Earth; border by me)  "Chicagoland" is much bigger than Chicago (by: CMAP)

"Chicagoland," for example, comprises parts of eight counties in northeastern Illinois.  When I was researching a book in the 1990s, I ran across one researcher's account that put metropolitan Chicago's number of legal jurisdictions at 267 separate entities, with around 1200 quasi-jurisdictions of various kinds.  (And that may not even include the portions of metro Chicago that are in Indiana; most representations of metro Chicago don't.)  Those numbers may be even higher now. 

In my own life, my wife and I live in Washington, DC; my bike is currently in the shop for repairs in the state of Maryland; my wife just called me from the commonwealth of Virginia, where she works.  She passes through several municipalities every day just getting to work and back, frequently stopping along the way for errands.  I'm sure readers are nodding their heads:  none of this is in the least bit unusual. 

But, for the most part, unfortunately, policy decisions are made at the most local of levels - one of those 267 legal entities - or at the state level.  With few exceptions, metropolitan areas have little in the way of legal authority.  Especially for transportation and environmental issues, this is dysfunctional.  It is also problematic that, for the most part, state and federal government agencies have no official relationship with metropolitan areas, and state and federal authorities themselves are fragmented in silos.  It's a mess. 

Here are two views of metro Washington:

   metro Washington DC (by: U of MD for Reality Check; approximate DC border by me)     metro Washington DC (by: Washington Council of Govts; DC border by me)

Fragmented jurisdictions are also a major cause of sprawl, by the way, especially as they compete with one another for new development to increase their tax revenues - sometimes actually diminishing those revenues as the jurisdictions offer tax breaks or other subsidies to out-compete their neighbors.

This is far from an easy problem to address.  But I am encouraged that President Obama has issued an executive order creating an Office of Urban Policy with an agenda to focus on entire metropolitan regions, not just cities.  It would be even better if he called it an Office of Metropolitan Policy, but I'm not going to quibble about semantics.

Writing for his syndicate Citiwire, Neal Peirce is both cautious and hopeful:

"Obama's selection of Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion to head the new office was a touch unsettling to some supporters of a more metro-oriented urban approach. They worry that Carrion's experience is entirely New York City-related, without background either in city-suburban ties or federal policy . . .

"[But] the long-term possibilities for the new office are intriguing. It can encourage the administration's macro-economists to take seriously the wealth-generating capacity of metros. Long-neglected Census tools can be ramped up to give metros a better compass on their status, mixing transportation, housing, energy and workforce issues. Federal policies that unintentionally hamper the work of metros can be singled out, targeted for change.

"[Obama adviser Robert] Weissbourd even advocates inviting civic and government leaders of individual metros to develop customized plans to connect their infrastructure, workforce, housing, Twin Cities metro area, MN (by: Davumaya, Wikimedia Commons)transportation and business challenges, and then getting the new White House office to clear the way for positive cross-departmental federal response."

Peirce points out that just the 100 largest (of 363 total) metro regions in the US today account, together, for 92 percent of air passenger boardings, two-thirds of major research universities, 75 percent of workers with graduate degrees, and 78 percent of all patents.  They are major economic units, but only when considered across local jurisdictional lines.  (Metro Twin Cities, Minnesota, shown at right.)

The president campaigned on the issue, noting that "Washington remains trapped in an earlier era, wedded to an outdated 'urban' agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas."  He is now attempting to fix that, and the challenges will be immense.  (Watching his news conference the other night, I was mostly struck by the fact that I wouldn't want his job for all the tea in China.)  But at least it's a start.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Ed StevensMar 26 2009 02:23 PM

You may be ignoring the advantages of governmental competition in raising enviromental standards and in encouraging governmental innovation.

When you have lots of little governments its easier for one of them to try something new. If that succeeds there, the idea is copied in neighboring communities. If the idea fails, the damage is limited to the area where the policy failed. One of the reasons the SF Bay Area has been so innovative compared to say Los Angeles is that the SF Bay Area is so much more fragmented.

Why traffic calming came first to Berkeley CA instead of Los Angeles was that it was much easier to convince the residents of that small community to try the idea out. As the idea succeed there, it was easier for other cities in the area to see what was working and adopt the policy there.

The same was true for the ban on grocery store shopping bags. They were banned first in SF and as regions have seen the success, other communities in the region like Palo Alto have adopted the practice.

In Los Angeles, you have districts like Venice or Hollywood that might have been willing to try such practices but were thwarted because they couldn't pull the rest of the region along.

When local government is provided by large governments, it often isn't very responsive to local needs fixing stop signs etc. This lack of responsiveness was the principal argument for succession in the San Fernando Valley area of LA.

Local governments can join together to tackle regional problems. That SF Bay Area has 9 counties, but that didn't stop the region from setting up the Bay Area Rapid Transit district. As communties in the region saw the success of BART, more communities joined in and Bart was expanded further, with San Mateo County being the latest county to join BART.

Kaid @ NRDCMar 26 2009 02:25 PM

Those are very fair points, Ed. There needs to be a balance. Right now the local option is the only one in many locations.

Jim NoonanMar 26 2009 10:15 PM

I agree with Ed's major point. The most innovative governments have been local governments with a clear vision of what they want to accomplish locally. That is also where the best examples of Smart Growth occur. Kentlands for example was approved under the City of Gaithersburg's planning environment, not that of the regional planning body that surrounds Gaithersburg (which is a very innovative agency itself). Those municipalities that Kaid's wife travels view don't have planning and zoning authority of their own and are limited in what they can achieve as a result.

Regionalism may work in planning for large systems...perhaps. Though the larger the regional coordination agency (from a transportation perspective) the more interested they are in spreading out more and more highway spending.

P. Edward MurrayMar 26 2009 10:24 PM

Very comprehensive....


Haven't you missed talking about

Light Pollution?

Kaid @ NRDCMar 27 2009 08:14 AM

Thanks for your perspective, Jim. Actually, my wife travels through DC, Arlington County, the city of Alexandria, and Fairfax County, all of which do have land use authority, so your assumption is mistaken on that point.

That said, I take your and Ed's point about local innovation. And I also agree that large regions have not handled transportation well despite, in some cases, the attempts of their metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).

But that is merely illustrative of the problem that I think we need to address. Better models that work well exist, such as Portland's Metro regional government, the regional tax-sharing mechanisms in the Twin Cities and, at least for a too-brief moment, the Georgia regional authority charged with coordinating land use and transportation around Atlanta. In California, SB375 strengthens the authority of regional MPOs to adopt land use and transportation plans specifically to reduce carbon emissions, and state infrastructure assistance will be limited to those that are found by the state's Air Resources Board to do that well.

For the region around and including Toronto, the province of Ontario has passed legislation (in 2005) giving the province strong planning authority for promoting sustainable regional growth strategies, and they are working with the municipalities to use it well.

I would like to keep what's good about local authority (allowing the kinds of progressive innovation that Ed cites) while at the same time strengthening regional planning authority. In most places, the system we have now isn't working to curb sprawl and promote efficient growth and transportation.

Ed StevensMar 28 2009 05:12 AM

As to SB375, the devil is in the details. SB375 is based upon the success (or lack thereof) of Sacramento's regional housing Blueprint. The Sacramento Blueprint itself is pretty new and that might not be the best model to mandate onto other regions.

Specifically I want to draw your attention to Regional Housing Needs Assessment component of SB375. Ideally what you would like to see is that regions look at their regions as whole and then direct new growth to the specific areas closest to existing transit infrastructure. Since light rail goes through the cities of Sacramento, Rancho Cordova and Folsom, ideally we would like to see most of the new growth directed there in the areas closest to light rail.

But that isn't what is happening. Notice the new growth on the urban fringe in places like Elk Grove, and Lincoln. In practice the growth is much worse than the numbers suggest. Most of the growth that is occuring in the City of Sacramento is going to happen in North Natomas, an area north of downtown with no light rail. Most of the growth in the City of Rancho Cordova is on the other side of a closed military base and a freeway far from the transit corridor. Most of Folsom's growth is greenfield development also far from its rail line.

Because the RHNA component of SB375 is such a blunt instrument, it may in practice just be institutionalizing sprawl. More importantly, because the SACOG is a regional entity, its a body that is less responsive to the needs of local transit activists and much more subject to regulatory capture by the local developers. The people representing Lincoln, Rocklin, Roseville and Elk Grove in the SACOG generally owe their positions in SACOG to donations from developers. So when it comes to backroom negociating on the RHNA, where do you think the growth will be directed?

The other reason to question the expansion of the Sacramento Blueprint model is the lack of any track record of success. The number of people in Sacramento County using public transit to get to work is only 2.9% in 2006 and that was a drop off from the 3.1% using transit in 2000 to get to work. Part of the reason we know so little about the success of the Sac Blueprint is because it is so new having been intiated only in 2002. But at best we can only say we don't know how it will turn out.

In California, because of prop 13, most cities and counties also engage in fiscal zoning to capture sales tax revenues from automalls and shopping centers. The interactions of cities and counties gaming the zoning system for fiscal purposes plus the consquences of gaming the zoning system to achieve the GHG goals of SB375 aren't at all understood.

Adopting SB375 was replicating a plan, that has no established track record of actually working to achieve the GHG goals it set out for itself. Hopefully it will achieve them at some point in the future. But right now its much too early to tell and there are serious reasons to believe that it might be mandating a bad policy for the rest of the state.

My concern is that SB375 will end up like electricity deregulation in California. Something that creates a massive new bureaucracy and drives up housing costs but fails to deliver on the promised GHG benefits claimed by the legislation's proponents. If it does that it will kill the entire idea of attempting to take on GHG emissions nationally. This is why I didn't want to see the Sac Regional Blueprint model taken statewide just yet.

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