"Regionalism" Is Not a Household Word

Although planning boards across California are becoming awash with the word "regional," we at the Nine-County Coalition see very little public understanding of what regionalism is and how decisions made regionally affect lives differently than decisions made by entities directly responsive to voters.  Regionalism is growing as a progression of events, the latest of which is the passage in June 2016 of Measure AA.  On this website, we hope to offer some useful background as well as insights of things to come. 
          "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people."  Thomas Jefferson

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Association of Bay Area Governments, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District are headquartered in a newly constructed and appropriately numbered building, 375 Beale Street, San Francisco.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Association of Bay Area Governments, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District are headquartered in a newly constructed and appropriately numbered building, 375 Beale Street, San Francisco.


“Regionalism” has numerous definitions and connotations.  The word can refer to cuisine, customs, politics, and much more.  In politics, more specifically California politics, regionalism means a set of laws, regulations and financing vehicles aimed at consolidating land use, housing production, and public transit planning and decision making. 

In California, the laws and regulations that most contributed to today's Bay Area regionalism include the development of an all-encompassing plan, and timelines for achieving each step listed on the plan.  In the San Francisco Bay Area the plan is called Plan Bay Area (PBA), established in 2013.  PBA contains incentives as well as mandates affecting the land use, housing production, and transit of the nine Bay Area Counties -- Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma. 

This is the principal legislation that resulted in Plan Bay Area and the regionalism we witness today, a series of blueprints enacted by the state legislature carrying mandates that indicate they were developed to fight climate change:

*  Executive Order S-3-05, signed in 2005, established specific greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for the state of California:  to year 2000 levels by 2010, to year 1990 levels by 2020, and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

*  Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, passed in order to develop and implement a general plan, and write regulations that would facilitate meeting the targets of Executive Order S-3-05.
*  Senate Bill 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008, passed to support climate action goals through coordinated transportation and land use planning.  SB 375 is a very detailed blue print containing numerous requirements.

One of the requirements of SB 375 is that each of California’s 18 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO’s) devise a "sustainable communities strategy" (SCS) as an integral part of its regional transportation plan.  The SCS includes not only transportation, but also land use and housing strategies.

The Bay Area’s MPO is the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).  After five years of study, public meetings, and discussions with various business and community leaders, MTC together with the Association of Bay Area Governments adopted Plan Bay Area in 2013 as its sustainable communities strategy.

Since then, cities and counties have established laws, regulations, and financing in order to comply with Plan Bay Area’s regional strategies.  Also since then, land use and housing production have come to dominate the conversation, as some cities and counties push back against mandated density and changes in neighborhood character, priced out residents demand remedy, labor-intensive businesses push for more housing.  All this, intensifying shifts from incentives to more mandates.  Strong regional governance and reduced jurisdictional decision making is now California’s plan of choice.

Obviously, this depiction of regionalism in the Bay Area covers only the rock-bottom basics.  Volumes would be needed to tell the whole story.

Bay Area Regionalism

Successful agendas must offer benefits.  Bay Area regionalism promises the benefit of a well-oiled system managed by government agencies for the good of the region.  An excellent description of Bay Area regionalism and strategies for its continued development is found in Roadmap for Economic Resilience, a long paper worth reading.  Here are some quotes that we hope might entice you to take time to read the entire document.


Quotes from Roadmap for Economic Resilience:

The Bay Area is both blessed and burdened by the diversity of its distinctive towns, neighborhoods, and wider geographical areas. Its urban centers, wine country, and suburban areas offer different lifestyles and reflect a variety of economic circumstances.  Even with this diversity, there is a high level of interdependency…. The regional character of the Bay Area economy is sometimes lost on its residents. In a region made up of nine counties and 101 cities, perspectives are sometimes narrow…

MPOs [Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally mandated and federally funded transportation policy-making organization; in the Bay Area, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission] have the authority to use various incentives and/or mandates to ensure local compliance with the SCS [Sustainable Communities Strategy, mandated by California’s 2008 SB 375]. 

To comply with SB 375, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments adopted a Sustainable Communities Strategy, Plan Bay Area, in 2013.

If local governments do not approve projects consistent with local zoning and PDA [Priority Development Areas] requirements, their authority to approve or deny housing projects should be limited in order to ensure that housing is produced as needed for the good of the region.

…there needs to be a paradigm shift in how new housing is planned and permitted in the Bay Area. This would likely require limiting the ability of local jurisdictions to deny new housing starts if they have not met or are not on track to meet their RHNA [Regional Housing Need Allocation] obligations. That may take the form of a regional “by right” or ministerial approval process for all plan-compliant projects or the creation of a regional review body that has approval powers and is free from parochial politics and pressures.

In summary, the “paradigm shift” required for the well-oiled system promised by regionalism, necessitates elected officials in cities and counties to observe the mandates of the Sustainable Communities Strategy and ignore the preferences of their constituents.

Notes on the Rockefeller Commission on Population Growth

Historical perspectives are always interesting.  Objectives are fluid, changing with whose pet ideas dominate the public dialog.  “Urban planning” in the United States has at times consisted of efforts to avoid or dispose of horse manure covering city streets, beautify urban environments with magnificent buildings to encourage moral behavior, segregate neighborhoods by race, or ensure the supremacy of the isolated single-family home.  We offer here some notes on one of many ideas that contributed to the urban planning scenario we experience today.

The Rockefeller Commission on Population Growth and the American Future was a Presidential advisory commission established in March of 1970, to research population growth and its effects, and make recommendations. The Commission’s report, submitted to President Richard Nixon in 1972, is remarkable in its details.  The recommendations specify everything from the types of birth control that should be available, to the necessity of establishing numerous agencies, apparently to supplement a Constitutional framework viewed as no longer adequate for the times.

As an aside, we note that the Rockefeller Foundation was involved in city planning in many ways, including funding the establishment of a Harvard city planning school in 1929, the first independent such school in the country. 

Some parts of the population report seem to be precursors of the subjects discussed on the Nine-County Coalition website.  We offer two such segments here.

Population Perspectives: http://www.mnforsustain.org/rockefeller_1972_chapter%201_perspectives.htm

“The United States today is characterized by low population density, considerable open space, a declining birthrate, movement out of the central cities —but that does not eliminate the concern about population.” 

“It is the pressure of population reaching out to occupy open spaces and bringing with it a deterioration of the environment. It can be viewed as the effect on natural resources of increased numbers of people in search of a higher standard of living. It is the impact of population fluctuations in both growth and distribution upon the orderly provision of public services…”

National Distribution and Migration Policies – Recommendations:

“That the federal government develop a set of national population distribution guidelines to serve as a framework for regional, state, and local plans and development.

Regional, state, and metropolitan-wide governmental authorities take the initiative, in cooperation with local governments, to conduct needed comprehensive planning and action programs to achieve a higher quality of urban development.”


A copy of the Rockefeller Commission report can be purchased from the U.S. Government Publishing Office.  However, a few websites have all or some of the report available for public viewing, the most complete of which is Minnesotans for Sustainability.   http://www.mnforsustain.org/pop_rockefeller_72.htm

A comprehensive list of events in urban planning history was published online for a course in the University of Michigan, “Urban Planning 540:  Planning Theory,” updated 08/04/2016.

Planning History Timeline: a Selected Chronology of Events (with a focus on the U.S.)


Regionalism's Happy Face as Portrayed by MTC

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission's website contains copious information on regionalism, including videos.  This video helped celebrate the 40th Anniversary of MTC.  From the website:

"In honor of its 40th anniversary, MTC in 2011 launched an oral history project, interviewing on camera some two dozen key figuresin the evolution of regionalism. The video below provides an overview of the 'Birth of Regionalism'; to see the full interviews, go to our YouTube channel."

                      Link to video:  An Oral History of the Birth of Regionalism

Regionalism:  Clear and Present Danger to Democracy

The incidence of “regionalism” is growing.  It quietly removes ballot-box control by citizens. It makes it impossible for citizens to correct abuse, greed, or plain stupidity by recalling those in charge. Yet, when we ask folks whether they are aware of growing regionalism, their response is usually either “No” or “What’s regionalism?” These responses are completely understandable, since regionalism is sold to the public as innovative ideas that will benefit us all, while the downsides are not part of the conversation.
In an effort to bring more awareness to regionalism’s downsides, we offer this article.
Background: Regional “governments” – better described as regional “governance” - are created by forming joint powers agreements among jurisdictions such as cities and counties. The concept of joint powers between jurisdictions has existed since the 1920’s, and has produced beneficial results such as fire management, water management, and bridge construction. However, the vast expansion of these powers, especially in California, has produced downsides that should be of concern to all of us.
Downside #1: Once formed, regional governance is immune from voters’ powers of recall, petition, initiative, or referendum. Nothing can be done if voters detect lack of representation, illegal actions, or bad decisions.
Downside #2: Taxation without representation was the battle cry of this Republic. Yet regional governance has the authority to tax without any input from voters or any say at the ballot box. Cities need to go to voters for any increase in financing; regional governance does not. Thanks to powers granted by state legislators and thanks to incremental financing preset in regional governance, increased tax revenues derived from increased property values are automatically sucked up. Regional governance can sell bonds at will, without voter approval.
Downside #3: Regional governance requires “public input,” and meetings galore are called for this purpose. However, there is no requirement for any response to public input. Regional governance hears you and comfortably ignores you – or tweaks the plans just a tad when convenient.
Downside #4: Regionalism is government by unelected bureaucrats not by elected officials. The response that elected officials originally create regional governance, and therefore, regional governance does not constitute government by bureaucrats is a stretch. Once created, regional governance is on its own, operating without any influence from voters or elected officials.
Downside #5: Enabling legislation is stealth. Independently, each enabling legislation sounds beneficial to the average voter. California Assembly Bill 32 promised to limit greenhouse gases. Senate Bill 375 promised “sustainable communities” in order to enable the promises of AB 32.  AB 2954 established the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority for our enjoyment of wetlands, and the Authority voted to fund itself with Measure AA. 
The expansion of regional governance threatens government by elected officials and rules promulgated by voters at the ballot box. Regional governance seeks to control all aspects of our lives, such as housing, the economy, transportation, and land use.
So, is it all hopeless? Are we done for? Not if voters take action in demanding that their elected representatives oppose any forthcoming enabling legislation, and repeal existing ones.  And not if voters are aware of regionalism as a clear and present danger.  To quote Ben Franklin when he was asked what form of government arose from the Constitutional Convention of 1787:  “A Republic, if you can keep it.”  Are we aware enough of threats to the Republic to keep it?
(1) Governments Working Together: A Citizen’s Guide to Joint Powers Agreements, by Trish Cypher and Colin Grinnell. 
(2) Democracy, Plan Bay Area and Sustainable Development, by Trish Cypher.

(This article was first published on the Libertarian Party of San Francisco website.  Marcy Berry, Editor)