Friday, July 11, 2008

The Region that Governs Together...

This post is the first in a series of posts I hope to write about lessons planners could learn from Canada. My recent trip showed me North American cities that have done a better job of managing their urban fabric than is typical south of the 49th Parallel.

Lesson 1: Regional Government
I started my trip across Canada in Nova Scotia's capital city, the Halifax Regional Municipality. Formed in 1996, the HRM, as it's often called, is a consolidated government including all of Halifax's commuter shed and then some. The amalgamation in 1996 dissolved several cities, including Halifax proper, merging them into one regional government. The places, however, kept their names and identities, and are still very much alive and well.

Governing regionally allows regions to take a more comprehensive view of themselves. In most American metropolitan areas, no one elected representative can take a holistic view of the region because they are usually elected by only a small percentage of it. Some effort has been made to bring regional planning to the United States with the concept of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, but MPOs are made up of member jurisdictions and are often myopic in that regard.

Let's take for example, Atlanta. The capital of the New South has a metropolitan area consisting of 28 counties and 152 incorporated areas. The Atlanta Regional Commission, the regional body for the region, consists of only 10 of those counties and 63 of the cities.

Washington looks even worse from a regional perspective. With three state-level governments having jurisdiction in the region, there's the added difficulty of having another metropolitan area, Baltimore, so close. Baltimore has its own MPO, but many commute from Baltimore to Washington.

Portland, Oregon is the only major American city to have a truly regional government. Known as Metro, Portlanders from across the region elect members to this body. And unlike many of the regional bodies in the United States, Metro has quite a bit of policy-making power.

Only through regional control of transportation and land use policy will the United States be able to solve many of the urban problems still facing us today. Canadians have taken that approach, and it seems to show. I was impressed with all of the cities I visited there. The quality of life is high, and while their cities also had a period of decline during the second half of the 20th Century, they seemed to be far better off than their American counterparts.

Traffic doesn't stop at the city limits. Niether does air pollution, crime, or educational disparity. If we are to deal with problems on a regional scale, we have to be able to address them with policies that cross jurisdictional boundaries (or we could remove the boundaries). Regional government does not have to mean the loss of local control, but it should be the time when we define "who our neighbor is." From a planning perspective, good city limits don't necessarily make for good neighbors.

Comments? Thoughts?


Sean said...


This is an interesting point, and the idea of a regional public-transit governance body is a good one, particularly given suburban sprawl across state boundaries. It's useful to try and take a wider view on problems that affect an area that bridges regional boundaries.

At the same time, there can be serious cooperation issues and political power-sharing concerns that enter into play with this type of scheme. This is particularly true in areas that cross over states (just consider funding differences between MD-DC-VA as one example). There's also a danger of under-funding or getting a dedicated funding stream to that type of system.

Also... how do we know where to stop or set the boundary? One thing to keep in mind with Canada is the relative dispersement of population - density is much lighter, so boundaries are easier to demarcate given space between major cities. That challenge is much harder in the US, and you could make a ready claim for a regional governance system from Boston through DC (if not Richmond or Raleigh). Depending on how far you step back, there's a danger of losing the detailed perspective that "myopic" representatives bring to the table. Some of that can be solved with committees, but as some areas of Europe are finding out, devolution of authority to smaller regions has its benefits too (e.g. Scottish health care vs. the rest of the UK).

Just some thoughts to chew on.

Matt Fisher said...

Guten Tag!

I find what you've got interesting. In the case of Halifax, a lot of places keep their identities indeed. This includes Dartmouth and Bedford, being somebody from Atlantic Canada. In fact, I was born further east of Halifax, in the neighbouring province of Newfoundland and Labrador, in its capital city. Too bad they don't run trains in Newfoundland anymore. (Thank you very much, Brian Mulroney.)

I now live in Ottawa. It is, however, heralded as a Mecca by BRT proponents with the "Transitway". And some busways were built by paving over rail lines, which I would never want to do. ;( But we will be getting true LRT, though only gradually, and the Mayor Larry O'Brien only wants to convert part of the busways to light rail, which they were (apparently theoretically) designed for conversion to.

Like you, I am delighted by cartography and rail visions. Here's one of mine which I'm still trying to work on. Enjoy! :)