A Critical Spatial Perspective on Federal Devolution of Powers: Remarks at the Brookings National Issues Forum “”Forging Metropolitan Solutions to Urban and Regional Problems””

Anthony Downs
Anthony Downs Former Brookings Expert

May 28, 1997

My mission today is to show why nearly all key actors in the federal government need to alter their thinking concerning the spatial impacts of their actions. I will argue that their efforts to devolve more authority from the national to lower levels need to include major emphasis upon the regional or metropolitan-area level, not just the state and local levels they have focused upon so far.

In America, the national government has a unique responsibility for adopting a truly comprehensive overview of the national interest, rather than focusing upon the territory of a single state or locality.

Unfortunately, there has always been a mismatch between the way the national government is organized, and the aggregate impact of many different federal programs upon individual localities and regions. This mismatch stems from a basic discrepancy between the seamlessly integrated nature of reality, and the human need to think about reality on a functionally specialized basis. The same mismatch is found in medicine and science.

Yet the very specialization which enables us to understand each part so much better inherently narrows the perspective of each actor in a way that distorts each one’s view of reality as a whole. Few actors are able to integrate their specialized perspectives into a more accurate perception of the whole. This creates fundamental organizational difficulties throughout all institutions entrusted with very broad overall responsibilities, such as the federal government.

There is no such thing as a unified national government. Rather, it consists of a set of functionally specialized agencies, funded by similarly specialized committees in Congress. Each specialized agency is responsible for some functional area across the nation. None is charged with the responsibility of integrating the impacts of these many diverse activities on one place.

Only two federal administrative agencies are supposed to pay attention to the spatial units impacted by federal policies. One is the White House, but it always focuses upon the purely political implications of federal activities. The other is HUD, but it has normally regarded itself as focused upon housing and not upon urban development.

Most other federal agencies think of their own specialized impacts upon individual cities, but not of their impacts upon entire regions. The only exception is the Department of Transportation, which has thought regionally only since 1991 as required by ISTEA, and to some extent the Environmental Protection Agency concerning air pollution. The regional nature of their activities is so obvious even Congress could not overlook it. All other federal agencies behave like silos or stovepipes regarding their own impacts upon individual localities.

In reality, the biggest federak effects upon individual places does not come from policies normally idenfitied as URBAN, such as enterprise zones or community development block grants. Rather, those place effects come from much more grandly financed policies not seen as URBAN at all — such as highway funding, welfare, health care funding, and food stamps.

In federalist theory, each local government that experiences the combined impacts of all these specialized federal policies has the task of integrating those impacts internally. But no locality can to this well because each federal agency creates regulations that impede the local government’s ability to shift resources among activities.

Moreover, agencies running the federal programs with the biggest impacts upon cities and communities are not looking at their programs from that viewpoint. The best example is the highway program, which thinks of itself mainly as moving people and goods, not as forming the fundamental skeleton of all urban and metropolitan land uses.

The negative impacts of this inherent problem are now being aggravated by a shift in the spatial relations of key economic and social actors within U.S. society. When key changes occur in the way the geographic structure of the economy operates, it is the responsibility of the federal government to react to those changes. Recently, there has been a major shift in the geographic structure of the American economy, and probably of other economies around the world.

This shift has been caused by the enlargement of the scope of activities within individual communities and even states to a broader scope best captured by metropolitan regions. Within each metropolitan area, economic and social relationships among different elements cross local political boundaries. Key linkages occur among firms, inidivudals, households, and governments across the entire metropolitan region. Each such region forms an economically interlocked entity with elements that support each other and compete with other regions around the world.

Such linkages within metropolitan areas have been around a long time, but recent technical and social developments have further weakened the ability of any one locality to contain within itself the key elements of its own economic survival, or to solve the major problems afflicting it.

In the past few decades, public policies and private enterprises have created major networks of roads, telephone systems, sewer and water systems, television stations, newspapers, other communications systems, commuting journeys, computerized linkages, trucking lines, and public service-sharing compacts within each metropolitan area. These networks connect all parts of each metropolitan area tightly to all other parts.

Within each metropolitan area are networks of social relationships expressed in space. In fact, the basic processes by which our metropolitan areas develop and grow involve segregation of peoples by income, social class, and race into different and unequal groups separated in space.

The key instrument of such segregation consists of exclusionary zoning and other policies by local suburban goverments aimed at preventing low-income households from moving into their territories. The net result is a tendency for ever-outward movement of new development to suck economic and social vitality out of older core areas of each metropolitan area, leaving the localities there burdened with high levels of resident poverty and low levels of taxable resources with which to combat that poverty.

This process creates two types of problems linked with metropolitan growth.

One type consists of directly growth-related problems mainly on the metropolitan periphery. These include rising traffic congestion, air pollution, absorption of open space, inadequate provision of new infrastructures, and shortages of affordable housing.

The second type consists of problems related to the concentration of poverty in older core areas. These problems include high crime rates, the raising of about one-fourth of all children in poverty, poor quality public schools, and failure to integrate many workers into the mainstream work force. These problems started within inner-city areas but are spreading throughout metropolitan regions.

Both sets of problems are fundamentally regional. They transcend the boundaries of individual communities, and so cannot be effectively attacked by policies adopted by individual localities. That is obvious with air pollution and traffic congestion, but is true of all these issues.

The existing spatial structure of the American governmental system is ill-adapted to dealing with these problems because its political units no longer correspond to the geographic realities of our high-tech world. States are too large, and localities too small, to fit current regional realities.

No one within states or localities has the incentives necessary to respond to regional problems. Each local government official is motivated to maximize the welfare of his own constituents while ignoring impacts upon residents of other localities.

Even the theory that local governments are the appropriate units to integrate the many specialized impacts of federal programs no longer fits reality. Neither the parochial perspectives of fragmented local governments, nor the functionally-specialized perspectives of federal agencies, any longer correspond to the regional realities of basic economic and social forces.

This dual spatial malfunction creates new responsibilities for state governments and the federal government. The states, as Constitutionally responsible for local governments, have a duty to re-align the powers of their creatures to fit regional realities. But only a few states have formed meaningful regional governance arrangements. An additional force is needed to motivate others.

That force can only be the federal government. Its programs form strong potential incentives that could motivate states and localities alike to create regional governance arrangements of some type to meet the new realities of intra-regional relations, forces, and problems. This does NOT mean promoting unified metropolitan governments. The preservation of key roles for local governments is both desirable and politically imperative. But it does mean using federal funding as incentives to motivate states and localities to create effective regional arrangements.

The other speakers on this panel will discuss some of these possibilities. My own favorite is using the model from the ISTEA legislation to require all the localities within each metropolitan area to develop a joint, unified plan for the allocation of each specialized type of federal resources, such as those for health, housing, police, and environment. If they fail to do so, no one in the whole area gets any federal funds for that specialized function. This would create an instant incentive for states and localities everywhere to adopt a regional perspective concerning the key problems facing our society.

In conclusion, my function has not been to indicate how federal regionally-oriented arrangements might work, but to show why it is vital to the national interest that they be adopted. It would be a tragedy for a Congress and Administration seeking to devolve more powers below the national level to ignore the new significance of the metropolitan regional level in that devolution.