The 1920s also saw a growing interest in planning for an entire urban region, an idea that had been foreshadowed by the Burnham Plan of Chicago. Suburbanization and the emergence of widespread automobile ownership rapidly made city boundaries obsolete as the functional city—the economic and social city—often sprawled across dozens of political jurisdictions.

Perhaps the most comprehensive regional plan was one drawn up for the New York City region. The area then contained a population of 10 million, and has since grown to over 18 million. The plan covered 5,528 square miles, of which only 300 were New York City itself. The remainder consisted of nearby counties in New York State, Fairfield County in Connecticut, and about 2,000 square miles in adjacent parts of New Jersey.

The plan was drawn up by a nonprofit, nongovernment group, the Committee on a Regional Plan, which later metamorphosed into the Regional Plan Association (RPA), a group that exists to the present day. Funding for the plan, approximately $500,000, was provided by a philanthropy, the Russell Sage foundation.15 The committee had no political power or status whatsoever. Thus whatever influence it had came purely from the force of its ideas and whatever public and political support those ideas could garner. Yet over the years the plan has had a considerable effect on the physical shape of the region. Not only did it help guide the development of the New York region, but it also served as a model for many other metropolitan-area planning efforts in decades to come.

The first task of the planners was simply to define the region. The criteria they used, which are still hard to improve upon, were described in this way: (1) "they [the region's boundaries] embraced an area within which the population can and does travel in a reasonable time from home to place of work"; (2) "they included the large outlying recreational areas within easy reach of the metropolitan center"; (3) "they followed the boundaries of cities and counties at the periphery"; and (4) "they had regard to the physical characteristics, such as watersheds and waterways."16

The transportation sections covered highway, rail, water, and, perhaps surprisingly for the period, air transportation. The highway portions envisioned a complex of radial and circumferential routes, many of which have since been built. In a few cases, routes that were envisioned originally as rail routes have subsequently been built as highways. By modern standards the plan was perhaps overly focused on physical features and capital investment, and underemphasized some social and economic issues. But it was still a remarkable document in that it provided a unified vision of a three-state region containing hundreds of separate municipalities.

Regional plans appeared in numerous other parts of the country during the 1920s. John Nolen, a prominent planner and landscape architect, in 1929 listed about 15.17 Many, like the plan for the New York region, were entirely private ventures. For example, the Tri-State District plan for the Philadelphia area (parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) was paid for by private subscription. Others, such as that done by the Boston Metropolitan Planning Commission, an official organization created by legislative act, were publicly funded. In several cases large counties engaged in regional planning even though the planning took place within a single political jurisdiction. On the East Coast, Westchester County, New York, with an area of about 450 square miles, engaged in extensive regional planning activity through the mechanism of the county parks commission. The results of that effort are visible today in the form of parkways and a splendid county park system of some 15,000 acres. On the West Coast, the largest county effort was that of Los Angeles County, with an area of about 4,000 square miles. Unlike the other regional plans of the era it included a county zoning plan, believed to be the first in the United States.

Transportation plans done for the New York Regional Plan in the 1920s. A large part of what was planned has subsequently been built, though some of the transit links have been built as highways. The highway map (left) covers about 10,000 square miles, and the transit map (below) about 2,500 square miles.

In all cases other than counties, regional planning efforts had to be carried out in the face of the fact that there is no appropriate political entity corresponding to an urban region. Thus there is inevitably a question of where the political power to carry out the plan will be found. Intergovernment agreements may create some political basis for carrying out the plan. In some cases public authorities, which have some of the powers of government, have been created. Perhaps the best known of these is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has built or operated bridges, tunnels, port facilities, bus terminals, and airports, and which has played a substantial role in shaping the New York region. But as a generality, the weakness in regional planning efforts was and is the mismatch between the nature of the tasks and the fragmentation of the underlying political structure. In the 1960s Robert Wood wrote a book on the New York region, with its complex of city, town, village, and county governments as well as numerous school districts, sewer districts, and other quasi-government organizations.18 The book's title, 1400 Governments, states in a phrase the essence of the problem.

The 1920s also saw the beginnings of state planning efforts. Statewide planning is bedeviled by a problem that is somewhat the opposite of the regional planning problem. The region is a natural unit that lacks an appropriate political structure. The state is the opposite, a political structure whose boundaries do not define a "natural" planning unit. Most states have boundaries that do not conform to any geographic, economic, or social reality. For example, New York State, which was the first state to attempt a statewide planning effort, extends from Montauk Point on Long Island, approximately due south of Rhode Island, to the shores of Lake Erie. The residents have little in the way of common interests other than that they are subject to the same state government. The State of Colorado has a natural break where the Rockies rise up out of the Great Plains. The eastern part, in a topographic and an economic sense, is part of the Great Plains. But the western part of the state, in an economic and a topographic sense, is part of the Rockies. The state's rectangular borders bear no relationship to these realities. Comparable comments can be made for most states. Yet despite these problems, a number of states have made substantial strides in statewide planning, particularly with regard to environmental and growth management issues, as will be seen in subsequent chapters.

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