Letter to Gazette: “Government works best when it is closer to home”

Today’s Gazette publishes a letter by Adam Cohen, a member of NSNA:

Government works best when it is closer to home

To the editor:

I would like to respond to Neal Peirce’s June 30 column, “Using the power of ‘metropolitics.'” [link] Mr. Peirce writes, “while the metros have our top talent, they’re often disorganized, divided into hundreds of small municipalities. We need to make them “tick” better.”

I appreciate the abstract appeal of larger, more organized-looking governmental structures. However, there are drawbacks. Regional organizations are generally farther removed from the voters than ones at the city level. Accountability is likely to be weaker and less direct. Urban planning at the city level is already difficult and complex. Planning for a whole region is even more complex. The temptation to oversimplify, to shrink away from time-consuming locally tailored solutions, is great.

It’s a challenge as it is for citizens in Northampton to keep up with all the city’s initiatives and meetings that affect their lives. How much greater a challenge would it be if many of the meetings that currently take place in Northampton were relocated to Springfield or Boston?

Some of the drawbacks of regional planning are in evidence in Portland, Ore. Many of the signature ideas of the Metro Portland organization, such as aggressive densification, have become increasingly unpopular. This story is told at NorthAssoc.org.

A parallel situation exists with public schools. Research indicates that smaller schools and smaller school districts outperform larger ones.

When it comes to city and school planning, a mosaic of small administrative units may look inefficient, but it’s more likely to offer responsive, accountable, and individually tailored service than larger ones.

Adam Cohen


See also:

Randal O’Toole, “Dense Thinkers” (Reason Magazine, January 1999)
Urbanism is also supported by DOT and Department of Housing and Urban
Development requirements that urban areas have metropolitan planning
organizations (MPOs) representing most or all local governments.
Originally conceived as clearinghouses for federal grants, many MPOs
function instead as political safety valves. As Brookings Institution
economist Anthony Downs notes in Stuck in Traffic (1992), a
regional planning agency “can take controversial stands without making
its individual members commit themselves to those stands. Each member
can claim that ‘the organization’ did it or blame all the other

Portland, Oregon Voters Sour on Densification Over Time
In 2000, Oregonians in Action, a group
representing rural landowners, sensed the alienation among urban voters
and wrote an initiative petition, known as measure 7, restoring
property rights to landowners whose property values had been reduced by
land-use regulation. This would not stop densification; it would only
help rural landowners who had owned their property before the rules
were passed.

Planning advocates bitterly opposed measure 7. Oregon’s governor,
John Kitzhaber, warned that “it would destroy the quality of life, the
very soul of our state.” Yet the measure received 53 percent of the
votes, many from people (as one planner admitted) “tired of heavy-handed government planners.” In response, the executive director of Metro revealed just how out of
touch he was with the voters by demanding a grandiose constitutional
amendment mandating “tight regulation” and planning for “coordinated
land uses.”

…Metro insisted that local governments use minimum-density
zoning, meaning that all new development in that zone be at least 80
percent of the maximum density of the zone. If you own a quarter-acre
lot in an area zoned for 36-unit-per-acre apartments, you can’t build a
single-family house: you must build at least seven dwelling units. If
your house burns down, you can’t replace it with another home; you must
build apartments or row houses.

This rezoning provoked enormous controversy in the
neighborhoods in which it took place. Despite dozens of meetings
crammed with hundreds of angry residents, the cities managed to rezone
almost every neighborhood on Metro’s target list. City officials told
residents that they had no choice: Metro was making them do it.

Portland Suburb Successfully Staves Off Densification
Oak Grove residents protested loudly enough that the Clackamas County
Commission asked Metro to take Oak Grove off of its list of
neighborhoods to be densified. Metro did so. But dozens of other
neighborhoods weren’t so lucky.

Randal O’Toole, “The Planning Tax: The Case against Regional Growth-Management Planning” (Policy Analysis, 12/6/07, PDF)
As Jane Jacobs wryly observed, a region is “an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution.”[6]

A close look at the data for America’s urbanized areas reveals that regional growth-management planning generally does not produce the benefits claimed for it. States and regions with strong regional governments tend to have the least affordable housing and are often growing more slowly than regions with weak regional governments…

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
Cities tend to be complex organisms, Scott observes, so planners are constantly tempted to try to simplify their task:

Once the desire for comprehensive urban planning is
established, the logic of uniformity and regimentation is well-nigh
inexorable. Cost effectiveness contributes to this tendency… [E]very
concession to diversity is likely to entail a corresponding increase in
administrative time and budgetary cost… (p.141-142)

“Back to School for Planners”; “Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School”; “The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools”
…the trend towards mega schools continues despite widespread
agreement among researchers that the size of most U.S. schools is too
large. A growing body of research has shown that “student achievement
in small schools is at least equal and often superior to achievement in
large schools.” A higher percentage of students, across all
socio-economic levels, are successful when they are part of smaller,
more intimate learning communities… Security improves and violence
decreases, as does student alcohol and drug abuse…

Smaller, human-scaled institutions are easier to fit into existing
neighborhoods. They are also easier for community residents to relate
to than behemoth-sized institutions…

…District size also generally exerts a distinct influence
(Bickel & Howley, 2000)…

At least one study spotlights the mechanisms by which
small schools become more effective than large schools.
Lee and Smith (1994) used data from the National
Educational Longitudinal Study (1994) to show that
small schools increased teacher collaboration and team
teaching. Lee and Smith report that “large size and fragmented
human contact complicate the management of
[large] schools, which elevates the importance of formal
rules to regulate behavior. The environment in comprehensive
high schools is therefore less human” (p. 2)…