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New regionalism movement goes beyond borders

David Scharfenberg Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday November 21, 2001

Think regionally and act, well, regionally. 

That is the credo of “new regionalism,” a growing movement in academic and public policy circles calling on governments, businesses and activists to reach beyond traditional city and county borders to work together on pressing social, economic and environmental issues. 

The movement was on full display Tuesday, when Nick Bollman, president of the California Center for Regional Leadership – a statewide nonprofit that fosters regional cooperation in the Bay Area and elsewhere – held court at a seminar sponsored by UC Berkeley. 

Bollman, who also serves as the chairman of State Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg’s Commission on Regionalism, spent much of the afternoon discussing a draft report the commission just concluded. “The California Dream: Regional Solutions for 21st Century Challenges” is due for release in January. 

The report calls on the state government to use economic incentives to encourage regional cooperation on a whole host of issues – ranging from affordable housing, to transportation, to economic growth. If the recommendations become law, local governments would receive greater funding for projects if they show that they are coordinating development with other communities in the region.  

Local advocates are enthusiastic about the growth of “new regionalism,” and say that Berkeley’s attention to regional concerns has already paid dividends in the Bay Area. 

Victoria Eisen, principal planner for the Association of Bay Area Governments, cited the city’s decision to build a bridge from Aquatic Park to the Marina, providing greater access to the San Francisco Bay Trail, a half–built hiking and biking path that will encompass all of the San Francisco and San Pablo bays. She says increased access to the trail will cut down on auto traffic and improve quality of life throughout the area.  

But critics of the “new regionalism” doubt whether the movement can work on a broader scale. Peter Gordon, professor in the School of Policy Planning and Development at the University of Southern California, says that regional governments – created through the annexation of one city by another, or the development of a county –based government – have failed. 

“There are no examples that scale is a good thing,” said Gordon. “In fact Brooklynites will tell you that aggregation (into New York City) is what killed Brooklyn, draining all their resources to Manhattan.” 

Other attempts to foster local cooperation, in the Bay Area and elsewhere, have never even gotten off the ground. Michael Tietz, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley in the City and Regional Planning department, says that one major reason is the unwillingness of local governments, and local citizens, to give up power. “The question,” he said, “is will this movement, like the others, founder on the rocks of home rule?” 

Bollman, during the Berkeley seminar, admitted that his movement faces a number of hurdles – from the parochialism of local government, to a multi–million dollar state deficit that may prevent heavy spending on regional initiatives. 

However, Bollman said some regional organizations, like the California Coastal Commission and the Lake Tahoe Conservancy, have proven successful. He also claimed that Speaker Hertzberg supports the movement, suggesting that the state might spur a more regional approach. A spokeswoman in Hertzberg’s office could not confirm his support for the report’s recommendations by the Daily Planet’s deadline. 

Whatever happens at the state level, local proponents of the “new regionalism” are moving full speed ahead. The Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Development, a coalition of business, environmental and social justice groups, hosted a series of meetings in recent months, including an Alameda County meeting on September 6th in San Leandro, centered on regional cooperation around economic development and growth. 

Participants, including several officials and activists from Berkeley, gathered in small groups and used computer models to debate the best patterns for future growth in the Bay Area. The alliance will present its findings in early December.  

The group has also targeted a group of 46 downtrodden neighborhoods in the area in need of investment, including West Berkeley. The organization is encouraging banks, insurance companies and corporations to invest in the neighborhoods. 

Andrew Michael, vice president of the Bay Area Council, which participates in the alliance, hopes that the investment will revitalize Berkeley and other urban centers in the region, create affordable housing, and draw skilled workers from the suburbs. This migration, he argues, will boost the regional economy, and cut down on the number of people commuting to Bay Area cities for work. 

Such is the promise of “new regionalism” – a broad–scale movement to address multiple, overlapping issues. Will it work? That may be a question for another Berkeley seminar.