December 10, 2000 - From the December, 2000 issue

Alliance For Regional Stewardship Monograph: What Makes Regions Work Today?

The recent creation of the Speaker's Commission on Regions has given even greater heed to explore why regionalism has become such an integral part of our political and economic collective. TPR is pleased to present the following excerpt of the Alliance for Regional Stewardship's first monograph: Regional Stewardship: A Commitment To Place, which explains why regional stewardship is a necessary evolution, why we need it now, and how it can reshape the way we choose our leaders.

What is Regional Stewardship?

Regional stewards are leaders who are committed to the long-term well being of places. They are integrators who cross boundaries of jurisdiction, sector, and discipline to address complex regional issues such as sprawl, equity, education, and economic development. They see the connection between economic, environmental, and social concerns and they know how to "connect the dots" to create opportunities for their regions. Regional stewards are leaders who combine 360 degree vision with the ability to mobilize diverse coalitions for action.

Why Regions Matter Today

In a seeming paradox, place has become even more important in the New Economy. Although we have become a global economy, and the Internet has collapsed space and time, we have also discovered that most innovation still happens face-to-face in real place. Place matters because people matter in the New Economy. Skills and knowledge are the keys to economic progress. Skilled and knowledgeable people tend to locate in communities that have a good quality of life and great social, cultural, and natural assets.

Communities today face challenges in workforce, transportation, housing, open space, and social inclusion that cannot adequately be addressed by traditional political boundaries and jurisdictions. They must be examined on a regional level, where economic, environmental, and social concerns all come together. Economic development, for example, extends beyond cities to regional economic clusters, environmental issues exist within bioregions, and social issues cut across neighborhoods within regions. In short, regions are where the action is and must be today.

The regional movement has been stirring for some time. Early waves of regionalism focused on government consolidation in the 1960s such as Unigov in Indianapolis. In the 1970s, the focus shifted to government coordination and gave rise to regional councils of government.

Today's new civic regionalism is based on the rise of what Neal Peirce calls "Citistates"-economic regions that now compete in the global economy. Civic regionalism is, in part, a response to the devolution of political power that has occurred in the past 20 years. In particular, political devolution from the national government to state and local governments has demanded new types of regional collaboration to address government fragmentation.

Why We Need Stewardship Now: New Sources of Regional Leadership

Many communities are undergoing a crisis of leadership as major trends dramatically reshape patterns of leadership in regions. In the recent past, the sources of leadership were clearly located among local elected officials, CEOs of corporations, regional banks, utilities, and local chambers. Today, the influence of globalization, the digital revolution, and new demographics means that leaders will come from different sources and bring more diverse backgrounds.

• Globalization. In the past two decades, globalization has meant that corporations must now compete on a worldwide basis, often with investments in many different regions. CEOs of most large corporations have fewer roots in a single region and make less time for regional civic affairs. The greatest impact has been on Fortune 500 companies that were anchor firms in their regions. Recently, the globalization process has changed the nature of competition in major banks and utilities, resulting in both deregulation and consolidations. The question now for most regions is whether major corporations can be both global and regional at the same time.

• Digital revolution. The Internet has fundamentally changed the way business is done, giving firms powerful tools to connect directly with customers, reengineer operations, and network with each other to create greater productivity and improved quality. The emergence of small, entrepreneurial firms driven by the Internet has dramatically changed the nature of business leadership in many regions. Rather than looking solely to large firms for leadership, regions are asking how to recruit young entrepreneurs from the new economy into positions of regional leadership.

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• New demographics. Many regions are experiencing major transitions in their demographic profile. In California, Texas, and Florida, there is a significant increase in the Latino population. These and other regions are experiencing a dramatic rise in immigration from Asia as well as Latin America. Consequently, the sources of regional leader-ship are changing. Regional leaders and other civic leaders with a regional perspective will increasingly come from a much more diverse population and will have different pathways to leadership.

The Anonymity of Leadership

Many regions suffer from an anonymity of leadership. Leaders may still exist, but they often come from different sources, and they may not know each other in rapidly expanding metropolitan regions. The challenge common to most metropolitan regions is that leadership is fragmented, disconnected, and therefore ineffective. With global corporations, banks, and utilities looking beyond the region; new economy entrepreneurs not yet plugged in; new immigrants and ethnic leaders not yet fully included in the regional dialogue; and local elected leaders often in conflict, no wonder an "anonymity of leadership" exists.

In addition to the diversity of new leadership, devolution of authority has increased the problem of anonymity of leadership. For the past decade, authority has been shifting from the federal government to states and communities. Although regions have more responsibility today, their capacity to respond is fragmented and weak. As metropolitan regions have grown in geography, most regions now encompass many local governments. Mayors and local elected officials do not have the authority to make regional decisions, and the failure to coordinate key functions results in inadequate regional outcomes in key areas such as transportation and housing. Regions are experimenting with new forms of distributed and networked governance, but most are still in the early stages.

Limitations of Traditional Leadership

In many regions, we are beginning to see the limitations of traditional forms of leadership. Traditional leadership may exist in a region in the form of CEOs of major corporations, issue advocates, neighborhood activists, social entrepreneurs, and ethnic community leaders, but even with these traditional forms of leadership, why are the most pressing and most difficult regional issues not finding resolution? Why do regions still grapple with congestion, affordable housing, social equity, and workforce development?

The reason is that contemporary challenges facing regions cross multiple boundaries and jurisdictions. These problems require creative, integrated approaches to problem solving. Even breakthrough solutions in one area can be undermined by connected but unaddressed problems. For example, one city in a region can be a textbook example of smart growth, but it may suffer the consequences of poor planning of neighboring cities. In this case, the only way of effectively addressing the challenge of growth is a regional collaboration.

Traditional forms of leadership are still essential to communities. For example, neighborhood activists and ethnic leaders are critical to mobilizing the grassroots; social entrepreneurs pioneer new approaches to social problems; environmental activists maintain vigilance over our natural assets; government leaders focus public resources on critical needs within their jurisdictions. However, the opportunity for metropolitan regions is to develop a new model of leadership that can meet the increasingly complex challenges of economic, environmental, and social change. One promising model is regional stewardship.

We are entering a new period of experimentation in regional governance reform driven primarily by the need to connect private-sector interest in livable communities with public-sector authority over physical planning. It is likely that new types of networked or distributed governance will be explored that will connect local governments and public-private partnership to promote regional goals through regional networks. In others cases, such as Atlanta, we will see new efforts at government consolidation. In all these experiments, we will find a way to relate better the efforts of the informal civic leadership with regional public authorities.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.