Planning for Metropolitan Regions

Most of the planning discussed in this book is that done by the individual municipality. But there are many planning issues that transcend municipal boundaries and are much better addressed at a larger-than-municipal scale. In this chapter we discuss planning at the metropolitan-area level.


The key problem in planning for a metropolitan area is the political one. By themselves, city governments are generally too small to address adequately metropolitan-area problems. Yet it is at the municipal level that much of the power and responsibility lie. The problem, then, is to set up a metropolitan area-wide mechanism that has the capacity to do effective planning. This means an organization that can obtain sufficient support and cooperation from the established institutions of government, municipal and state. This is not an easy task. Politicians, like most other people, do not readily cede power and authority to others. They need to be convinced that they and their constituents have a community of interest with the regional organization. Metropolitan planning organizations succeed only to the extent that the local and state political establishments—elected officials and their

* Portions of this chapter pertaining to Minneapolis-St. Paul were written by the late C. David Loeks, who was Professor Emeritus in Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and a former Planning Director of the city of St. Paul.

constituents—see the regional organization as useful in meeting their needs. This is necessarily so, since metropolitan-area planning takes place within the U.S. federal system, in which large amounts of authority and responsibility, such as the power to control land use, reside with local governments.

What, specifically, are the planning issues that demand a regional rather than a local approach? The listing that follows is not complete, but it includes the main items that would make most lists.

  • 1. Transportation. Because large numbers of people cross municipal lines to work, shop, or take part in social and recreational events, a regional approach to transportation is necessary. Then, too, many transportation facilities, such as airports, by their very scale must be regional facilities.
  • 2. Water supply, sewers, and sewage treatment and solid-waste disposal. Water supply systems must be designed with regard to topography and hydrology, not to political boundaries. Where municipal populations are small, economies of scale in water and sewer treatment facilities may make multijurisdictional plants more efficient. Locating a solid-waste disposal facility means taking account of soil characteristics, groundwater flows, road access, and population distribution. In most cases these design requirements will not correspond to municipal boundaries. The same is true for flood control.
  • 3. Air quality. A single municipality within a large metropolitan area cannot by itself solve its own air quality problems. There must be cooperative action within the metropolitan area or within the "airshed."
  • 4. Parks, outdoor recreation, and open space. Because population densities and land values in the core of a region are vastly greater than on the periphery, it makes sense for outlying areas to provide more of their share of open space and parkland, creating a need for multijurisdictional planning.
  • 5. Economic development. If the region unites for this purpose, it can sell itself as a single entity to the rest of the world rather than expend funds on competition between municipalities that are all part of the same regional labor market. Thus some zero-sum game activity can be avoided. A regional approach may also achieve marketing economies of scale; for example, in having a single development office represent the entire region in London or Frankfurt or Tokyo.
  • 6. Housing. Housing and land-use policies in one municipality affect housing prices, rents, and vacancy rates in the entire metropolitan area. Employment growth in one municipality affects housing demand in many other municipalities. Thus housing is a regional as well as a local issue. It must be admitted, however, for a variety of reasons noted in the last section of Chapter 11, that regional housing planning is still more of a gleam in the planner's eye than a major force in urban and metropolitan housing markets. Beyond these planning issues there are many services for which a regional approach makes sense, often because the former permits greater economies of scale. Thus we also see regionwide efforts in workforce training and the provision of various social services. But these services take us beyond the realm of planning as the term is used in this book.
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