Regional Challenges Need a Regional Approach

Regional Strategy Illustrations

Regional Strategy Illustration by Robert Saywitz

SPUR’s recently released Regional Strategy outlines a vision for the Bay Area of 2070 as an equitable, sustainable and prosperous region. The strategy provides a roadmap for building that future and centers deep regional cooperation as critical to transformational change. To celebrate the release of the project, four Bay Area civic leaders gathered on May 13 to talk about the role of regionalism in advancing a future where everyone thrives. The program was an inspiring conversation with Fred Blackwell, CEO of the San Francisco Foundation, Tomiquia Moss, Founder and CEO of All Home, Alfredo Pedroza, Chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Napa County Supervisor, and Alicia John-Baptiste, SPUR’s President and CEO, about why regionalism can work, the challenges facing regional cooperation, and the promise of regionalism. 

Why Regionalism? 

Regionalism is the movement that seeks to solve regional challenges through collaboration with local and county actors across the region. When Bay Area local governments and organizations act as whole they can take big steps to meet the problems of the Bay Area at scale. People do not operate along city or county lines, but rather experience the Bay Area as one region. 

The Bay Area is a place of prosperity and opportunity that simultaneously faces extreme challenges like the housing crisis, homelessness and wildfires. Because these challenges cross local lines, they must be met with regional solutions. The Bay Area is deeply interdependent which means policy makers must talk of both the triumphs and challenges at a regional scale. Fred Blackwell remarked that the Bay Area functions as a regional economy, regional housing market and regional social fabric, thus regional cooperation makes sense. Tomiquia Moss warned that communities will not get what they need if local agents and policy makers do not work together to design interfaces for the way people actually experience the Bay Area – on a regional scale. Regionalism can achieve the results that local activism alone cannot. When localities cooperate and pool resources, they can make a larger impact on the collective challenges facing the region.  

Bay Area agencies practice regionalism today in select, mostly emergency, scenarios like regional aid for wildfires and the coordination of health officials to protect vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic  These examples highlight both how regionalism can be an organic and intuitive solution and how essential regional cooperation is to facing the area's largest challenges. But it is not enough to come together only in times of emergency. Regional cooperation must be consistently embedded in all Bay Area policy work from the onset, not only as a reaction to emergency. The cooperation and strategies that work for those emergent challenges can be applied to the long-standing, but no less pressing, issues like homelessness, climate change and more.

The Challenges

Lack of Regional  Infrastructure

Too few regional organizations perform the essential table-setting role for regional discussions. Without those essential organizations, there is no group that provides regional data, convenes groups and holds space for the important conversations needed to tackle the Bay Area’s largest challenges. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Association of Bay Area Governments, and Bay Area Housing Finance Authority, are some of the few key organizations that act as conveners, but the Bay Area needs more regional structures in place. The work these organizations have done, like the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Blue Ribbon Task Force and Housing Finance Authority's work on regional planning and housing are examples of how regionalism can work. 

One of the impediments to deeper regional work is the restrictive regulatory structures and funding streams that prohibit the alignment of local resources and assets toward a regional agenda. The rules that dictate what funds can be used for what purposes are not conducive to cooperation towards regional goals and outcomes. The rigid regulatory framework reinforces governmental silos and reduces ease of collaboration across cities and counties. Alfredo Pedroza says to encourage regional cooperation California regulatory structures must ensure that funding incentivizes regional outcomes. As a member of Napa County’s Board of Supervisors, Alfredo Pedroza practices, and encourages other local electeds, to think and act regionally. He warns that an over-emphasis on local control is another barrier to regionalism. Local governments and regional bodies should work in conjunction, rather than as competitors. This means local governments must be willing to give up some control and have faith that working towards regional outcomes can produce local change. 

Shifting Mental Models

The hesitation to give up local control is a symptom of the scarcity mentality in the Bay Area’s policy world. The scarcity mindset assumes there are finite resources and thus if one entity gets money or prospers, other entities will have less. Tomiquia Moss says that this idea is a barrier to achieving shared prosperity and well-being for everyone that could come from regional cooperation. Regionalism requires an attitude of abundance and asks what would happen if, instead of hoarding and isolating,  neighborhoods and counties pooled  resources to lift up every community and face the Bay Area’s challenges at scale? The mindset shift of seeing regional cooperation as an opportunity for greater abundance rather than a competition for resources would be huge progress. Persisting mental models are one of the greatest obstacles to policy change. In order to change mental models, local and regional actors need to build relationships and trust. Supervisor Pedroza said that advocates of regionalism have to better explain its value and offer incentives to get more local leaders on board. 

Role of Government 

Alicia John-Baptiste believes government should ultimately act as a force for public good, but recognizes the harm governments have perpetuated, particularly among communities of color and low-income communities. This history of racist policies has created distrust of the government among some communities. True regionalism requires the cooperation and trust of government, communities and other organizations to generate regional outcomes at the necessary scale. But before any progress happens, these agencies must acknowledge and mend this history of harm. Tomiquia Moss said that government no longer has the luxury of being a “calcified institution” in an area where communities are increasingly dynamic and problems are worsening. Instead government institutions need to figure out how to positively engage with communities to create a mutually beneficial relationship.

Regionalism on the Horizon 

The Impact of Recent Events

The past year has been transformational in shifting mental models. The COVID-19 pandemic and the large-scale social justice awakening illustrated the interconnection and interdependence of humans and the region. People saw first-hand that the Bay Area recovered more quickly and better when local governments embraced regional cooperation. The inequitable impacts of COVID-19 and the social justice movements brought an acute awareness of the biases of the structures at play in the region, like the healthcare system, criminal justice system and more. Tomiquia highlighted this awareness saying, “we realized that when 42% of extremely low-income workers were impacted by job loss in the pandemic, that had an effect on everyone. And when our service workers and front-line workers fell ill to COVID, that affected our entire ecosystem, our entire community.” 

Alica John-Baptiste further described the connection between regionalism and equity, noting that both are driven by understanding how deeply interconnected people actually are. This idea underlines the sentiment that equity must be central in all regional cooperation. Fred Blackwell was hopeful that recent large-scale public outcry against institutionalized racism made it difficult to hide from the racialized nature of the issues in the Bay Area. All future regional collaboration will now confront race and center equity. These discussions should take advantage of the present enthusiasm and energy towards repairing historic, persistent systemic failures on a regional scale. 

Increased cooperation across sectors and new regional recovery task forces formed over the past year and a half. Fred Blackwell said that the cooperation between the public sector, the business community, nonprofits and community groups is essential in achieving equitable outcomes for the region. The realizations and experiences of the past year have laid the foundation for further collaboration.


Regional Collaboration as Innovation 

Regional collaboration, at the scale that the four panelists imagine, is something that has never been done before in the Bay Area. Overcoming the Bay Area’s challenges will require doing things differently, which is both an opportunity for imagination and a risk of failure. While the panelists are hopeful for innovative change, Alicia John-Baptise and Alfredo Pedroza also spoke of the reality that trying new things could lead to missteps. This is particularly challenging for government agencies which are so easily criticized for mistakes and typically move very slowly. Alfredo Pedroza said that the government is reactive by nature and may not have the institutional capacity to adapt quickly to new situations and the Bay Area’s changing communities. Public and private partnerships are essential in bridging this gap and sparking governmental shifts. Local government is often focused on the immediate and the hyper-local, yet regionalism asks them to think bigger and differently. Fred Blackwell says an equitable region means pursuing “a destination that none of us has really ever been before.” Bay Area leaders and elected officials   must be open to new things, new connections, and change because what the panelists are in pursuit of is “on the horizon, and not in the rearview mirror.”

The conversation on regionalism was an inspiring dialogue full of hope and reality. Much of the event echoed a key sentiment of SPUR’s regional strategy: we created our present, and we can proactively and collectively build a better future.