The United States may be one nation under God but, politically, it is fractured into a multitude of jurisdictions, states, counties, municipalities, school districts, election wards and more. While necessary for governance, taxation and administration of public services, these jurisdictions, for the most part, bear little relation to the distribution of population and economic activity across the landscape.
Over the last century, the settlement of land in ever-widening rings around the nation’s major cities has created regional economies that span local government boundaries and often cross state lines. In effect, the invisible hand of the market has shaped the man-made landscape with little regard to the formal divisions decreed by government.
The federal government has recognized this organic, market-driven growth process by identifying over 300 "metropolitan areas" across the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, each consists of "a core area containing a large population nucleus, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of economic and social integration with that core."
The federal government has also recognized that the integrity and vitality of these areas are dependent on the large-scale circulation of goods and people over region-wide transportation networks. Yet the fragmented political authority in most metropolitan areas makes it difficult to address regional transportation impacts and needs.
For over three decades, the federal government has sought to address this failing by requiring states to establish Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), composed of local elected officials and state agency representatives, to review and approve transportation investments in metropolitan areas. The North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority is the MPO for northern New Jersey.
But because they bridge traditional boundaries and lines of authority, from the start, MPOs have been controversial. Critics have argued that they usurp legitimate functions of state governments and constitute an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. Supporters say they are important mechanisms for insuring local control over federal funding and that they deserve wider authority to implement the plans they create.
Congress, while consistently upholding the need for MPOs, periodically has refined their functions and authority. It is scheduled to do so again in 1997 when the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act -- the enabling legislation for MPOs -- comes up for reauthorization. A brief sketch of the origins and administrative history of MPOs can provide perspective on the upcoming Congressional debate.
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Origins of Regional Planning
Growth of the nation's metropolitan areas was made possible and sustained by improvements in the transportation system. In the 19th century, canals and then railroads helped knit together local and regional markets into a single national economy. Cities with long-established marine ports such as New York and those situated at the hub of major rail routes such as Chicago became the command centers for the emerging national economy. Their industries took in raw materials and fed back finished goods to the rest of the nation. They also served as the headquarters of new business organizations, nationwide in scope, which generated growing numbers of well paying jobs, swelling the ranks of the middle class.
As the cities prospered, they drew in waves of immigrants from around the globe. Soon, new innovations in transportation -- horse-drawn railways, electric streetcars and finally, the automobile -- provided the circulation systems needed for further growth, spreading population and productive capacities into wide regions around the urban core. Each city came to sit "like a spider in the midst of its transportation web," according to Lewis Mumford.
Imposing order on the rapid and often chaotic growth of metropolitan areas initially became the cause of Progressive Era reformers, academics and specialists in the new field of city planning. While their most visionary plans were never realized, they conducted important studies of regional needs and laid the groundwork for eventual federal programs to support comprehensive regional planning. This chapter traces the origins of regional planning in the first decades of the century.
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Recognition of the need for planning on a regional scale -- such as that carried out by MPOs -- has its roots in the "Progressive Era," roughly the first two decades of the century. This was a time of great optimism for the growing middle class, when science was seen as offering the path to a more prosperous, efficient and orderly future. Applying scientific principles, industry helped satisfy material wants through mass production of goods and helped ease domestic burdens with a succession of new electric appliances.
Mixing Science and Utopia
At the turn of the century, the systematic collection and analysis of data to help understand and solve urban problems was a new concept. Early practitioners sought to put city planning on the same footing as the "scientific management" then being widely implemented in industry to maximize worker productivity and profits. However, the problems faced in cities were infinitely more complex than those on the shop floor. Standard methods for studying urban problems took many years to develop. Notable advances came in the 1920s, with the advent of new survey research and statistical techniques.
On the theoretical front, a number of the academics offered grand visions for restructuring urban regions. Many drew upon the utopian theories of Ebenezer Howard who in the 1890s had urged that excess urban population be shifted to planned "garden" cities, surrounded by "greenbelts" of parks, farms and open land. The cities would contain enough business and industry to achieve a degree of economic self-sufficiency. A number of planned communities, including Radburn in Fairlawn Borough, New Jersey, were inspired by the Garden City vision. In the 1920s and 1930s, Lewis Mumford was among the most prominent advocates for garden cities. Together with strong land use planning, he saw them as a means to achieve a rational distribution of population and economic growth in each region ("balanced urban communities within balanced regions").
Meanwhile, a new intellectual elite of "social" scientists promoted the reorganization of public and private institutions along more rational lines. In consort with business leaders and reform-minded politicians, this elite initiated a variety of crusades to improve the lot of the mass of people, economically and socially. They advocated government run by civil servants, breakup of monopoly companies, "home economics," compulsory education beyond grade school and prohibition of alcohol.
One of the great challenges faced in the Progressive Era was massive urbanization. Cities were growing rapidly as a result of both unprecedented immigration as well as the influx of population from rural areas. Social reformers, taking aim at overcrowded and unhealthful living conditions, pressured city governments to institute sanitation and building codes. Later they fought haphazard development patterns, including the siting of commercial and industrial facilities in residential neighborhoods. In response, cities drew up plans for segregating land uses and instituted the first zoning ordinances to enforce them.
Cities were also expanding outwardly. Many families fled inner-city crowding to homes in suburbs that had access to city jobs via streetcar or commuter rail lines. By the 1920s, as automobile ownership grew, wider areas were opened up to settlement, with many rural villages transformed by a wave of housing development for urban commuters. Most of this growth occurred with little forethought or government intervention. Indeed, existing government structures could only address the trends on a piecemeal basis and, as a result, many problems were left unaddressed including mounting highway congestion, polluted rivers, disappearing open spaces and inadequate water and sewer systems. It was only natural that the progressive Era emphasis on promoting rational organization would be brought to bear on the growing dispersion of population and economic activity in broad regions around major cities.
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The first efforts at regionwide planning began in the 1920s. While academics provided the theory and social science tools for regional planning (see sidebar), practical considerations motivated their use. For instance, by the end of World War I, a long-running dispute between New York and New Jersey over rail freight business reached a point where only a solution at a regional scale was possible. The dispute centered on the practice of setting rail freight rates that encour-aged goods to be moved from rail terminals in New Jersey to ships berthed in New York. New Jersey claimed the rates limited the development of maritime business on its side of the port. At one point, a lawsuit threatened, Solomon-like, to split the port into two zones, reducing its ability to efficiently serve shippers and leading to the loss of business to other East Coast ports.
New York business leaders recognized the threat and proposed a new bi-state agency to provide unified planning and policies for the port. Backed by the federal Interstate Commerce Commission, the business leaders finally succeeded in 1921 in getting the two states to create the Port of New York Authority (later to become the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey). The authority was the first interstate governmental body in the nation and the first special-purpose "authority" with power to issue bonds and make investments while insulated from political control. In its first year, the Port of New York Authority set about developing a comprehensive plan for improving the entire port with new terminals and connections among rail lines.
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Establishment of the Port of New York Authority helped unify regional freight policies: Morris Canal in Jersey City, circa 1910.
As this ambitious port plan took shape, other planning efforts were initiated to address a host of emerging regional-level problems. Again, New York area business leaders, together with a growing number of professional city planners, broke important ground. In the early 1920s, the Russell Sage Foundation appointed a committee to develop a "Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs." The work grew into a massive undertaking, including extensive surveys, data collection and economic projections, focusing upon New York City and 500 communities in three states within commuting distance of Manhattan. The pioneering work would continue for most of the decade during which most other major cities in the U.S. initiated similar "comprehensive" regional plans.
The first volume of the New York plan was issued in 1929 and presented recommendations on nearly every aspect of regional development, including calls for the development of satellite cities in outlying areas, the control of land-use to preserve open spaces and the construction of new rail and highway networks.
Implementation of such a far-reaching plan was problematic. The authors hoped that the logic of their recommendations would do much to promote voluntary compliance by affected governments in the tri-state region. A private planning organization, the Regional Plan Association, was created to promote this compliance and conduct follow-up research.
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Trolleys and later autos opened up the suburbs to development: Bloomfield Ave. in Glen Ridge, 1921.
However, the experience of the Port of New York Authority did not bode well for achieving voluntary compliance. Lacking power to force cooperation among the highly competitive freight rail companies in the region, the Port Authority was blocked in implementing many elements of its plan for creating an integrated freight rail network. Critics argued that the recommendations of the Regional Plan of New York, and of comprehensive plans elsewhere in the country, would be similarly blocked by the competing interests of local governments. One planning professor, Thomas Reed, in 1925 contended that the only way to insure effective regional planning was the creation of "areawide" governments with power over municipalities in setting policies for regional infrastructure.
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The Great Depression
Questions about the implementation of comprehensive plans in New York and other cities became all but moot in the face of the economic collapse of the Great Depression. Where toll or other dedicated funding sources were available or where the federal government would foot the bill, selected infrastructure projects recommended by regional plans were built. The New York region faired particularly well in this regard, with the George Washington Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel and other major transportation facilities built in the 1930s. But, by-and-large, visions of promoting orderly urban regions with planned communities and efficient infrastructure systems, were abandoned as cities struggled with desperate social and economic conditions.
Still, the regional planning experience of the 1920s exerted an important continuing influence. Through the empirical techniques of the social sciences, planning efforts in major cities had documented the regional nature of many social and economic problems. In doing so, they also created a strong case for new institutions and decision-making mechanisms -- such as authorities and regional planning commissions -- to supplement fragmented political structures.
The federal government, for its part, carried the torch of regional planning forward as it intervened to revive the economy in the 1930s. President Roosevelt, with a keen interest in natural conservation, encouraged and supported cooperative planning by governments in river valleys to address flood control, soil erosion and other shared needs. He also initiated a massive federal experiment in regional planning by creating the Tennessee Valley Authority which addressed not only water resources issues but electrification, agricultural improvement, housing and economic development.
Many New Deal programs were administered regionally and encouraged cooperation among local officials. The Public Works Administration, in particular, helped state and local governments develop the planning capabilities needed for large-scale infrastructure projects. But there was a catch. Planning was to be in accordance with national standards as a condition for the receipt of federal infrastructure aid. This requirement set the pattern for future intergovernmental relations: the federal government used aid as a lever for promoting achievement of national goals and for persuading state and local governments to look beyond their narrow self-interests in making infrastructure and social investments.
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After World War II, the explosive growth of the suburbs increased the severity and complexity of regional-scale problems. In response, the federal government expanded requirements for regional planning and prompted the formation of a variety of new intergovernmental bodies, including Councils of Government, in major urban areas. While retaining some elements of the "top-down" regional planning of the 1920s -- in which elite committees drew up plans based on "scientific" evaluations of data -- these new bodies generally took a more democratic and tentative approach to planning. Reasons included the rapid pace of development in many locations and the vastly greater number of individuals and groups with a stake in planning decisions. Lacking implementing authority, many of the new regional bodies were limited to addressing issues on which agreement could be reached among local governments -- notably involving transportation and other infrastructure. Efforts by the federal government to formalize and standardize their roles set the stage for the eventual establishment of MPOs, federally-sanctioned regional transportation planning bodies in each metropolitan area.
Go to Part II
The "History of Metropolitan Planning Organizations" was written by Mark Solof and originally appeared as a series of articles in the NJTPA Quarterly. The second article in the series traces the post-war developments in regional planning that set the stage for the formal establishment of MPOs in the early 1970s.