Regionalism: Who’s in the House?

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All around the country, foundations and nonprofit practitioners are abuzz about something called “regionalism.” What is it? Why is it important? What kinds of collaborative practice does it require? The editors of the Nonprofit Quarterly decided to share some initial impressions and findings framed by this issue’s focus on collaboration.

Nonprofit leaders need to be able to see each of our organizations within its relevant context in order to choose the most strategic possible positioning of our work, and in order to choose the best possible partnerships. As the article on page 6 explains, organizations exist within an ecology of organizations—a web of interdependent relationships stretching through time and space. The question for leaders, then, is what is the correct locus and scope of activity? To help people find jobs, many now look far beyond their neighborhood or municipality. To expand the audiences for a children’s theater or mobilize citizens to clean up a river, town boundaries shouldn’t automatically mark the limits of your outreach.

Regionalism means different things to different people—to some it might mean thinking about “eco-regions” that stretch over hundreds of miles, to others it evokes instances of political and economic cooperation such as the European Community. But especially for questions of economic development, trade and industrial activity tends to be clustered in metropolitan regions—cities and their surrounding rings of suburbs and rural land, as water, transportation, jobs, workers, education, training and housing all have a regional existence.

Given the (metro) regional scope of so many important systems and their interconnected nature, concentrating on neighborhoods or municipalities or on single issues does not always make sense. Often community-based nonprofits will need to explore collaborations across lots of different boundaries—private-public, municipal, and disciplinary—to effectively achieve their missions. Even relatively well-off communities have found that their destinies are inextricably linked to those of nearby cities and towns.

Since the end of World War II, policies contributing to urban sprawl, white flight and residential segregation have taken jobs, resources and people away from central cities. People with means followed the new growth, leaving behind low-income neighborhoods, vacant and often polluted commercial property, a declining tax base, and residents with limited access to mainstream opportunities and fewer resources to address community concerns. While sprawl is not the sole cause of regional inequity, it has played a pivotal role in exacerbating disparities, leaving in its wake a deteriorating urban infrastructure, a dearth of investment in affordable housing and employment, with the resulting concentration of poverty and despair—all of which drives development out of the central city to the suburban fringe.

Some of the other consequences of sprawl have been an upsurge of traffic congestion, decreased air quality (leading to increases in preventable hospitalization), weakened public schools, a suburban labor shortage, and threats to farms and wildlife habitats. In recent years, growing public awareness has provoked a response by environmentalists and urban planners to promote “smart growth.” Environmental and economic strategies that ignore the equity dimension of sprawl, however, fail to build the necessary broad consensus for regional strategies. PolicyLink ( provides one of the best starting-places for finding out more about regional strategies for equitable, sustainable growth.1

The main areas in which community-based organizations have participated in regional strategies are transportation, equitable public investment, leveraging private reinvestment, affordable housing, and workforce development. PolicyLink has published a Briefing Book2 on these strategies, with examples of community-based alliances that are having an impact on regional equity.

Transportation: Despite increased congestion and the detrimental effects of automobile emissions on the environment, per capita vehicle use in the largest metropolitan areas has doubled in the last thirty years, while per capita use of transit has shrunk by more than 65 percent. Meanwhile, the country spends nearly $200 million a day building, improving or rehabilitating streets and roads. Transportation policies geared toward the convenience of the suburban commuter have disproportionately negative effects on residents of the central city and inner-ring suburbs.

Community-based organizations can advance approaches to transportation policy and practice that are more equitable. Some of these strategies include: advocating for greater resource investment in transit systems that serve low-income communities in the central cities; advocating for transit investment that allows workers in those communities access to jobs in suburban areas (“reverse commuting”); and promoting economic development that results in improved transit accessibility for neighborhoods.

Public Investment: Local, state and federal governments use subsidies to attract businesses and infrastructure funds to develop roadways and sewers. This public investment can often lead to an inefficient use of land and resources and contribute to divestment from central cities. Alliances of community-based organizations are using three strategies to influence the use and the direction of public investment: advocating for disclosure and accountability of economic development subsidies; “linking” particular economic development subsidy deals to specific community benefits; and supporting equity criteria for public investments in infrastructure.

Private Investment: Encouraging and redirecting private capital into central cities and inner-ring suburbs requires the collaboration of a number of actors, among them elected officials, community advocates and developers. Involving community representatives in a leadership role helps older urban areas grow stronger without displacing current low-income residents by making sure capital investment leads to a broader set of community benefits such as employment training, community funds, profit sharing and affordable housing.

In some instances community residents and private investors have negotiated agreements that work for both, creating a “win-win” situation. In other cases, collaboration may have come about through confrontation, but in the end, agreements laid a foundation for future positive and mutually beneficial relationships. Among the strategies employed are: equity partnerships between community development corporations (CDCs), commercial developers and other community actors; linking loans for community economic development to the hiring and training of local residents; forcing developers to pay into a trust fund to mitigate the negative impact of proposed development on the community; and maximizing opportunities to obtain community benefits through the public planning process.

Housing: Some community activists have noted that as neighborhoods formerly considered undesirable become attractive to the middle class, low-income residents find themselves squeezed out by rising prices. In many metropolitan areas, housing production (supply) has not kept up with demand, leading to speculation and rapid price increases in all neighborhoods, reducing shelter options for low-income people. Finally, there is increasing evidence that the concentration of low-income people, and of people of color in particular, in isolated neighborhoods is one of the factors perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
In this context, regional strategies aimed at increasing housing opportunity include: advocating for more housing production; leveraging private capital and other sources of funds to produce affordable housing; seeking community control over land and housing; and shaping land use and planning policies to ensure that private housing developers build affordable units as part of their activities, distributed throughout the metropolitan area.

Employment: Unemployment among racial and ethnic minorities, low-skilled workers, women, and central city residents and income inequality continue to increase. Three interrelated factors shape employment access: the geography of home and work (mobility), human capital development (job-readiness), and the array of social institutions acting as labor force intermediaries.

Strategies addressing workforce development and employment opportunities include: developing comprehensive approaches to employment access by building coalitions between workforce development institutions and those working to improve regional transportation options; building regional training partnerships between community groups, labor force intermediaries (such as unions), educational institutions and employers to improve the quality and stability of regional job opportunities; and supporting the creation, through planning and zoning, of mixed-use areas accommodating a diverse array of commercial and industrial enterprises in order to combat spatial segregation of sectors.

This article is really about carefully choosing the setting of strategies. Questions about where decisions are made, what causes and effects exist in a system, and generally how things relate across preset boundaries are extremely important. We have seen some wonderful approaches to more comprehensive strategies that allow these questions to be explored. We list some very good resources below and urge you to read the articles on large scale planning and future search on pages 34 and 36.

See the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities (

1. See Community-Based Initiatives Promoting Regional Equity: Profiles of Innovative Programs from Across the Country. PolicyLink, January 2000.
2. Briefing Book: Strategies and Examples of Community-Based Approaches to Equity and Smart Growth—A Working Document. PolicyLink, January 2000.

The articles on regionalism and future search beg many other questions, not the least of which is the question of appropriate governance for an ongoing broad-based collaborative project. We wanted to bring you one model that emerges from community building practice as an example of the depth of thinking this important component of collaborative work requires.
Building strategic relationships for community development is a difficult but critically important endeavor. When approaching the problem of community governance, practitioners must stick to the basics. Research by the Urban Strategies Council on comprehensive community-based initiatives (CCIs) across the country reveals five actions that lead to successful community-based governance.

Over the past 15 years, comprehensive community-based initiatives have become a prominent neighborhood revitalization strategy. These initiatives address a wide range of issues, including the environment, affordable housing, public safety, child health, and economic development. Many initiatives, in fact, confront several areas at once, taking a holistic approach to community building. The common thread among CCIs is that community members and residents play a main role in the planning and governance of the initiative.

Successful governing teams rely on community participation to make decisions and drive the initiative. Community participation is the foundation of CCIs, and is what sets them apart from other community development strategies.

  • Create numerous opportunities for community members and residents to participate on the governing team and in the initiative.
  • Assure that residents have a strong voice and control over the governing process, and that all parts of the community are represented.

Successful governing teams bring together a diverse group of people and get them working toward a common goal. A wide range of participants brings more resources, skills, and experience to the initiative.

  • Develop relationships with a variety of stakeholders, within and outside of the community.
  • Promote mutual respect and a “team attitude” among governing team members.

The governing team will be more effective and efficient if members and the community can agree on the initiative’s goals and objectives. A shared vision brings the group and the community together, encourages cooperation, and helps develop stronger programs and strategies.

  • Develop a common vision statement as a governing team.
  • Agree on a set of goals and objectives for the initiative.
  • Determine and clarify the governing team’s role in the initiative.

Successful governing teams set realistic and reasonable goals and are held accountable to these goals by the community, the initiative sponsor, and others.

  • Develop the goals as a group.
  • Create an accountability system to check the governing team and the initiative’s progress.
  • Identify to whom the governing team is accountable. To the initiative funders? To the community?

Successful governing teams work to ensure the sustainability of the initiative and the team itself. Ensuring sustainability promises long-term change in the community.

  • Discuss a long-term plan for the governing team and the initiative.
  • Develop programs, projects, and resident skills that will continue to strengthen the community after the initiative ends.

This list is adapted from Community Governance: A Pamphlet on Developing Inclusive and Effective Community Decision Making Structures, the first of several tools on community governance to be released by The Community Building Support Center of Urban Strategies Council. Other materials include a one-page flyer summarizing key concepts of community governance; a workbook on community governance drawing on the experiences of community building initiatives from across the country; and a workshop for groups working to design or refine community governance structures. The Community Building Support Center also provides a two-day training on community building principles and practices that includes coverage of community governance.

For additional information or to obtain these materials, please contact the Urban Strategies Council, 672 13th Street, Oakland, California 94612, 510-893-2404 .