Being Local in an Interdependent World

Regional planning shows communities can be better, together.
October 19, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
In 2012 Chattanooga formed a new planning initiative, “Thrive 2055,” to gather 16 counties in portions of 3 states – Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Shown is one of the initiative's "Input Incubators." Chattanooga Public Library
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Urban innovation has not repealed the need to plan. Indeed, planning has at once become more vital in setting cities up for success and, with more players and voices in play, more complex. Such is the story of a number of communities participating in the City Accelerator.

City leaders in Seattle are planning for the unprecedented growth of a remarkably diverse population. In Atlanta, leaders are planning how to handle the impact of a major new sports stadium and the traffic it will generate within a central and historic neighborhood. Nashville is home to a similar red-hot growth environment and is planning to reengineer local government to make opportunities more readily available to the community's population – particularly low-income citizens.

Effective planning requires communication and coordination with citizens. But, increasingly, a regional approach is also necessary as communities strive to make planning truly effective and comprehensive rather than narrowly focused and superficial. Seattle has the Puget Sound Regional Council (four counties), Atlanta has the Atlanta Regional Commission (10 counties) and Nashville has the Cumberland Region Tomorrow (10 counties). In all cases, it’s clear that what most people identify as the central city actually includes much more territory.

There was a time when regional planning used watersheds as boundaries (Tennessee Valley Authority) or major topographic features (Appalachian Regional Commission). But times have changed. Terms such as “labor shed” or “money shed” are popular as we recognize that political boundaries are artificial and the elements comprising a regional economy tend to flow freely across the larger metropolitan map.

My own city, Chattanooga, is dealing with many of the same issues as larger cities. We may be small compared to Atlanta or Seattle, but we feel the pain and the promise the future holds for urban America and we are determined to apply more effective planning to achieve our full potential. In a sense, our effort is a microcosm of modern community development practices.

It all started with a trip by about 100 people to Greenville, S.C. We had been denied a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant, even though we obviously were undergoing unprecedented levels of new investment and adding thousands of new jobs generated by major companies such as Alstom, Amazon and Volkswagen. So we raised local money and did it ourselves.

We selected Greenville as our model because that community had experienced major changes after BMW entered its regional economy in the early 1990s. The 2008 announcement by Volkswagen that it would build its only U.S. assembly plant in a new billion-dollar facility in Chattanooga made our communities uniquely comparable.

Following the advice of Greenville's leadership, in 2012 Chattanooga formed a new planning initiative, “Thrive 2055,” to gather 16 counties in portions of 3 states – Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. It is a large and diverse area but realistic in terms of anticipated impact from new economic forces. The initial advice from Greenville, according to Thrive 2055 Project Manager Bridgett Massengill, was to “plan, plan, plan … and make sure you are prepared."

Thrive 2055’s first major challenge was to find ways to sew together the thinking of such a large geographic area. Coordination was placed in the hands of a diverse group of 30 leaders from throughout the region. To avoid the appearance (or the reality) of politics, the actual governing panel included no elected officials. Instead, local elected officials served in advisory roles.

The mission of Thrive 2055 was to proactively engage people, create an action plan for leveraging economic opportunities and preserve what residents love about their home communities. Most importantly, it was about establishing an atmosphere of mutual trust and open communication. "Progress only happens at the speed of trust," said Bridgett Massengill. Many of the communities had traditionally seen themselves as aggressive competitors for portions of a fixed economic pie. One participant said the real game changer was when people realized a win for one county was a win for the region – that “zero sum thinking is not good for us.”

Pulling the new region together involved interesting new dynamics, with a number of firsts. “It was the first time such a map had been drawn,” said Greg Dale of McBride Dale Clarion, a consultant working with the project. "It was the first time people had gotten together at this scale; and (citing a specific example) it was the first time school superintendents had sat down together,” he continued.

As with any planning initiative, there were numerous meetings and exercises designed to engage people in the expansive community – especially those who might not have been heard from before. Websites and social media helped overcome the distances and divisions that had previously kept region residents isolated from one another. People realized that even education is a regional problem. Ty Ross, the city administrator of Dalton, Ga., put it like this: "Employers don't think about jurisdictions; they just want workforce."

The work of Thrive 2055 has been successful. During the depths of the Great Recession, the normally quiet and even economically depressed region saw over $4 billion of new business investment. In June 2015 alone, the Thrive 2055 region saw $1.05 billion in business investment announcements. Clearly, the advice to “plan, plan, plan” was sound and well timed.

But wouldn't it have been better with that HUD grant? In the words of Dale, “While the region would have appreciated the support, not having it freed them up to do it without all the federal requirements and limitations. The communities also all had real skin in the game." Beginning with a $3 million total budget, the project has so far only required $1.9 million and is now moving into its fourth year. “Much (of the result) has been about relationships" said Dale. "Eighty percent has been to create a relationship based on trust.”

Next comes three things: 1) A time to continue to listen and learn; 2) a time to dream together and reset the bar higher; and, 3) a time to take action together on necessary new initiatives.

Forty years ago, when I first went to work in city planning, we measured our success on the number of pages we produced and the maps and charts we presented to our community leaders. Sometimes, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, it seemed that we measured success in pounds of paper. But today, effective planning is really about engaging citizens – changing minds, changing attitudes, changing outlooks -- all to the end of changing results for the better. It's about getting people to see themselves as part of something larger than a neighborhood or even a city. But it's not about losing the unique qualities and characteristics that make a place special.

What will success look like down the road for the 16 counties of Thrive 2055? “I hope that 40 years from now, we can look back and say we grew, but we never lost our identity," said Massengill.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.