Scaling up: working beyond borders to overcome the challenges of today and tomorrow

Regional planning Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) think beyond political and jurisdictional boundaries to address the challenges that our cities and metropolitan regions are facing. By acting as conveners, these organizations are moving the needle towards a more equitable future for everyone. AECOM’s Stephen Engblom spoke with the leaders of three NGOs that operate across jurisdictions, sectors and political divides to discuss the need for cross-border planning.

Governing bodies and decision-makers are often tied to specific jurisdictional boundaries; yet, our environmental, economic, public health, and equity challenges are rarely confined by these boundaries. There is an increasing need to work at the regional and mega-regional scale to effectively address and overcome these challenges. Non-government organizations (NGOs) and research organizations are bridging the gap by thinking and acting regionally.

Urban planning and research NGOs in the U.S. and globally are developing regional growth strategies, convening public and private sector stakeholders, establishing policy frameworks for growth, and addressing social equity concerns such as land use and infrastructure issues.

During the Urban Land Institute’s Fall 2020 meeting, AECOM’s Stephen Engblom had the opportunity to speak with the leaders of three key regional planning organizations, Alicia John-Baptiste, President and CEO of San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR); Tom Wright, President of New York’s Regional Plan Association (RPA), and MarySue Barrett, President of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) in Chicago, to discuss their efforts to prepare and plan for a future that better meets the needs of everyone.

Each of these organizations were formed at a time of crisis and evolved as key conveners across jurisdictions, sectors and political divides. Therefore, as our cities face unprecedented challenges, their ability to think and act regionally and across mega-regions is critical to scale solutions that address the most pressing urban crises of our time. These NGOs bring together and align thinking across the government, public stakeholders, and people, and across sectors and timeframes, through independent analysis and recommendations.

Engblom: Tell us about your NGO, its work at the regional scale and the value of politically independent regional planning organizations in guiding cities/regions to equitable and resilient futures.

John-Baptiste: SPUR is an urban policy organization founded after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco to advocate for quality, affordable housing construction. We are in unprecedented times as a region and a nation: experiencing a global pandemic, waking up to the need for racial justice, and recently in the Bay Area, seeing the Northern California fires associated with climate change.

Organizations like SPUR tackle long-term systemic challenges as a country and region. We knew even before the pandemic that we needed change and the importance of surfacing solutions to effect the changes. Inspired by RPA, we are preparing a regional strategy that addresses regional needs, and measures to move policies in different directions across issues of housing, transportation and the economy.

We recently published Model Places, in collaboration with AECOM, to ensure the Bay Area’s sustainable and equitable future for those already here, and those who want to come here. Our organization benefits the region through its multi-disciplinary approach to policy. We are independent of the system so we can approach the work through both practical and aspirational lenses.

Wright:  RPA has been in existence for 98 years when the Russell Sage Foundation funded the Committee on the Plan of New York and its Environs to guide the development of the region and enhance the quality of life of residents, without regard to political boundaries. RPA has created a new regional plan for each generation: 1929, 1968, 1996 and the latest plan, published in 2017. Each plan establishes a generational regional and metropolitan blueprint.

As an NGO, we are an independent voice outside the government sector so we can stand up against the status quo. In the New York metropolitan region where RPA works, there are 31 counties and 782 cities/municipalities (one of which is New York City with 8.5 million people). There are also three states, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, that make up the tristate area. We work across silos so when we discuss a transportation project, we can connect it to economic development, resilience, and social equity across these states.

The pandemic is challenging urbanity, social justice, and climate change. Our planning capabilities provide the larger context to address these pandemic-related challenges to urbanity, social justice and climate change. We work with civic organizations across a region with a strong civic structure. Our work on congestion pricing, for example, was made possible by collaborating with local grassroots organizations in addition to other transit advocates and business groups.

Barrett: The Metropolitan Planning Council was founded in 1934 during the Great Depression. We were initially founded to advocate for affordable housing. Our range of issues have expanded to drive progress in delivering a better, bolder and more equitable future for everyone. In recent months, the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustices have shown that the current system doesn’t work for everyone. Our organization is rededicated to the research, advocacy and partnerships needed to fuel solutions at this high-stakes time.

MPC understands the equitable importance of working collaboratively with innovative civic and community groups. As an independent organization, MPC acknowledges the tremendous pressures on the public, corporate and philanthropic sectors, and the need to center community voice in forging transformative solutions. We are trusted intermediaries who can help solve complex problems.

Our Cost of Segregation Study, completed in conjunction with the Urban Institute and published in 2017, is a seminal organizational product. We quantified the price of systemic racism for the top 100 metropolitan areas, measuring it in residents’ lost income, lives and, potential. Chicago’s hyper-segregation means that a Black adult earns $3,000 less annually and the region as a whole loses an average of $8 billion annually.

These quantifications led to a regional reckoning. In 2018, MPC followed up with a Roadmap for Our Equitable Future that prompted introspection within our organization. We are also asking every Chicago institution to adopt a racial equity framework and recommended two dozen specific near-term actions. Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who took office in 2019, is committed to tackling poverty and inequity and has challenged the corporate community to join with others to create an equitable recovery. These two phases of work armed us with the tools to create a more equitable society.

Engblom: Each of you touched on collaboration. Can you cite examples where regional planning entities have collaborated for better results, either amongst your peer organizations, or with public or private entities?

Wright:  RPA is very interested in preparing a comparable Cost of Segregation study for our region and hopes to announce such a collaboration soon.

In the Fourth Regional Plan, we made health one of the key pillars and looked at how we could reconnect urban planning, metropolitan planning, and public health. We researched a regional health index at the metropolitan scale (comparing health indices at different counties and understanding it at the regional scale). We then analyzed the built environment’s impact on public health and quality of life. Congestion pricing, for example, has potentially enormous benefits for public health.

With the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies among others, we created the Healthy Regions Planning Exchange. This new group, which encompasses SPUR, MPC, and eight other organizations, including indigenous peoples, met in February to develop the current framework.

John-Baptiste: I worked for local government for 16 years. That background helps me understand what is feasible, but also where SPUR has a role to push for solutions that are more aspirational. Public transportation plays a major role in regional sustainability. We are focused on measures to make our transportation system work better across the region. Currently we have 9 counties and 27 transit agencies. Working with the relevant transit agencies and the Bay Area’s metropolitan planning organization (MPO), we developed the Coordinated Network Planner concept, borrowing from programs in Germany and Switzerland.

With the San Francisco Estuary Institute, we also published a report on climate adaptation and sea level rise in the bay focusing on nature’s boundaries rather than jurisdictional boundaries. We are now working with a cross-sector of government, community, and civic organizations to build the government’s capacity to implement these actions across jurisdictions.

Barrett: Collaboration is a daily practice. Jurisdictional boundaries and terms of office are irrelevant. Between 2008 and 2019, we issued a cost of “gridlock” study over the next decade, we methodically released the Cost of Congestion Study. We then collected best practices and models for financing and setting transportation priorities and followed up with a quantitative analysis of the gap, in 2016, $43 billion of state of disrepair. Then, MPC organized a #BustedCommute campaign to gather pictures and videos of commute barriers. In 2018, we issued a report called “Transit Means Business” which documented that those businesses near transit not only didn’t lose jobs during The Great Depression, they were the only ones to post job gains.

Years of effort culminated with the State of Illinois committing to a $43 billion, six-year capital program. We continue to prod on decision-makers on how to best deploy those resources. With the pandemic and social injustice, we must deploy those dollars differently.

Wright: Our organizations influence the government and public by doing these quantitative analyses. Over the past 20 years, our ability to do these analyses has been elevated by GIS and other technical tools. At the same time, we are supported by boards of directors and corporate partners who have areas of expertise that provide the bench for our small, nimble organizations. Many of our board members are also former public officials with expertise in the issues we work on. We rely on their insights to make our work effective.

Engblom: A common thread in this discussion is how we can improve inefficiencies in our existing processes that have resulted in poor outcomes or inequitable outcomes. Emerging from the pandemic, what does an equitable future look like and what will it require?

Barrett: We need to take advantage of this moment to have this collective conversation. The quintuple crises — public health, economic, racial, climate and political — underscores that cross-sector collaboration and coordinated policies and investments are the only path to reset and rebuild. Old power structures that limited decision-making to a select few have blocked too many residents of metropolitan Chicago from a brighter future. Shared performance metrics and data-driven decisions can guide dollar reallocation at the state and local levels. We can change the harsh reality of Chicago neighborhoods stuck in a never-ending cycle of gun violence, coronavirus contraction, and unemployment. Only with systemic change will we close our racial wealth and health disparity gaps.

Our three grounding questions are: Who is at the table? How are we measuring? And how are we re-prioritizing resources? If we apply these, Chicago has a chance to be a model for other cities and regions.

Wright: We need integrated approaches. In the New York City metropolitan region, we have one short-term existential threat, the mass transit system which relies on farebox revenues. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) needs federal investment. The agency is losing $200 million weekly and by the years’ end could see a 50-percent commuter rail service reduction and 40-percent subway and bus reduction along with 10,000 staff furloughs. This has a ripple effect on the region, its recovery speed and longer-term MTA financial health relative to capital plans. We are working with other advocates to stave off these cuts.

John-Baptiste: We are striving to create regions where everyone can thrive. For that to happen, we need to create just conditions and baseline needs must be met. Getting to a Better Normal requires us to 1) confront the truth of systemic racism; 2) remember how interdependent we are; and 3) act in our spheres of influence. For SPUR, that means analyzing data and evaluating policies to correct harms of the past – and address today’s inequities.