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Regionalism and technology.

With startling rapidity, the Internet and its graphical interface, the World-Wide Web, is proving itself the most important invention of the latter 20th Century. Sites, home pages, and usage are increasing exponentially.

Like Gutenberg's Bible and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone in their time, today's Internet has the potential to transform the lives of millions. It is working its wonders by the speed and ease of world-wide communications it introduces. It is opening new doors through the universe of information the Web has accumulated and made available for almost all users, world-wide. In contrast to television, the Internet is interactive. In learning what it holds, people - youth in particular - are discovering its potential to excite imaginations and expand minds.

Take the new paradigm of our time suggested by regionalist William Dodge, and apply it to the Internet. Dodge's point is that in the old order, we looked overwhelmingly to the three familiar levels - national, state or provincial, and then local government - for the lion's share of our answers. But the new paradigm is different: it is global, regional, and neighborhood:

Global because critical impacts are worldwide - global warming, for example, but also worldwide economic restructuring as it tears apart our comfortable relationships.

Regional, because metropolitan regions - "citistates" are the true cities of our time - the real environmental basins, the real labor markets, the functioning economic communities.

And neighborhood, because local community. is the arena in which social problems must ultimately, on a person-to-person, neighbor-to-neighbor basis, be dealt with. And all the more so as our national safety nets for the poor disintegrate, most seriously in North America, but now in Europe as well.

On a world-wide scale, the impact of the Internet is already clear. It connects organizations and peoples with the same curiosities - across the globe - in seconds or less. It permits globally active firms, professional groups, social, hobby or special interest groups to be in constant communication. It lets children of one nation or culture communicate with those of another. Because humans become personally involved in these communications, the global village has a potential presence in every human village, indeed in every home.

Conversely, on the neighborhood or small-city scale, the Internet has begun to prove its potential as a new forum of town crier and bulletin board, as an advertising medium for local firms, cultural institutions, governments and citizen organizations. This global resource is increasingly finding useful ways to help people in their own back yards.

In June 1996, the Washington Post discovered it was able to identify more than 500 Web sites focused specifically on residents of the Nation's Capital Area. Every county and city government was represented, along with a myriad of commercial businesses, entrepreneurs and civic organizations. Web page designers suggest that the 10 million people now wired to the Internet across the globe will expand to about 150 million by the year 2000.

While most of these sites are young and offer little more than "community guides" and market convenience, consider the little city of Blacksburg, Virginia, which now calls itself "the most computer-connected place, per capita, on the planet." Blacksburg's system, installed by mid-1996 in more than a third of the community's homes, is a "virtual" community which lets citizens do on-line anything from consulting their doctors to participating in public meetings to applying for a building permit and paying taxes.

Community networks have also sprung up across the continent - organizations like Charlotte's Web, Philadelphia's LibertyNet, the North Texas Free-Net, and the Cleveland Free-Net, which boasts 120,000 log-ons a week. Altogether, there are well over 300 in operation nationally. They do vary greatly in sophistication. But the more advanced in the group is in fact verging toward regional forums for public discourse. Indeed, the logic of having them focus region-wide, not within a single jurisdiction, becomes quickly, overwhelmingly clear.

Compared to the potential, however, regional application of Internet technology is in its infancy. For each experiment, there are a thousand yet to be developed.

In our occasional newspaper series on the future of citistate regions, my colleague Curtis Johnson and I have begun to suggest how Internet-like capacities could be applied regionally. Healthy regions, we believe, are those in which the word "regionalism" is turned around - from duty, what the suburbs owe the city, to opportunity, the gains for everyone in a healthy, functioning region. In our Philadelphia Inquirer report in 1993, for example, we noted that Philadelphia, one of America's most prominent 19th century cities, had sunk in visibility in this century, obscured by the capitalist power radiated by New York to its north, the governmental power of Washington to its south.

So we laid out the idea of creating, for the Philadelphia citistate, the world's highest-quality, high-tech, user-friendly information system - one introducing the region to itself and to the world. We saw the Internet, special CD-ROMS, give-away computer disks, even a more personal touch with real human beings answering an 800 number, as the appropriate media for the '90s. The goal: to put outsiders and residents alike in touch with the Philadelphia area's rich store of historic and cultural attractions, arboretums, and entertainment. Government, business, and university information could be added easily.

In short, we suggested that the Philadelphia citistate should try to be as user-friendly, accessible, and customer-oriented as the most progressive corporation, thus enhancing its image across the globe. City and suburb could benefit together from a major economic payoff. Maybe, we suggested, they could even share the new taxes generated by the added economic activity. That's the kind of out-of-the-box approaches strategies for everyone - we need to be looking for.

Clearly, the time is at hand to use Web pages to define regions, internally and externally. Government, universities or citizen groups could act as sponsors/organizers. Regional Web pages could show where a whole citistate stands on critical indicators of population, income, race and residence - compared to other regions, compared to its own past performance and compared to the future benchmark goals it has set for itself.

Realism says a regional Web page will not be all that easy to conceive. Ways must be found to locate and insert new and constantly updated information. There will likely be vigorous debate about what base figures in demography and economics and environmental quality to show, and then benchmarks to measure them against. It may prove a constant struggle to fight off partisan, ideological or "boosterish" pressures. An early decision has to be made about which organizations will be responsible for the regional Web pages, and how constant updating of the information can be assured.

But consider what the supporters of expanded regional consciousness and action - citizens organizations, business groups, academic entrepreneurs - might do with this powerful new tool.

First, a series of Web pages, with good graphics, maps, photographs and charts, could be used to publicize where the region stands on critical economic, environmental, and social indicators, together with clear indication of the trend lines. Why is this important? In the process, the region can be defined increasingly as the interdependent entity it is.

Some efforts in this direction have begun. A project called Sustainable Seattle has regional measures covering the environment, resources, economy, youth and education, health and community. Seattle area citizens can go on the Internet to see what's happening on each of those fronts across their region.

Citizens in 37 Vermont and New Hampshire communities along the upper Connecticut River Valley recently designed a set of imaginative set of indicators about the civic and environmental health of their shared region. It's called Valley VitalSigns, and includes some measures almost everyone can relate to. For example:

* The percentage of businesses that are locally owned

* The percentage of people who volunteer

* The number of local children who grow up and settle in the area

Then there's a test suggesting whether the region has given way to unfettered sprawl development. It's:

The distance from the center of each community to an unobstructed field of stars.

The benchmarks and indicators can show progress and problems, pinpointing needs and opportunities. Citizens will be engaged in the debate about what the indicators and benchmarks ought to be. Cross-links could guide viewers to hundreds of local organizations working in the areas publicized.

One can imagine major regional decisions debated on a region's Web pages - how a major chunk of transportation monies should be allocated, for example, or siting of major regional facilities. One could even think of the popular computer game, "Sim-City." Why couldn't some software be developed to let individuals and organizations in the region play a sort of "Sim-Region," testing out the consequences of alternative investments and courses of action?

As this occurs, one inevitably starts to democratize the discussion of a region's future. The Internet's instant and easy access starts to take issues away from a thin layer of policy experts, council of government officials and the like, and deliver issues instead into debate by the broad range of the region's interested stakeholders. The mere presence of such material on the Internet would start the process, but groups interested in promoting regionalism could strengthen their cause by continually advertising the facts and trends there for all to see. The official regional agencies, meanwhile, would suddenly find they had the capacity to communicate directly and continuously, with broad constituencies, not just other experts and political leaders.

Everyone knows regional governance cohesion is painfully slow in America. Local elected officials get political brownie points for ferocious protection of local issues, not for establishing harmonious foreign relations with other municipalities. Parochial pressures, "home rule," inertia, racial, ethnic, and class divisions and jealous legislatures all slow down effective action at the regional level.

The Internet could be the medium to create consciousness in the true new city of our time - the region. The Web's utter democracy provides a way to leap over the barriers of politics and municipality, to start generating regional citizenship, to get everyone from school and college classes to civic and business organizations to grasp regional issues and start thinking in regional, citistate terms.

Additionally, the media - broadcast and print - could be drawn into more focused attention on regional issues. How? First, when new trend lines get posted - latest figures compared to other places and the past - news stories could be generated. Readers or viewers hungry for more detail could be referred to the appropriate Web sites. Updates on critical regional data wouldn't have to wait for publication of official reports. And second, the local media could be expected to start using the shared data as the base for multiple kinds of stories, with the new region-wide focus included by the very nature the material is presented.

Consider the three areas we identified in our Citistates book as the most serious for U.S. region's in today's international competition: deep social differences, sprawling physical development, and lack of regional governance. Good regional Web pages could have an impact on all three areas.

Take social inequity. Recognized problem areas could be followed intensively through charts on such indicators as the number of children living in poverty, school drop-out rates and growth in teen pregnancies - all within the region and its individual communities. Web pages could show where government money is flowing to deal with social problems and where charitable funds are going. One could include clear descriptions of lead social programs, debates on solutions, links to home pages of community development corporations and other grassroots organizations. Volunteer opportunities could be listed as well as job listings accessible both to employers and job seekers.

On growth and sprawl, the Web pages could include maps of areas developed and liable to development, and show infill potentials that are often disregarded. The system could include a running report on a region's population growth as compared to its expanded land use (with breakdowns by county and municipality). Links could be provided to better practices in other regions, including those with superior growth management laws. Pictures of alternative forms of development could be shown (the whole new wave of neo-traditional or "New Urbanist" forms, for example). Issues like transportation planning could have their own pages, with listings of the nature and cost of competing major infrastructure proposals. And there could be maps of regional trails and greenways built or under discussion.

All this starts to add up to a new potential of governance. Regional Web pages, through constant discussion and reference to the true area-wide issues, helping to bring new players into the debate and strengthen the hand of those seeking more cohesion. Coordination in decisions affecting entire citistate regions of our time.

The Internet, in short, has powerful potential to forge regional identities. The wise region will welcome the new technology, experiment with it and exploit it. Not so much to outdo one's neighbor as to assure the basics at home of a better informed, civically conscious, effective community for the 21st century.

Neal Peirce, a founder of the National Journal and former political editor of the Congressional Quarterly, is a syndicated columnist on urban affairs for the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the author, with Curtis Johnson and John Stuart Hall, of Citistates: How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Civic League, Inc.
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Author:Peirce, Neal
Publication:National Civic Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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