Regional planning: Part 1

Research continues to suggest that regional planning, as done in Michigan, does not work very effectively.

Recent research suggests that regional planning, when done in a system when local governments voluntarily may or may not follow region plans, has mixed success. Some may take the view that such a voluntary system does not work. This is important given that economic development in the new economy is particularly dependent on regional strategies and coordination. But there may be a solution. One possible solution is outlined in part two of this series of articles.

In the new economy, regions are the economic unit capable of being competitive in a global economic setting. That is one of the ideas behind Michigan’s Prosperity Regions. Each region is created only as large as necessary so each region has all of the assets necessary to be globally competitive. Then there needs to be a system of coordination, cooperation, and planning so the region can champion economic development efforts for the entire region. The Networks Northwest, formerly the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, regional plan; A Framework for our Future: A Regional Prosperity Plan for Northwest Michigan is a good example of such an effort. It is built on the Grand Traverse area’s The Grand Vision for the Grand Traverse region. Northwest Michigan’s regional efforts are often held up as the model for the creation and growth of prosperity regions in Michigan.

Prosperity regions also become the boundaries for coordination of many state departmental functions– so that the same people across local, regional, and state government all work and coordinate in the same region. Also, the regional entity itself becomes an organization which combines, in one form or another, several functions: regional planning, job training and development, adult education, workforce development, economic development, transportation, and higher education organizations. Ultimately, this would be a consolidation of regional planning, metropolitan planning, workforce development boards, and federal economic development districts.

Research published in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Allred and Chakraborty, “Do Local Development Outcomes Follow Voluntary Regional Plans?” JAPA Vol. 81, No. 2, p 104+, 2015) examined residential development which occurred after adoption of a regional plan in the Sacramento, California, region. The research examined if such development better met the regional plan principles, compared with residential development which occurred before the regional plan was adopted.

Sacramento’s 2004 Blueprint Plan encompassing a region of six counties has been cited as an example of regional planning success and how a voluntary regional plan works. The plan was developed with a high degree of involvement by stakeholders creating consensus on a vision and local actions to implement that vision. The plan included seven growth principles, or goals, including: transportation choices, mixed-use developments, compact development, housing choice and diversity, use of existing assets, quality design, and natural resource conservation.

In these respects the Sacramento Blueprint Plan parallels the Northwest Michigan’s Grand Vision (prepared for six of the region’s ten counties) which calls for growth and investment areas around existing towns, villages, and cities where public infrastructure already exists or density to support such infrastructure exists.

The Sacramento research found that those areas that the regional plan called out for where new development should occur did not receive the most new residential development. Also most new residential development, after adoption of the plan, occurred in neighborhoods that did not follow the goals and principles in the Regional plan as well. The study was only looking at residential development and used census tracts to define neighborhoods. Both these may be seen as weaknesses in the method used for this research.

The researchers also found some local governments were not as accepting of the goals and principles in the regional plan. The example cited was “Sacramento, with more opportunities for infill development, was more likely to adopt some of the regional plan principles, while smaller suburban communities with large tracts of developable land were more likely to build traditional suburban housing.”

Overall, however, development continued to follow the “logic of conventional suburbanization” reflecting little change in what was happening after the plan adoption when compared to before the plan adoption. In some jurisdictions other factors were more important and significant than the plan for influencing where and how development occurs. Those factors included distance from urban core, higher level of educational attainment, NIMBYism, political opposition to the idea of regional planning, local government incentives for development, and opposition to specific parts of the regional plan.

Some exceptions to this were found. The study found that some development did locate in areas which better followed the principles outlined in the regional plan. Areas where this occurred were locations that offered transportation choice, housing choice and housing diversity, and use of existing assets.

The study found some local jurisdictions experienced development more closely following the regional plan. That happened due to place-specific needs or the parochial interests in those jurisdictions.

Maybe most telling is what local governments did, or did not, do to start implementation of the regional plan. Once a regional plan is adopted there may be a need to update local government plans, and then zoning, for purposes of implementation. Out of the 28 local government plans examined in the research:

Study of 28 local government plans 

 Plans examined in the research

Total number of plans

Makes reference to the regional plan

In the land use element

In the transportation element

In the housing element

Local plan updated after the adoption of the regional plan

14

8

7

8

Of the plans updated, the update itself references the regional plan multiple times

7

7

7

7

Of the plans updated, the update does not make any reference to the regional plan

3

0

0

0

Other

2

1

0

1

Local plan has not been updated after adoption of the regional plan

12

0

0

1

Not available, or plan update is still in progress

2

n/a

n/a

n/a

Totals

28

8

7

9

The authors of the study suggest the local planners “should continually promote and advocate for regional principles while encouraging plan adoption at the local level by giving priority” to principles and goals in the regional plan.

Perhaps there is not any surprise that a regional plan, which is totally voluntary when it comes to implementation by local governments and developers, does not get uniformly followed. Other research has suggested when a practice is voluntary, but with a lot of public promotion, education, and advocacy, the best one can hope for is something under 50 percent compliance. Turn that into a regulation with weak or little enforcement and compliance might be as high as somewhere around 70 percent. Regulation with rigorous enforcement will see somewhere around 90-95 percent compliance.

Yet other literature suggests voluntary regional planning is not successful if the regional plan challenges local priorities and needs, or are opposed by powerful elites or political groups. Evidence also suggests regional planning may have affirmative influence. The study reinforces a long standing critique of voluntary regionalism according to the study’s authors: elements of a regional plan are implemented only to the degree that it makes sense locally.

So to the degree that a regional plan may be better for the region as a whole, but maybe not the best for a particular local government, there may need to be something more than just voluntary regionalism. Part two of this pair of articles puts forward one idea from a Michigan State University Extension educator that focus on land use issues. The intent is simply to start the discussion about this; there is no expectation this would be the final outcome, or even that it would happen.

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