A History of Regional Governments (Part 1)

Cities have historically been compact hyper-dense communities. This is because cities have been constrained in size by the average resident’s capacity to reasonably travel throughout the city within a day. Cities built before the dawn of the automobile are often noted for being walkable. It is doubtful that the walkability of these cities is due to any planned attempt to make them so as the urban planning profession is a relatively new discipline. Rather older cities are walkable because they had to be. For most of history the average man could only travel as far as his own legs could take him. Horses and other beasts of burden substantially increased one’s travel range, but even up to the 19th century ownership of such beasts was beyond the reach of the every man. Any real estate developer who attempted to build outside a city’s natural growth boundary would as such find it difficult to attract the necessary foot traffic to make his endeavor economically feasible.

This constraint in outward growth also led to older cities being easily dominated by a single local authority. This changed with the creation of the automobile. As noted above, a beast of burden was already capable of extending the effective range of their owner. The automobile similarly would have done little to influence the growth of cities if it were inaccessible to the average man. What made the automobile such a game changer to the future of cities was that it was within the reach of the average man’s finances.  In their early days, as in our own, automobiles presented a serious financial investment but were nonetheless cheap enough to afford.

With the advent of the economic automobile the general public was no longer constrained to the urban core. Attracted by cheap land prices in the periphery an increasing portion of the city settled in the periphery region – the so called suburbs. The development of suburbs had several immediate effects, but of interest to us is its effect on local government. At first cities attempted to annex the suburb regions but it was not before long that some suburbs rejected annexation. One of the first such cases was in when Brookline, a wealthy suburb of Boston, rejected annexation in the late 19th century. Even some suburbs which originally agreed to annexation changed their minds and fought to regain their independence.

Suburb residents had been driven to migrate from the cities in search for cheap housing, but they also valued their new found independence from urban politics.  Many suburbs elected to instead incorporate as cities by their own right. Despite their political independence the suburbs remained economically tied to the mother cities. It did not take long for the limits of this style of organization to be realized. In the greater New York metropolitan area New York and New Jersey local governments found themselves unable to settle basic questions regarding their common port. Meanwhile in Los Angeles the various local governments were unable to efficiently synchronize their electric current systems. Los Angeles proper synchronized its electrical system with the rest of the nation in 1936 but the rest of the metro didn’t make the switch for another twelve years. In greater Boston the suburbs found themselves unable to provide for quality running water and other basic utilities. These problems only increased as population growth increasingly favored suburbs and urban sprawl intensified.

Early reformers suggested the creation of a new layer of government, between state and local government, which would preserve the independence of the suburbs whilst creating a central authority capable of providing for regional needs.  Attempts to create regional governments were retarded by the actions of local governments who jealously guarded their own powers. It is unclear what would have happened if things would have been allowed to play out without federal intervention.

It was at the height of the New Deal era that the modern regional government was born. The Roosevelt administration began to encourage regions to form councils of government and other regional government associations if they wished preferential federal aid. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations codified this policy with the Housing Act of 1949 and 1954 respectively. Section 701 of the 1954 Housing Act in particular would serve as the benchmark for years to come in promoting the creation of regional governments. As a result of these actions almost one hundred regional governments were formed. The regional governments formed tended to be in name only. Local governments agreed to their formation in order to secure federal funding but granted their regional counterparts little actual control in day to day affairs. Regional governments were relegated to providing technical advice to local government and to aiding state government with paperwork, but were unable to pursue their own objectives. Meanwhile the growth of the suburbs continued strong, aided in part due to the return of WW2 veterans and the preferential mortgage packages offered to them.

The federal government attempted to bolster the strength of regional governments with the passage of the Highway Act of 1962. Thus far federal legislation had merely given preferential treatment in aid allocations towards regional governments. The Highway Act of 1962 made federal aid contingent on having areas with a population greater than 50,000 create a regional development plan. In practice the act gave regional governments little power as the language was broad enough to allow state and local governments to circumvent them. Once more regional governments found themselves with little teeth and better termed advisory bodies.