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Regional sustainability planning by metropolitan planning organizations

Regional sustainability planning by metropolitan planning organizations
Elisa Sirkka Barbour


College of Environmental Design, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.


In recent decades, many Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) – federally mandated transportation planning agencies in urban areas with populations of 50,000 or more – have become active sustainability planners, integrating their regional transportation plans with land use strategies, and addressing wider impacts upon the regional economy, social equity, and natural environment. MPOs have taken up this stance to address mandated responsibilities that have widened over time, such as for addressing air quality problems and incorporating public and stakeholder input, and as a re-interpretation of their main traditional responsibility, namely to manage transport mobility within regions. Facing a tightening vise of environmental and fiscal constraints, these MPOs have focused on improving accessibility, rather than mobility, through coordinated transport-land use strategies to improve “location efficiency,” for example, through promoting infill, mixed-use development located near transit stations. Because this approach requires closer coordination of land use and transportation planning than traditionally pursued, these MPOs have become more activist agencies in working with local governments and their land use policymaking authority. Their work provides a basis for slow but steady advancement of a new sustainability paradigm for transport policy.

MPOs, however, face a severe disjuncture between the forces compelling them to advance sustainability goals, on the one hand, and institutional barriers that severely inhibit their ability to accomplish them, on the other. Long-standing governing arrangements in the US federal system sever authority over the elements of growth management that many MPOs now seek to integrate more fully. Constituted mainly as voluntary associations of local governments, MPOs lack independent authority; they control few resources autonomously, and provide instead a coordinating role for long-range transportation investment planning.

In spite of the obstacles, some MPOs are experimenting with institutional innovations to integrate transportation and land use planning more effectively, providing a major contribution to sustainability policymaking, which depends on developing new and effective modes of governance for public goods management across all sectors of the economy, including for transportation and land use. Thus, MPOs are at the center of both opportunities and obstacles for advancing sustainable planning practices in the US.

This dissertation evaluates how conflicting dynamics of path dependent institutional arrangements for growth management affect sustainability planning by MPOs. It provides a historical institutionalist account of the evolving role and planning strategies of MPOs since their inception in the 1970s, considering why and how some MPOs have begun to address sustainability concerns, and the opportunities and obstacles they face. It theorizes MPO planning practices in connection to concepts from the sustainability planning literature(s), in order to identify characteristics that distinguish MPO sustainability planning from more traditional practice. Using operational measures developed for the purpose, the incidence of sustainability planning by large MPOs across the US is assessed, and factors capable of predicting which MPOs take up sustainability planning techniques are evaluated. Then, findings from an in-depth case study of MPO planning in California are presented – a state where the largest MPOs have been sustainability leaders for more than a decade, and where the state government has recently adopted policy measures to support their efforts. Ultimately, prospects for MPO sustainability planning in California, and by extension elsewhere, are seen to depend substantially upon policy support from the state level, because state governments control land use authority under the US Constitution, and they shape the laws and programs – from fiscal policies such as redevelopment and taxing authority, to planning requirements, affordable housing programs, transit operating funds, and more – that frame local land use decisions more than any other level of government. However, as the California case study shows, striking the right balance between state-level and regional authority for managing “smart growth” programs can be problematic.

The work contributes to urban planning and sustainability literatures, because little in-depth attention has been paid by scholars to MPOs as sustainability planners. This lack of attention is unfortunate because the regional scale is critical in sustainability planning, given the many interconnections among policies for the built environment that play out at that scale. At the same time, because this dissertation focuses especially on MPO institutional and decision-making dynamics, the research makes a contribution to literatures on federalism, multi-level governance, and policy formation and change. In particular, the research addresses questions raised by scholars in those fields about how collaborative governance in multi-level frameworks can help support sustainability.