Bay Area Regionalism - Can We Get There?

Assessing regionalism’s prospects, 20 years after Bay Vision 2020

Urbanist Article September 1, 2003

"Most of us do not think much about 'regional' issues. Yet increasingly we are used to living in one community, working in another, shopping in a third, and traveling to still others for a symphony, a ball game, a visit to friends or relatives, or traveling across the region to reach the ocean or the Sierra."

--Bay Vision 2020 Commission
Final report, May 1991

Twelve years later, what the commission reported about our increasingly mobile lives is still true, as we cross city and country boundaries daily. Perhaps people think about regional issues even less today with so many other things to think about--Iraq, the mess in Sacramento, the state's precarious finances--but the regional issues won't go away.

So where are we today? How did we get here? And what are our prospects for progress?

Where We Are

In May 2002, leaders from metropolitan Atlanta visited the Bay Area to learn about our approach to regionalism. They met with many people in the Bay Area, including leaders of SPUR, and with Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco and Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of May 26 reported that Mayor Willie Brown "acknowledged that he had all but given up hope for regional cooperation."

"With typical candor," the newspaper reported, Brown "told the group's members they could learn little about regionalism here."

Mayor Jerry Brown told the group he had no desire to work with the rest of the nine-county region.

 Willie Brown discussed the advantages of regional port and airport management; Mayor Jerry Brown said, according to the newspaper, "There's nothing more perfect in the world than having a port that I control."

And Mayor Jerry Brown added, "Me, do I talk to my fellow mayors? No, not if I can help it."

The Journal-Constitution reporter concluded: "Atlanta leaders, after listening to both Bay Area mayors, realized that the situation back home may not be so bad after all."

A little exaggeration here? Sure. Do other local officials talk to each other, even if the two mayors don't? Sure. Does this mean we're in good shape regionally? Surely not.


How We Got There
The Bay Area (defined as the nine counties that touch on San Francisco Bay) was once a national leader in solving regional problems. In addition to the efforts of private businesses, non-governmental organizations, and individual people, we have formed new governmental institutions when necessary.

Some of them, such as the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the East Bay Regional Parks District, cover parts of two counties (Alameda and Contra Costa). The Bay Area Rapid Transit District consists of three counties (San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa) and, with its new service to San Francisco International Airport, operates in a fourth.

Other agencies work in all of the nine counties: the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the Regional Air Quality Management District, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Whether these agencies are governed by elected policy-makers (the two East Bay districts and BART) or by the appointees of elected officials (all of the others) these agencies have two things in common: (1) they were created 30 or so years ago, and (2) they each deal with a single problem--for example, funding transportation, protecting air quality, or protecting the bay.

At the time these agencies were created, each was regarded as urgently needed to deal with a specific problem--and also as a step toward an ultimate regional agency of some sort to deal with multiple problems.

That, of course, has never happened. One result is that the region is governed in a patchwork of cities, counties, special districts, and regional agencies. If we were to start over, to design a sensible self-government for a geographic territory the size of the Bay Area, with a population of 7 million and growing, is this what we would design?

(In additional to the governmental agencies, there is also the Association of Bay Area Governments. As its name makes clear this is a voluntary association of cities and counties. ABAG has long had a dedicated planning staff working on land use issues, but the association has no power to carry out its plans.)

The governor of California, during its period of dealing more effectively with the issues of a growing population, was Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. He was a friendly, unassuming man who had been District Attorney of San Francisco and state Attorney General before becoming governor (and he was Jerry Brown's father).

Those of us involved with planning and governmental issues during the Brown years did not think we were living in a particularly Golden Age. That may have been in part because Richard Nixon was president--but ironically, it was Nixon who signed into law some of the most far-reaching federal environmental programs of our time.

In hindsight, however, the Brown years were those in which we did the planning and built the infrastructure that California still depends on. The state built roads and freeways (emphasis on public transit came somewhat later), the outstanding University of California and state college system, and the state water project.

All of those endeavors had plenty of controversy, and with the benefit of hindsight, some things might have been done differently. But plans were proposed, issues were debated, decisions were made, bond elections were held, and the state generally did what was needed for the quality of life and economy its citizens wanted.


What Are Our Prospects?
One effort to try to recapture some of the spirit of the Brown years, and deal with tough issues of housing, transportation, and environmental quality, took place in the early 1990s. It was the Bay Vision 2020 Commission, headed by Ira Michael Heyman, who had just completed nine distinguished years as Chancellor of UC Berkeley and who later became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

This commission consisted of 32 people, widely diverse and from all parts of the Bay Area. Its goal was to see whether such a group could, in a year, come to any consensus about steps for the regional action. Somewhat surprisingly, the group did. It concluded, in Heyman's words:

"As with most people in the region, we cherish the Bay Area and seek to assure its beauty, livability, economic strength, and the opportunities it affords those who live here. We have concluded, however, that these qualities are in jeopardy because we have no effective means for addressing the problems that cross city and county boundaries. Only by some changes in the structure of government in the region can we tackle increasing traffic congestion, long commutes between home and job, shortages of affordable housing, loss of valued open space to urban sprawl, predictable air pollution, and deterioration of our economic base."

The commission proposed merging the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, ABAG (for its land-use planning), and the Air Quality Management District. The goal: to integrate planning and decisions for land-use, transportation, and air quality. This was not intended as a final step, but rather as the initial framework to which could be added all other responsibilities, such as water supply and quality, and control of Bay planning. In 1992, the core commission recommendations were introduced into the Legislature by a Republican state senator, Rebecca Morgan of the Silicon Valley area.

Her bill passed the Assembly, thanks to the energetic leadership of Willie Brown, who was then Speaker of the Assembly and had proposed a strong regional reorganization himself.

Despite heavy lobbying against it, the Morgan bill was approved by two committees in the state senate. But the bill died on the Senate floor on the last night of the 1992 legislative session. It received 36 votes, but not the 41 it needed for passage.

That was the high-water mark of recent progress toward effective regional decision-making.


What's happened since then?

There's been much good local planning, and many new developments oriented to public transit. But when the current history of the Bay Area, and of all California, is eventually written, a fitting title would be: "Giant challenges, pygmy responses."

Of course, small responses are better than none at all. But where has the spirit of earlier times gone--the spirit embodied in the state motto, "Give Me Men to Match my Mountains."


Why Are We Where We Are?

For several reasons. Unlike most regions in the U.S., the Bay Area has not one central city but three--San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland. Each has to some extent its own news media, and each sees itself as the center of a major part of the region.

In the 1960s and 1970s, before so much urban sprawl, there was a reasonable separation between cities in the nine Bay counties, and between those counties and the ones contiguous to them. But rapid growth has tended to blur these separations.

Now, when there's a commuter train from Stockton to Santa Clara, and when people commute to jobs in Silicon Valley, the East Bay, and San Francisco from counties in the Central Valley, and from Mendocino, Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz counties, it's much harder to say where the Bay Area begins and where it ends. Radio station KQED-FM now incorporates Sacramento in its target audience and its weather forecasts.

Then there's a turned-off, non-voting electorate, there's a decline of civic responsibility, a desire to criticize but not to take part. A clergyman might say there's a decline in the notion that we are all our brother's keeper--a decline in the sense of community that may be a prerequisite to moving ahead.

The Bay Area is attached to the rest of California and thus to the political leaders, legislators, and issues of southern and central California. Although the Bay Area's population of more than seven million makes it larger than most states in the US, it is still not the dominant region in California, with more than 33 million people.

And although regional concerns can easily get trumped by international, national, and state matters, the fact remains that strong regions, with healthy economies based on sound natural-resource policies, can only strengthen the state and, indeed, the nation.

But is California, with its unprecedented population, really governable? If so, how can we get out of the doldrums? If not, what changes will we need to make? Is, for example, the notion of dividing the state into two or more new states an idea that will get any serious attention? Should it?

One ironic result of the state's financial pressures is that new ideas of regional tax-sharing, and general tax reform, may receive fresh attention. If these debates do indeed take place, how will the Bay Area speak with any sort of unified voice?

We all understand, thanks to the gubernatorial recall controversies, that laws written 100 or so years ago, in very different times, can have a big bite today. Even if we recognize what's wrong, how should we govern ourselves in the 21st century? Do we have the imagination and will to keep the Golden State golden?

Do we have persons to match our mountainous 21st century challenges?Spur logo


About the Authors: 

Joseph E. Bodovitz is former executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the California Coastal Commission, and the CPUC.

Get The Urbanist

Join SPUR and get our magazine in your mailbox

Become a member