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Smart Citizens

United States

Smart citizens
Carl Vogel
reports on some ground-breaking
regional initiatives starting up in the United States.

Flying into Miami International Airport you see the roads, powerlines and waterways that lace the land in a continuous web stretching north past Fort Lauderdale and into Palm Beach. You don’t see borders between the cities, suburbs and towns.

The population of Southeast Florida has almost doubled to 4.4 million since 1970, fueling a sprawling exodus from the cities. The number of miles traveled by car per head is increasing at an even faster rate: infrastructure like schools and highways has been overwhelmed; farmland, wetlands and open spaces have been lost.

Urban populations in the US have spread into megapolises, city-states, regions – pick your term. Four out of five Americans now live in one of these metropolitan areas, from the Baltimore-Washington DC corridor to Los Angeles’ sprawl down the Pacific Coast and into the Hollywood hills.

‘The old paradigm was federal/state/ local,’ says Neal Peirce, who chairs the Citistates Group, a collection of regional thinkers. ‘But, with globalization and localization, networking is much more important. It’s less hierarchical.’

Peirce says the idea of regional co-operation has been ‘bubbling up from underneath’ more and more, as local groups realize its importance. It helps buffer against some of globalization’s more insidious effects.

Few people are talking about new regional governments. ‘If you’re in a low-income neighborhood that already has a municipal government that you can’t control, that doesn’t listen to the communities beyond the downtown, what’s the point of adding another layer of government further away?’ asks Steve Perkins, associate director of the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a Chicago-based non-profit organization.

The Center’s idea of what regionalism offers is embodied in the Location Efficient Mortgage (LEM). A LEM would allow people buying a home to borrow more because of the savings made by using public transit rather than owning a car. The mortgage would help attract home ownership to the urban core, bring more borrowing power to low- and moderate-income families, and reduce traffic.

The Center has been co-ordinating the Metropolitan Initiative, an effort to connect community, civic and business leadership in metropolitan regions. The Initiative has held regional forums in 12 US cities, from Miami to San Francisco.

CNT looked for examples that could be replicated elsewhere. New York City, faced with investing $7 billion in water-treatment technology to cleanse agricultural contamination from their upstate water supply, instead formed a partnership with farmers to improve agricultural practices. The program’s $1 billion price-tag saved the city $6 billion in capital investment while securing financing for farmers to upgrade their operations.

The Initiative’s ultimate goal is to recraft the relationships between the Federal Government, the states and metropolitan areas. Perkins says the focus will be on three improvements, which they call Smart Citizens, Smart Money and Smart Rules, giving citizens better information about their region, changing federal-spending patterns and promoting locally appropriate solutions.

Even the most fervent regional prophet admits that for plans such as these to work, more people need to recognize a new regional reality. ‘The region is an entity that we can’t yet wrap our arms around,’ says G Marie Leaner, who co-ordinated the forums for CNT. ‘There has to be a way to make it matter to people.’

The America Project co-hosted the Metropolitan Initiative’s Atlanta conference in July. ‘I don’t see direct immediate benefits for our constituents, people living in low-income communities; but being at the table is critical,’ says Elise Eplan, the director of the America Project at the Carter Center in Atlanta. ‘The truth is, more and more resources are in the outer ring – the needs are in the inner ring. There have to be ways to connect these things.’

Myron Orfield, a Minnesota state representative from Minneapolis, has sponsored and passed bills that expanded the Twin Cities’ public transportation system, put stricter laws into effect for land-use planning, created funding for low-income housing and brown-field redevelopment, and raised a tax-sharing pool for towns in the area from $38 million to $680 million.

Orfield won only after building a grassroots coalition. Many of the blue-collar, working-class residents of older suburbs at first didn’t see how their future was connected to the urban ghetto. ‘Build a base in the older suburbs,’ says Orfield, ‘and get ready for something that will be difficult.’

CNT aims to create regions where no one section of the population is left behind because it doesn’t have the right zip code.

Carl Vogel is a freelance journalist now working out of New York.    

Nation-states have their uses but – particularly if their borders were originally marked out by colonial powers – they often conceal more than they reveal. Common identities, like that of the indigenous peoples of Latin America or the Kurds, frequently cross national boundaries or are confined to regions within them. Loosening the bonds of the nation- state would give these identities more room for self-expression. Human migration constantly changes the affinities of even the most established communities. The same is true of economies, where regions can prosper together through sharing resources, tending them carefully. Around Bologna, in Northern Italy, for example, a vibrant regional economy has grown from small-scale enterprises; the co-operatives of the Mondragon region in Spain have also prospered by working from a regional perspective. ‘Globalized’ trade based on environmental destruction and cost-cutting industrial competition neglects these benefits, which are critical to sustainable development.

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New Internationalist issue 296 magazine cover This article is from the November 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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