Regional planning is frequently espoused by academic planner-types as a solution to various undesirable land use outcomes, even in the face of on-the-ground realities which invalidate regionalism as politically impractical. For one, land-use decision-making across the U.S. is the sole domain of local governments and subject to the individual prerogatives of each community, with very limited exceptions in states with growth management rules which may prescribe some development review authority to regional planning agencies (RPAs). Competition, not cooperation, is usually the rule as local governments vie for tax revenue from new development while attempting to ward off unwanted land uses. In this context, the notion of “master planning” for a region is thus a suspect one at best. Regional planners often counter that a regional plan will serve as a blueprint of sorts for state infrastructure investment, but this is rarely ever the case- here politics trumps planning once again. What, then, do we make of state-level RPAs which are tasked with engaging in regional planning?
Based on my experience as a local government planner, there are a number of reasons I question whether state-level RPAs serve a useful purpose. To me, it doesn’t make sense to have planning agencies without any jurisdiction over land use, or any capacity to implement plans. Local governments already engage in enough planning and have professional staff, they don’t need what are essentially “nanny agencies” duplicating their efforts. My experience has also been that RPAs, particularly in Massachusetts, often have an agenda that local governments (and the planners that employ them) find to be untenable, which I will get to in a little bit.
Greater Boston’s RPA, the Metropolitan Area District Commission (MAPC), is one of the 14 regional planning agencies in the Commonwealth. The MAPC declares as its mission: “promoting smart growth and regional collaboration”. MAPC goes about this by producing lots of plans/studies of the Boston region (arguably more than it knows what to do with), and by providing fee-based “technical assistance” to the 101 cities and towns under its purview. It is essentially a government-subsidized planning consulting firm, with direct access to federal and state grants for various planning initiatives. Thus it has an obvious competitive advantage over private sector planning consultants, and thus there are very few private sector planning consultants in Massachusetts. Other than, “this is MA and this is how we do things”, I don’t see any reason why private firms can’t fulfill this role of advising local governments on planning issues. Not only might private consultants do a better job, but they would also be free to give cities and towns unbiased planning recommendations, since unlike the RPAs they’re not constrained by a state-level political agenda.
As for the MAPC, I believe it has an extreme environmentalist/anti-growth agenda (and I say this as a professional planner sympathetic to the role of urban planning). For nearly every project the regional planners at MAPC roll out the same prescriptions for “smart growth” in one form or another: high-density/mixed-use/transit-oriented development/new urbanism/healthy communities/complete streets, etc. They’re not short on lingo to express their displeasure with automobiles and suburban development patterns, what they are short on is common sense. It seems like they have a “zone it and it will happen” mentality, which rarely includes consideration of market forces. In red-hot Boston neighborhoods there’s might be enough dynamism for such an approach, but Boston is much more the exception than the rule. The 100 or so communities in the MAPC study area are usually presented with two options: either “urbanism at all costs” for the older cities and close-in suburbs, or “conservation subdivisions” for exurban communities. These are the type of are generic, off-the-shelf recommendations which seem to characterize MAPC planning reports.
I’m curious what others on here think about RPAs. Do you believe they serve a useful purpose in your state? Do you agree with my objections to them, or do you think I’m off-base?