Regionalism left out on a limb

Urban Chronicle

May 02, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

MYRON ORFIELD is the new guru of regional approaches to the issues of growth and decline facing cities and their suburbs.

Some of the answers he offers - tax-base sharing and strong regional land-use planning - seem largely futuristic, but he certainly makes a convincing presentation about the need to address the problems.

That was apparent at a talk he gave last week in Washington to launch a tour for his new book, American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality, published by Brookings Institution Press.

And it wasn't just because of his use of flashy, colorful maps to illustrate his points about the disparities in needs and resources between jurisdictions in the country's 25 largest metropolitan regions.

What makes Orfield's message so compelling is that he presents the problem not just from the perspective of cities, but also from the suburbs' view. That represents a subtle but important shift from many previous advocates, who viewed regional cooperation as a way to save cities and prevent metropolitan areas from becoming, in the most-often used analogy, a doughnut - a ring with a hole in the middle.

"All suburbs are hurt by the status quo," Orfield said. "It's not just the cities or the older suburbs."

Or, as he puts it in his book, "When regionalism becomes a suburban issue, it becomes possible. As long as regionalism is portrayed as a conflict between city and suburbs, the debate is over before it starts."

Orfield comes at his subject from multiple perspectives: He is a Minnesota state senator, part-time law professor and head of the Metropolitan Area Research Corp., a regional study and advocacy center. Since the publication five years ago of his first book, which looked at regionalism in Minneapolis-St. Paul, he has done reports on about 30 metropolitan areas, including one on the Baltimore region in 1997.

His book comes as new census estimates released this week indicated that through July 1 last year, familiar patterns continued here: a decrease in population in Baltimore (though the city is contesting those numbers); a slight increase in Baltimore County; and strong growth in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties.

It also comes as area officials and residents continue to craft Vision 2030, a plan for the Baltimore area for the next quarter-century.

Central to Orfield's thesis is what he calls the "myth of the suburban monolith" - that is, the idea that suburbs are simply wealthy counterparts to poor cities. This is the source of The New Suburban Reality subtitle of his book.

In fact, of the 72 percent of residents of the largest metro areas who live in the suburbs, two out of five live in what he calls "at-risk" suburbs - many of them older areas that are beginning to show signs of decline. Unlike central cities, which can build around their assets, Orfield says "as poverty sweeps into older suburbs, it hits them like a freight train."

Another quarter of the residents live in what he calls "bedroom developing suburbs" - newer communities that lack commercial tax bases to support the demand for schools and roads. "Houses don't pay the bills," he said.

The remainder live in what he calls "affluent job centers" - the most desirable areas of expensive housing developments, retail centers and office parks. The disadvantage, he says, is that "they become beehives of congestion."

Orfield argues that regionalism offers attractive alternatives for all these communities, as well as for the central cities that are home to 28 percent of the people who live in metro areas.

And he argues that reform is "not just possible, it's beginning to occur."

As evidence, Orfield points to Smart Growth initiatives in Maryland and 15 other states that channel development into areas already served by roads and sewers. He also talks about efforts to more equitably fund public education, exemplified in Maryland by the recent Thornton Commission legislation.

"The challenge is to broaden [these initiatives] and make them work," he said.

To do so, Orfield suggests creating coalitions centered on less affluent suburbanites that can be used to push for more sweeping regional reforms.

It is here that some of his ideas seem if not far-fetched, then at least far off.

As he points out in his book, only two regions in the country - Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis-St. Paul - have given significant planning powers to a regional organization.

And only one region has required tax-base sharing across a metropolitan area, pooling a percentage of its commercial and industrial tax growth.

The region? Orfield's home base of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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