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Article Summary

Wheeler, Stephen M. (2002). “The New Regionalism:  Key Characteristics of an Emerging Movement,” Journal of the American Planning Association, 68, 3: 267-278.

Writing at the turn of the 21st century, Wheeler describes the history of planning and thinking about regional communities and their built environments, which led to the development of a “new regionalism” in the 1990s.  In this article, he sets out the characteristics and key elements of new regionalism, its implications for the planning profession, and the challenges of implementing it.

Early “ecological regionalism” saw urban improvement initiatives under the banner of “metropolitanism” triggering widespread and damaging urban renewal, while urban decentralization strategies, or “regionalism,” triggered sprawling suburban development (268).  These philosophies gave way to an economics-centered “regional science” concerned with “problems of resources and economic development” in a regional “economic landscape” (268).  Other analytic models included Marxist regionalism (factoring power and social critique into regional economic analysis), and “public choice” regionalism (citing Tiebout, Ostrom, and others).

In the 1990s, there arose a number of new and somewhat disparate ways of thinking about and planning for the challenges of metropolitan areas:  “New Urbanism”; “smart growth” and other growth management initiatives; transportation-financing incentives to coordinate regional planning; “livable communities” and “sustainable development,” both aimed at reducing the metropolitan footprint in conjunction with other environmental goals; efforts to increase equity as between city centers and suburbs, including regional tax sharing; and “a range of flexible regional governance strategies” (269-270).  Wheeler suggests that the common characteristics these approaches share amount to “a new conception of regional planning” (270).  This resulting “new regionalism”:

  • Focuses on specific territories and spatial planning;
  • Tries to address problems created by growth and fragmentation of postmodern metropolitan regions;
  • Takes a more holistic approach to planning that often integrates planning specialties such as transportation and land use as well as environmental, economic and equity goals;
  •  Emphasizes physical planning, urban design, and sense of place as well as social and economic planning; and
  • Often adopts a normative or activist stance.

Wheeler notes that new regionalism is still a recent development, and that it will require leadership and additional scholarship to become more fully useful to the profession in addressing regional issues.  He identifies specific ways each of his five key characteristics will require planners to think differently about crucial aspects of their work, and in fact to work differently, in order to achieve the aims of the approach (274-275).  His recommendations are reasonably concrete (e.g., he advocates use of direct observation and experience as an essential complement to data-driven econometric analysis (274)), and incorporate significant conceptual and practical departures from common planning practice.

Finally, Wheeler acknowledges, “the question of how to implement new regionalist ideas is a difficult one” (275).  He concedes the “fundamental political difficulties” of any kind of regional governance (275), and so recommends “bottom up” structures and strategies for implementation, with reference to promising experiments already in place.  He calls for, “a long-term strategic approach”:  support for strengthening existing regional institutions; development of social capital through social movements; and incentives for local governments “to think regionally” (276).  The weak link in his vision for implementing new regionalism is his call for new understandings among traditional antagonists (e.g., “regional power brokers” and environmental and other civic groups), and between citizens and local governments, that they share common interests that should drive them to think and work regionally.