I stumbled across an interesting blog posting over at Good today written by Carol Coletta -- the President and CEO of CEOs for Cities and the host of the nationally-syndicated public radio show, Smart City.
In the article, she shares an experience of flying into one city, to speak in another city, but staying in a suburban hotel in a different city -- that all share the same region.
All three cities, plus two others, happen to share a single region. On their own, all of these cities have distinct charm. But string them together with the highway sprawl so familiar all over the country, and it sucks all the charm out of the idea of regionalism—fast. In this case, the sum is decidedly less than its parts.
This is by no means the only region to suffer this fate. In fact, it is more the norm than the exception.
Another recent trip produced an almost identical experience. My hotel was in the middle of a suburban parking lot. All that asphalt seriously discouraged a walk to the restaurant across the parking lot. Instead of experiencing the joy of being in a recognizable place that either of the cities that make up the metro area would have most assuredly delivered, I was staying somewhere between both near an expressway exit because it was “neutral territory” for a regional meeting.
Does this sound like she's in Kansas City? Staying in Shawnee and speaking in Overland Park?
Kansas City is lucky to have some good suburbs -- each with areas that have their own, distinctive downtown areas. Downtown Mission, Merriam, Blue Springs, Overland Park, Parkville, etc all have interesting little downtowns that make them distinctly, and uniquely, themselves. However, sprawl has caused most of cities to mostly look primarily the same, with very little differening them from each other. Colletta says that a lack of regional focus has caused this problem across the entire US:
Regionalism makes complete sense conceptually. Our economies, our natural systems, and our transportation systems are, indeed, regional and require a regional approach.
Regionalism can be relatively easy to impose in regions with big, dominant core cities, such as New York and Chicago. In those regions, everyone knows what’s powering the economic engine, and no one can risk killing it off. The dominant city is favored, as it should be, in regional decisions because it’s in everyone’s clear interest to do so.
But in those regions with cities of equal size or with a weak central city, the conflicts are writ large. The conflicts are even sharper in regions with a history of racial and economic segregation. That’s challenge enough. The real problem comes when, in the name of regionalism, decision makers become place agnostic. In other words, they can’t favor any one place in the region for fear of offending every other place in the region. That translates into development anywhere in the region being labeled as good development. If a road is built in one part of the region, it must be equalized with a road in another part of the region. If a cultural facility is awarded to one place, the next sports facility should surely be built elsewhere.
The bold stuff for emphasis is mine. Sound like KC?
The end result, according to Coletta:
The end result too often is places with no strong center and blured identity, places of no distinction, no vibrancy and force us to drive too much and generate too much carbon, places that are linked together not only by an economy and a transportation system but also by mind-numbingly repetitive development strug in between.
Colletta's recommendatio involves promoting regionalism -- promoting the entire region as a desirable one so we are successfully competing against other cities for new businesses, vs competing against each other. It calls for investing in more vibrant places, putting a stake in the gournd and declaring one place in the region as mattering more than the others -- and that if we don't, we'll end up with a place with no distinction -- which will undermine all of our regional strength.
It sure sounds an awful lot like Kansas City. And while it just makes sense for Kansas City, MO to be the area that matters most (because it holds most of the jobs, most of the history, most of the major destinations, the largest convention center, the entertainment districts, arena, sports teams, zoo, museums and most of the people), focusing regionalism for the improvement of the majority of the region will require the powers in other communities to give up some of their power for the betterment of the region as a whole.
And unfortunately, for now, it seems like the powers that be in the region would rather duke it out amongst themselves that build a strong regional center that the other communities support and enhance.