Wednesday, February 02, 2011

To make our cities healthier, think regional

Most of America lives in large metropolitan areas with economies the size of nations. Yet governments -- local, state and national -- behave as if it's the wild, wild West, a land of isolation, unconnected settlements and battles over resources.

Those days are gone. The United States is no longer a nation of farms or singular cities and suburbs, but one of interconnected metropolitan regions that cross city, county and even state lines. Local governments must become more regional in how they deliver services, tax residents, and plan investments and developments.

Government at all levels needs to push smart policies that sustain regional economies and encourage local officials to think, plan and act beyond their borders. The next president -- working with governments, mayors and other regional leaders -- should develop a policy for metro areas that includes incentives to encourage shared services and even government mergers.

Covering only 12% of the land, the nation's 100 largest metro areas produce two-thirds of the jobs and three-quarters of the economic output, reports the Brookings Institution's MetroPolicy study. These metros, ranging in population from 500,000 in Lansing to 19 million in New York City, are home to two-thirds of Americans. They harbor the roads, railways, shipyards and airports that connect the nation's metropolitan economies to each other and to the world.

Still, our political boundaries -- and our political thinking -- are more suited to the America of covered wagons and small farms. In Michigan and other Midwest states, for example, pint-sized township governments, developing out of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, now provide unnecessary layers of government that impede efforts at regional cooperation. The Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform, in a report released last December, recommended essentially eliminating township governments and transferring their responsibilities to counties.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government rewarded regional planning with financial incentives in transportation, housing, environmental and other block grants. Those efforts were largely abandoned in the 1980s and 1990s, even as the need for urban policies that worked across municipal boundaries grew.

Encourage cooperation
Now more than ever, with sky-high gas prices, global warming and crumbling roads, the nation must work regionally to meet its energy, environmental and economic needs. The federal government should ensure -- again, through financial carrots -- that local metropolitan planning organizations coordinate regional transportation and land-use planning.

"The success of the nation is at stake," said Mark Muro, policy director for the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. "There's clearly a federal role in ensuring that metropolitan areas are organized to deliver."

The Brookings report, "MetroPolicy: Shaping a New Federal Partnership for a Metropolitan Nation," offers sound advice on how the federal government can push metropolitan unity, including financial assistance that rewards regional and interstate cooperation, technical assistance and funding to regions that start new collaborative efforts, and federal "challenge" grants for the boldest and most innovative proposals for metropolitan governance.

State governments ought to provide similar incentives to local governments. Former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie has proposed a metropolitan rebate, for example. Local governments in regions that agree to consolidate significant government services would get back part of the state income tax collected from that region.

However they're delivered, economic incentives are needed to nudge local governments to work together.

Consolidation pays off
Following an abysmal absence of federal leadership, locally elected leaders from both parties have taken the lead on regional issues. Portland, Minneapolis and Indianapolis, for example, have followed distinct, locally driven routes to regionalism. All three metropolitans have benefited with relatively healthy regional economies and strong central cities.

All politicians should aim to preserve the invaluable assets of a central city, reduce waste, and eliminate unnecessary layers of governments. In Indianapolis, it was Republicans, especially then-Mayor Richard Lugar, who led a successful local effort called Unigov to consolidate local governments.

As in most urban regions, sprawl and white flight hurt the central city of Indianapolis during the 1960s. The surrounding suburbs were growing, but in a hodge-podge manner. Indianapolis and its sleepy downtown were sometimes called "India-no-place" or "Nap Town."

On Jan. 1, 1970, with the help of new state legislation, Unigov consolidated Indianapolis and Marion County government, except for a handful of excluded cities. The central city limits expanded to include all Marion County.

Unigov wasn't a panacea for the county's economic and social problems. Nor did it undo the stark inequities between the old city of Indianapolis and the rest of the county. Eleven school districts, with uneven resources and graduation rates, remained autonomous, as they do today. Indianapolis didn't consolidate police services until 2005. Fire services are still not fully merged.

But most government services were consolidated. Even more important, Unigov created a shared tax base and destiny. With a population of 785,000, Indianapolis is one of the nation's few growing big cities.

Many large cities report poverty rates above 20%, generally more than double the rate of their states. By contrast, the poverty rate for Indianapolis -- 11.9% -- is only slightly higher than Indiana's. Marion County's poorest neighborhoods remain concentrated in the old city, but it still maintains many affluent families and well-maintained mansions.

Indianapolis' example
Downtown Indianapolis has perhaps benefited most from Unigov, which has steered large-scale investments to the city's center and branded itself the Amateur Sports Capital of the World. The 160,000 jobs in downtown Indianapolis at least doubles Detroit's downtown job total, even though Indianapolis has fewer people.

Major downtown developments under Unigov include Conseco Fieldhouse, Market Square Arena, the 100-store Circle Centre mall, Victory Field stadium, the Indiana Convention Center & RCA Dome, and White River State Park, which includes the Indianapolis Zoo and Indiana State Museum. Since Unigov, the convention center has expanded three times while Detroit's Cobo Hall remains an outdated, regional stumbling block.

The new $675-million Lucas Oil Stadium, which will host Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, was financed with a nine-county food and beverage sales tax passed in 2007.

"Unigov is probably the largest single determinant of Indianapolis' fate," said Deputy Mayor Nick Webber. "When Lucas Oil went up, there wasn't a question in this community about where we build it. Unigov had set that stage: You support your core city."

That may be a little hyperbolic, but Unigov has helped create a regional ethic in Indianapolis. City and civic leaders hope to build on the stadium tax's success by developing a transit system for nine-county central Indiana, including rapid transit bus or light-rail service.

Regionalism in Indianapolis means something far different than it did in 1970, when the urban area surrounding the city almost ended at the county line. Unigov, in effect, created a new set of fast growing and affluent suburbs outside Marion County, particularly to the north. Roughly half of the metropolitan region once again lives outside Indianapolis, as it did before Unigov expanded the city's boundaries.

"We're getting back to the point we were 40 years ago," said former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. "We're still better off than most places, but the wealth disparities between the county and suburbs are getting extreme."

Peterson said there's no political will to expand the city's boundaries again, but Unigov has taught the people and politicians of central Indiana to think beyond their borders.

Slow the sprawl
Efforts at regional government are still in their infancy. Portland and Minneapolis may be the nation's strongest examples.

With an elected regional government that since 1979 has overseen an urban growth boundary, Portland arrested urban sprawl. A population increase of 25% in metro Portland resulted in only a 1.5% increase in developed land. The growth boundary around Portland has shielded outlying forests and farmland and pushed development back into the central city. By contrast, the population of southeast Michigan has increased 4.3% in the last 30 years, while the area of developed land has increased more than 40%. Meantime, the central city of Detroit lost population and jobs at an alarming rate.

Anyone who has visited Portland, Minneapolis or Indianapolis lately knows they are in far better shape than Detroit -- the poster child for a divided region -- and most other older central cities. Their regions likewise do better, because central cities project a region's identity and image, as well as control most of the transportation networks, educational and cultural institutions, and physical assets such as water and sewer lines.

Regional government efforts are hardly the sole reason for the success of Minneapolis, Portland or Indianapolis, but they have helped and will become even more important. Local government cannot control the health of major industries, such as Detroit's ailing auto industry, but they can improve a region's ability to adapt to new economic conditions.

A regional political culture has social and civic benefits, too. It's probably no coincidence that Portland and Minneapolis-St. Paul have the highest adult volunteer rates, along with Salt Lake City, among all U.S. big cities. Governments working together for a common good could help repair America's tattered social fabric.

Voters pose stumbling block
Political leaders with a vested interest in the status quo will continue to resist change. In Michigan, such change must include making it easier for large townships to become cities and revamping, if not eliminating, most of the state's 1,242 township governments. A bill last year by Rep. Paul Condino, D-Southfield, would have helped by stripping townships of the power to collect property taxes, administer elections and assess property. But future efforts to transfer powers from townships to counties must compensate counties for added responsibilities by shifting township tax and special assessment revenues to them.

Politicians are not the only barrier to regional cooperation. To their credit, local elected leaders in southeast Michigan have negotiated dozens of shared agreements for police, fire, telecommunications, recreation and other services. Even township governments are sharing services, especially fire departments, or contracting them with other units. Unfortunately, politicians who push these sensible measures are often opposed -- even recalled -- by citizens who believe hometown identity and local control are threatened.

"There's a disconnect," SEMCOG Executive Director Paul Tait said. "Voters want better services without paying more taxes, yet they tend to punish elected officials who try to do that by merging services with their neighbors."

New federal and state policies are needed that recognize and reinforce the regional nature of America's urban centers. In the dawn of the 21st Century, the nation's cities, states and regions can no longer afford governments that don't reach beyond their borders.

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