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Regional Planning After World War II

Regional planning in the United States after its promising start in the 1920s developed only slowly over the next several decades. But the pace of development accelerated sharply in the 1960s. One reason for the acceleration was the long period of rapid suburban growth that began after the end of World War II and continues to the present time (or, at least, until very recently). This was a resumption of the same force that had started the trend toward regional planning in the 1920s. A second factor was that we began to give environmental issues more weight, and environmental problems by their very nature tend to be multijurisdictional. But perhaps most important was that the federal government began to offer state and local governments irresistible inducements to regional planning.1 In the 1960s the flow of federal money for highways, urban redevelopment, and environmental projects increased greatly. But to get federal grants, local governments had to meet federal requirements for regional planning. For example, the 1962 Federal Highway Act provided matching funds for highway construction, but to get those funds, the applicants had to show that their application was consistent with a regional plan. The Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964 authorized billions of dollars for mass transit systems, but again, the applicant had to show that the funds being applied for would be used consistently with a regional plan. Not only did these and other acts make regional planning a requirement for funding, but many of them also provided funds for the making of regional plans. The carrot of federal funding was a major factor in bringing into being the Councils of Governments (COGs), which today are the main instrument for intermunicipal cooperation in the United States, and which often incorporate regional planning and former regional planning agencies within themselves.

Councils of Governments. The term Councils of Governments is used generically in this section, but numerous other names for the same type of organization are in use, such as regional councils, associations of governments, planning districts, and area development district associations.

According to the National Association of Regional Councils, there are about 450 COGs, by one name or another, in the United States today. They range in size from three employees to over 3,000 employees. In the South and the Southwest, virtually all local governments are members of COGs, and in the rest of the nation the great majority of local governments are members. Some municipal and county governments may belong to more than one COG. For example, every county in the State of Virginia belongs to one of Virginia's 17 Planning District Commissions. But Virginia counties in the northeast portion of the state are also physically part of the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Those Virginia counties such as Fairfax and Prince William, which are part of the metropolitan area, also belong to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG).

To meet the National Association of Regional Council's definition of a COG, at least 51 percent of the organization's board of directors must be elected officials of its constituent municipalities. In practice, local elected officials usually make up much more than 51 percent of board membership. Those members of boards who are not elected officials are often persons who have some appointed relationship to one of the constituent municipalities, such as being a member of a planning board.

The board of the COG sets policy and hires the full-time director, much as a city council hires a city manager. The director is the day-to-day director of the COG, but he or she serves under the direction of the board. Thus the COG is very much the creature of its constituent municipalities. What responsibilities it has and how far it can go in any direction are thus determined by the municipalities it represents. For a COG to do effective work, it must have the support of its member municipalities; that is, that they perceive it as serving their purposes—as being a help and not as being a rival.

The COG serves as a venue for communication and negotiation between municipal governments. For example, imagine that the COG in its role as Metropolitan Planning Organization is putting together a grant application for highway funds. The approximate total that the region will receive is known, but the cost of every project that each municipality would do if it could is vastly greater. The collective "wish list" must thus be pared down to approximate the total of funds available. Thus there must be bargaining and compromise among the municipalities making up the COG. The COG serves as a venue for such activity and in that way helps bring about some meeting of minds among the governments of the metropolitan area or region.

COGs are not always well understood by the citizens of their member municipalities. The city or town or country government is much more visible to the citizen. Its actions tend to be much better reported in the local press or covered on the 6 o'clock news. Then, too, the citizen votes for municipal officials. The COG, as a creation of the various municipal governments, is much less visible. Politicians want visibility because they have to stand for election, and to do that successfully, they must be known. The director of a COG may take a different view. He or she may prefer to simply get on with the work of the COG outside the light of publicity. Thus many COGs function in relative obscurity.

In the following sections we present three case histories to illustrate the previous general discussion: the case of Minneapolis-St. Paul, for regional planning agencies; the case of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for authorities; and the Atlanta Regional Commission, for Councils of Governments.

 
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