Regional Practice, Again

Publication Date
November 8, 2021

Regional Practice, Again

Today, we work in cities and dwell in suburbs, sometimes the other way around. We consume energy that travels from rural industrial sites, including offshore wind farms, to our downtown homes and offices. And seated in fancy restaurants, we enjoy food that has been produced at farms in the countryside. Our urban and non-urban environments are intimately tied and should be considered together when designing for a changing climate and society. To do just that I will argue that Regions offer a meaningful plane of inquiry for architects and planners and that they represent an ideal arena for a more democratic and de-carbonized future of spatial practice.

Regions are hard to define, but Ethan Seltzer and Armando Carbonell suggest thinking of them as “functional territories” with clear centers and fuzzy edges.1 Characteristics that define Regions are multiple and include ecological systems, economic and political conditions and social and cultural traditions. Essentially, Regions always consist of overlapping factors that describe shared interests and ecosystems.2 Therefore, Regions are complex and attempts at their planning have episodically appeared in the US as dubious grand political projects or academic fetishizations since the early 20th century like the infrastructural New Deal projects and the early versions of the Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs.3 In the midst of the social and environmental movements of the 1960s and ‘70s ideas by thinkers like activist and journalist Jane Jacobs and landscape architect Ian McHarg converged into what has been called the rebirth of regional planning in the US.4 They laid the foundation for contemporary discourse and practice focused on issues like smart growth, sustainability, equity, landscape conservation, economic development and climate change.5 So clearly, a call for a Regional practice is nothing new. But since the potential for true democratization and stewardship has yet to crystalize, and the interest of architects in this scale of design seems stagnant, it is ripe for interrogation again. By positioning Regional planning practice within the theoretical framework of what has recently been coined Open Democracy by political scientist and Yale professor of political science, Hélène Landemore 6 , it might be possible to rethink its current relevance.
No single governmental body, at least in the US, has political power over Regions.7 In the words of Kathryn A. Foster: “Regions are ‘of the many,’ shared territories containing multiple independent units, each with power to plan and act for part, but not all, of the whole. There is no region of one’s own [emphasis added].”8 At a time where both state and market struggle to respond in a meaningful way to challenges of inequity, climate change, political unrest and public health crises, it seems worth exploring the potentials of a third form of governance by civil society actors such as individual citizens, community organizations and NGOs, the “people”. Not only does the absence of a single political authority present an opening to new forms of governance but also, by definition, the Region exists, at least theoretically, as a common ground from which to start collective action. Landemore’s Open Democracy describes an ecology of direct and representative models that can formalise this collective action. Amongst models such as online deliberative polls 9 and various crowdsourcing methods, the citizens assembly appears as the most potent model. Citizen assemblies reject electoral processes of elite politicians and are instead based on striated random selections of citizens who act as a legislating bodies on a case by case basis where rotation over time and random selection lends legitimization, accountability and responsiveness to the decision-making process.10 Citizen assemblies used as a tool for Regional planning could be a step toward a more democratic spatial practice where the architect and planner performs the role of expert, educator and citizen equally. It would be an organic process of undoing the status quo that preserves the siloing of practices and expertise.

Beyond the democratic forms of governance that Regions invite in the US, their scale and “fuzziness” also afford meaningful governance of larger natural ecosystems. When James Corner ends his essay “Measuring Land” by referring to the Jeffersonian grid as: “(…) an illusion of human order, a screen behind which lies the unceasing cry of the wild.”11 or, when he carefully traces the “broken, disconnected and straying gridlines” caused by compass defects from the magnetism in the ground across the Ozark Mountains, he unearths the disjunction between the bounds and stretches of natural ecosystems and what today constitutes political jurisdictions and property boundaries. In contrast, the nature of Regional boundaries are dictated by the ecosystems and are necessarily better at governing them in a meaningful way. Shared resources and infrastructure can be governed by Citizens Assemblies much like the civic cooperation that, according to Elinor Ostrom, constitutes a more economically viable governance of our common pool resources than the market and the state can offer through excessive regulation or privatization.12 Frederick Steiner suggests, that the work of landscape architect Ian McHarg during the second half of the 20th century offers many lessons for ecological regional planning today13 . One of the lessons comes from his early conception of natural and man-made landscapes as layered systems and his studies of their interplay which proved crucial for the development of the Geographic Information System (GIS).14 In the hands of a small elite, GIS has been used for the advancement of private ownership models, structures of oppression and natural resource extraction but as an open information model (much like Wikipedia) and through education and open access, GIS seems to hold promises of a more equitable and sensitive practice of stewardship in the hands of the many. Recent efforts in critical cartography is a good example of this practice of stewardship through plurality.15 Combined with the legislative power of the citizens assembly, critical cartography can be an effective tool of civic governance.

With GIS being just one of many open access tools that exists today, the foremost task must be to democratize their access. Democratization can happen on many scales but the Regional scale offers an interesting combination of political and ecological possibilities to start from. In its aftermath might follow another architectural practice as well, one which is both truly democratic through increased participation and shared governance but also de-carbonized as a result of a newfound relationship to natural environments and land which is not based on individual ownership but by collective stewardship.

  1. Seltzer, E, & Carbonell, A. (2011). Planning Regions. In Seltzer, E., & Carbonell, A. (Eds.), Regional planning in America: Practice and prospect (pp. 53-80). Cambridge: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Hise, Greg. 2009. Whither the region? Periods and periodicity in planning history. Journal of Planning History 8(4):295–307.
  4. Fishman, Robert. 2000. The death and life of American regional planning. In Reflections on regionalism, ed. Bruce Katz. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Landemore, H. (2020). Open democracy: Reinventing popular rule for the twenty-first century. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press
  7. In countries like Denmark (Regions) and Switzerland (Cantons), regions constitute individual political jurisdictions based largely on geographic and economic relationships. This alters the dynamic of governance but does not eliminate local governments, NGO’s or federal intervention. Regional government bodies do exist in the US but they don’t have singular jurisdiction.
  8. Forster, K. (2011). A Region of One’s Own. In Seltzer, E., & Carbonell, A. (Eds.), Regional planning in America: Practice and prospect (pp. 53-80). Cambridge: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
  9. Fishkin, J. S. (2003). Consulting the Public through Deliberative Polling. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 22(1), 128–133.
  10. Landemore, H. (2020). Open democracy: Reinventing popular rule for the twenty-first century. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press
  11. Corner, J., & MacLean, A. S. (1996). Taking measures across the American landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  12. Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (pp ??-??)
  13. Steiner, F. (2011). Plan With Nature: The Legacy of Ian McHarg. In Seltzer, E., & Carbonell, A. (Eds.), Regional planning in America: Practice and prospect (pp. 17-52). Cambridge: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
  14. Ibid.
  15. See for example the work of:
Publication Date
November 8, 2021
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