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The metropolitan perplex: navigating the new regional models.

An emerging public discussion about governing in metropolitan America presents important challenges and opportunities for city and town officials. This discourse arises from new experiments and accumulated experience with problem-solving across jurisdictional lines and at the regional level.

Debate about making some governmental unit fit the "real" urban area dates at least to the late nineteenth centruy, when suburban municipal incorporations put an end to central city annexations in many areas. Through the 1960's, these debates focussed on issues of government structure, from city-county consolidations to unitary metro-wide jurisdictions to two-tiered local federalisms modeled on London or Toronto.

After several decades of intermittent local activity, a new phase of both local and nationwide attention to the puzzle of metropolitan governing has developed. This recent attention seems more focussed on economic rationales and on collaborative processes and less on efficiency of service delivery or on government structure.

NLC's 1993 Futures Report (to be released at the Orlando Congress of Cities in December), for example, states that regional collaboration "is vital" if America's cities and towns are to compete effectively in the global economy. A recent meeting of local participants in regional efforts to enhance competitiveness exhibited the variety, the successes, and the seriousness of these endeavors. (A report on that meeting will appear in this series.)

NLC's research has shown that cities and their suburbs exist in the same, underlying metropolitan economy. Their economic fortunes go up and down together, even if they are at differing levels of performance. Moreover, sharp disparities within the metro area hurt both suburb and city. They are "All in it together" (the title of NLC's 1993 study that reports these findings.) Thus, their mutual economic futures, especially in the face of increased competition from abroad, depend importantly on their ability to cooperate on behalf of that shared economy. (Related analyses were reported in NLC' 1992 study, "City Distress, Metroplitan Disparities, and Economic Growth.)

NLC's Committee on Finance, Administration, and Intergovernmental Relations devoted a large portion of its October 8 meeting to issues of regionalism. FAIR Committee members decided to recommend furhter treatment of a variety of these topics . (See The Weekly, Oct.18.)

In a new book (see The Weekly, Aug. 23.), Columnist Neil Peirce and his colleagues describe metropolitan areas as "Citistates." Peirce says that in such areas, cities and towns "have a shared identification, function as a single zone for trade, commerce, and communication, and are characterized by social, economic, and environmental interdependence." This term, as much perhaps as any findings of the book, summarizes and celebrates a lot of actual work that people are doing in the metropolitan vineyards. The word and the idea of a "citistate" seems to lay out a claim, an ambition, and a rationale for interjurisdictional, regional problem-solving.

David Rusk, former Albuquerque mayor, argues that cities and suburbs should be "reunified" in order to overcome racial and income-based segregation. His recent book, "Cities without Suburbs" offers strategies for structural change and for policies that would reduce the effectiveness of political boundaries as exclusionary barriers. (See the Week, Aug. 23.)

Articles by Peirce and Rusk as well as others, will appear in the "Metropolitan Perplex" series.

Debate in some previous periods tended to narrow quickly to the issue of "are you for or against metropolitan government?" This lowered the level of discusssion to whether one wanted to buy a pig in a poke or to whether you had stopped beating your husband. The focus on structure also produced an all or nothing quality to the issue and - since such proposals were rejected by voters almost everywhere they surfaced - the result was cynicism.

The fact is that considerable problem-solving and governance activity already occurs at metropolitan levels across the USA.

There is also considerable experience across the USA with models of process or semi-formal structures that might be useful to other communities. William Dodge has worked with a lot of these and will report on them in another article in the series. With more options to choose from - that is, with solutions that are less than the grail of metropolitan government -real action may become more feasible and more useful.
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Author:Barnes, Bill
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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