Crossing the lines: Real cities are regions

Sediment from the Rocky River flowing into the Pee Dee in southern Stanly County.

It’s as obvious as the air we breathe, as basic as the fluid geography of a watershed, as clear as the connection between a new highway and strip shopping centers and subdivisions clustering nearby.

But then again, the air flowing over city limits and state lines is invisible.  And most people don’t stop to think that what goes down the kitchen sink or runs off a muddy construction site eventually flows into streams, rivers or lakes and sometimes into other people’s drinking water supply. Even the idea that road-building shapes how we live, work and shop is a foreign concept to most people.

Read the 2008 Citistates Report on the Charlotte region.

In other words, despite city limits or voting district or state lines on maps, in the real world of air and water, of urban transportation and economies, city regions function in ways our political systems may not recognize. This is true not just in Charlotte but across the United States.  Although environments, economies and living patterns create very real urban regions, those geographic areas don’t exist in an official way in the basic structure of the government of the United STATES. Under the Constitution, states have powers and cities don’t.

So is it possible to create or empower meaningful efforts to manage city regions as they truly are – regions? Last week I spent several days chewing over that question with more than two dozen business and nonprofit leaders, academics, writers and former mayors.

Pulled together by author and columnist Neal Peirce and his Citistates Group, with a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, we came at the issue from differing viewpoints but a base-level agreement that urban regions are too important to be dismissed.  But after that, what should happen next?

The concept of “regionalism” has been around for decades, but I have always filed it in the mental folder of “Worthy but Wonky.” Important, but it is a topic that tends to make eyes glaze over, with its jargon of COGS and MPOs and the A-95 Review Process (a former federal process). Yet the more I learn about cities, the more I see that problems and solutions can’t stop at the city limits. 

The idea that metro regions deserve heightened attention and respect gets more fanfare these days, thanks in part to the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz, director of its Metropolitan Policy Program. Metro regions, Katz preaches, are essential to our national economy. Yet state governments are too often missing in action in these discussions.

Peirce recalls that he and Citistates colleagues Curtis Johnson and Farley Peters have studied 25 cities over 31 years for Citistates Reports, and they have heard almost endlessly how state governments don’t take metro areas seriously. (Read the 2008 Citistates Report on the Charlotte Region here.)

That situation is a problem in the Charlotte region, too, although this area has advantages: North Carolina’s annexation laws (gutted by the N.C. General Assembly this year) meant N.C. metro areas created fewer municipalities than in many other states. Charlotte, for instance, covers most of Mecklenburg County and includes large suburban areas such as Ballantyne and Highland Creek. Pennsylvania, by contrast, has 2,500 municipalities and 5,000 local governments.  In addition, through the Charlotte Regional Partnership, Charlotte-area counties join in economic development and recruitment.

Yet at the conference I heard plenty of good ideas coming from other city regions. Some, such as Silicon Valley, Denver, St. Louis and Portland, Ore., have metro-wide “greenprints.”  Seattle and others have developed region-wide export-import strategies. In one example particularly relevant for Charlotte, the 10-county Atlanta region has won a long struggle to win a revenue source for its vast transportation problems.

“Everyone in the region knew we had a transportation crisis,” Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, explained.  The business community was a powerful leader in that effort.

A 2010 state law lets voters in each Georgia metro region, in July 2012, approve or scrap a 1-cent sales tax for a specific list of transportation projects. If it passes, the Atlanta region tax is projected to raise at least $6 billion over 10 years. The list of projects runs the gamut: MARTA, streetcars, freeway interchanges and bike-ped projects.

One thread running through most of those examples: A region’s business community took the lead. Businesses know the importance of quality of life, transportation and education. Williams noted that relocation specialists who help businesses find new sites look at regional cooperation, along with other checklist items.

In today’s grim economy, state governments should recognize their enlightened self-interest in helping, not hampering, their metro regions.  But today’s grim economy also has pushed the regional issues of environmental protection and sane land use planning to the back burner in favor of jobs and economic development.

It's still hard to get elected officials’ attention for topics like “regionalism.” Even within metro regions, many are wary of true power-sharing. Bill Barnes, director of emerging issues for the National League of Cities, described what he sees among groups of officials discussing the idea of regional-scale governance. “There’s always a great sigh of relief when I say it’s not ‘the answer.’ ”  But then, he tells them, “It’s not the answer. But it is a question.”

And that is where last week’s roundtable seems to have coalesced: Smart regions will – often led by the business community – start working together with or without formal governments akin to the metro authorities of Portland and the Twin Cities. It's already happening, in cities from Seattle to Atlanta.

What does any of this mean for Charlotte? As Barnes said, a regional approach may not be the answer, but should always be a question. Unlike Atlanta, Charlotte has seven transportation planning agencies; none is lodged at the regional Centralina Council of Governments. The Charlotte area has no regional Chamber of Commerce and no multicounty land use-transportation vision, such as the Puget Sound Vision 2040.  It lacks a regional planning advocacy agency akin to New York’s Regional Plan Association. It has no regional strategy for preserving land other than "hope." It has no regional transit strategy beyond waiting for Mecklenburg County to pay for it all.

All are challenges for this growing, once-rural and now increasingly urban region. Barnes described it well: “It’s all part of the messy problem of governance, problem-solving and people working together to do stuff.” Or to put it another way, we no longer have the luxury of adversarial relations.

Mary Newsom