Shaping the City: Overcoming the obstacles to regional cooperation

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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, August 14, 2010

Most Frederick County residents are unlikely to care much about how Prince William County meets its affordable-housing targets, improves its schools or alleviates its traffic congestion. Likewise, few residents of the District, Alexandria or Manassas worry about affordable housing, schools or traffic in Bowie or Rockville.

This is why effective, regionally based planning and problem-solving are so hard to achieve. The cities and counties of metropolitan Washington pay lip service to the need for regionalism, but cooperation is difficult when people don't think and act regionally.

In reality, the Washington area's residents, businesses and institutions are interconnected and interdependent. This region competes not only with other U.S. metro areas but with those in other countries. Yet indifference in individual jurisdictions stems naturally from self-interest.

Despite that indifference, decades ago the region's political leaders had the wisdom to support regional thinking institutionally by creating the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Of course, with no political, regulatory or fiscal authority, COG is limited to studying, reporting, advising and advocating, and over the years it has reliably performed this role, regularly disseminating research findings and wise policy recommendations.

But "herding cats" comes to mind when contemplating COG's territory and constituents: the District; three counties and eight municipalities in suburban Maryland; and four counties and five municipalities in Northern Virginia.

Still, COG continues its herding efforts. It recently published a new guide -- "Region Forward" -- that sets metropolitan planning goals. The Greater Washington 2050 Coalition, composed of nearly three dozen of the region's political and civic leaders, government agency officials and planning professionals, prepared the comprehensive guide. It calls upon COG's 21 governmental jurisdictions to pursue a common vision. And the jurisdictions generally agree on the problems they all face and the worthy aspirations and goals set forth in "Region Forward."

Goals include preserving and enhancing established neighborhoods; creating transit-oriented, mixed-use communities and dense, walkable activity centers; providing more transportation connectivity and choices; maximizing environmental protection; and reducing energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions.

"Region Forward" also cites economic and social goals such as economic stability, business diversification and job growth; more affordable housing; better, more-accessible health care; improved schools and educational opportunities; and enhanced public safety.

Who would argue with these goals? But the overarching question remains: how to effectuate cross-boundary collaboration and joint action by 21 disparate jurisdictions.

Members of COG and the Greater Washington 2050 Coalition understand that, in addition to local political obstacles, many demographic, fiscal and regulatory obstacles exist within and between jurisdictions. There are substantive differences in zoning laws, budgets, tax and spending policies, economic conditions and cultural characteristics. In fact, the cities and counties in metropolitan Washington directly compete with one another for new business and investment and regularly vie for federal and state funds.

Thus while COG's cheerleading is well-intentioned and necessary, overcoming these persistent impediments will continue to be a challenge.

Nevertheless, COG's efforts help by educating citizens and decision-makers about the benefits of regional collaboration. This calls to mind an aphorism that would be appropriate as an afterword for "Region Forward." That would be "Together we stand, divided we fall."

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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