Regionalization

Every few years, debates about the need for regional government kick up in Massachusetts like a sudden gust of wind, and then quietly die down again. Boston saw a push toward metropolitan government in the latter years of the last century, as the city annexed nearby towns such as Dorchester and Charlestown, and Frederick Law Olmstead worked with the new Metropolitan Park Commission on the “Emerald Necklace,” which linked 2,000 acres of park land.

Can cities and suburbs develop a common regional strategy?

There’s been no real action since Brookline fought off Boston’s attempts at annexation in 1911 — although the last eight-and-a-half decades have brought innumerable studies, task forces, and commissions.

Now, regionalization proponents detect interest — at least a breeze if not a gust — picking up again.

Last summer a Regionalization Commission backed by Boston Mayor Tom Menino released a report after a year of study. That was followed by a briefing paper in September urging “a metropolitan economic strategy” for the Boston area by the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at UMass-Boston. The Boston Citizen Seminars brought author Neal Peirce, a regionalization advocate, to a panel in October.

One of the factors driving the current discussion is the notion that a region’s economic competitiveness can be improved by better cooperation among cities and their suburban areas. Regionalization efforts in the San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle areas are said to be succeeding in promoting their local economies.

“Our regional counterparts in California, Oregon, and Washington have made real progress,” wrote Robert Wood in the McCormack Institute report. “So far, when it comes to preparing for the new world economy, the wind blows from the West.”

Menino’s Regionalization Commission suggested the creation of an Economic Development Forum modeled on the Bay Area Economic Forum, a public-private partnership that promotes the economic vitality of the San Francisco area.

“I think it’s increasingly clear you can’t be economically competitive if you don’t think of your economic strategy as a regional one,” says Robert Woodbury, Director of the McCormack Institute and one of 13 commission members.

Still, the report stepped lightly around the matter of what kind of governmental entity, if any, should be created. It offered only the most tentative suggestions of how towns and cities could begin to share services, recognizing that the word “regionalization” still raises “substantial resistance,” as a public opinion poll conducted for the commission found.

Therein lies the problem. While Massachusetts citizens remain attached to their local boundaries and customs — and while strong forces are pushing for the elimination of county government — how to get people to think regionally?

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Dave Denison

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“I don’t think people are calling for government — I think they’re calling for governance,” says David Soule, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission. Soule, also a member of the Menino Commission, is in favor of looking at a Council of Governments structure, but hedges as to whether MAPC — which is a purely advisory group — could morph into such a force.

Soule says while it is important for Boston’s mayor to keep pushing the regionalization discussion, “it’s got to feel like local government sees the value, and can do this.”

Howard Leibowitz, the mayor’s director of intergovernmental relations, says people are not necessarily opposed to regional solutions — “as long as it doesn’t cost something, and they’re not giving up sovereignty.” But he concedes that local officials are not quick to jump into a partnership that may look like it is meant primarily to benefit the city. “It’s hard to bring those people together. It’s going to take some time and the building of a constituency,” Leibowitz says.