The Urban/Rural Conundrum by Bill Dodge, Regional Excellence

Regional Excellence                                                                                          

 The Urban/Rural Conundrum

by Bill Dodge

             The polarized politics of the past half century have often undermined our best  efforts to address the nation’s toughest challenges.

Nowhere has this been more evident then in our attempts to create partnerships among central cities (often politically blue), surrounding suburbs (variations of purple), and fringe rural areas (often red).  Negotiating strategies to take advantage of common economic opportunities or thwart common environmental threats is trying.  Reaching agreements to deliver cost-effective road, transit, sewer, water, and other infrastructure, and services, is difficult.  Addressing social challenges, such as fiscal inequities between rich and poor jurisdictions, is almost impossible.


And that’s just in more urban regions.  Pursuing partnerships between more urban regions (often blue) and more rural regions (often red) is usually deemed politically suicidal.


As President Obama strives to build bridges across the red/blue divide, a key pillar of that strategy needs to be regional cooperation.

 A decade ago, I became the Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) and inherited a large/small, but mostly urban/rural, divide among members.  My members were the regional councils of governments that guide transportation, air/water quality, and land use planning and deliver common services at the multi-jurisdictional level.  Some of the approximately 500 regional councils across the country are predominately urban or rural, but many are an urban/rural mix.


NARC sponsored activities to bring the two factions together, but with little success.  In fact, many of the smaller, more rural regional councils had already left NARC and joined the National Association of Development Organizations.


 What NARC could not achieve internally has begun to happen, as regions respond to the challenges of the new century.  More urban regions became interested in preserving their rural fringes, to slow profligate sprawl growth and promote infill development that utilizes existing infrastructure and services.


Simultaneously, more rural regions started encountering the same economic, environmental, and social challenges as the more urban ones, such as absorbing new immigrants from other regions and overseas.  Local leaders and citizens in both sets of regions realized that they could not address their own challenges, especially tough ones like affordable housing, if they could not engage all parts of their regions  --  red, blue, and purple  --  in resolving them.


 Moreover, more rural and more urban regions began to realize that they needed each other.  They needed each other’s expertise on how to deal with the urban and rural aspects of tough challenges.


Most importantly, they needed to work together to address common challenges that spilled over each other’s boundaries.  This is especially evident in urban regions that are exploding into the greenfields of neighboring rural regions.  But, it is also evident in the growing realization that the real economic marketplaces often cuts across neighboring rural and urban regions and cooperation is required to compete successfully in the global economy.


 More rural regions are now providing agricultural and other goods to neighboring urban regions and more urban regions are providing emergency preparedness and other services to neighboring rural regions.  Soon, urban and rural regions could be jointly preserving the fields and forests that are critical to consuming the CO2 emissions that threaten the future livability of all regions.


             President Obama has appointed Adolfo Carrion to direct a White House Office of Urban Policy, along with Derek Douglas as his special assistant on urban affairs, to bring unity to a topic that has been addressed haphazardly throughout the federal bureaucracy.   An important initiative, but one that could easily cause the political “scar tissue” within and between urban and rural regions to itch, if not fester.

             Is it possible to give this office a regional character?  The toughest challenges require regional approaches.  Moreover, by dealing with challenges at the regional level, red and blue interests are brought together, either in individual regions or across neighboring regions that face common challenges.  Regional approaches can also reduce the interjurisdictional friction that has undermined all too many well-intentioned efforts to address tough challenges.  Regional approaches cajole central cities and counties, surrounding suburbs, and rural fringes to come together and develop common strategies that address their crosscutting issues and tap their collective resources.


             Regional approaches can also engender meaningful state government participation, especially when the strategies require working across state boundaries.  I recently facilitated a Wingspread Conference with the regional councils stretching along Southern Lake Michigan.  The only way they can address cross-cutting challenges, such as moving goods and people through the middle of the country, is to have the collective support of at least 4 states for common strategies.

             President Obama has committed to trying new approaches to bridge the destructive polarization that has divided the country.  An Office of Regional Policy might begin to send such a healing message to a hopeful electorate.  Moreover, a reinvigorated Department of Housing and Regional Development could breathe life into these policies, especially with the appointment of a seasoned regionalist, Ron Sims, King County Chief Executive, as its Undersecretary.


Bill Dodge assists community leaders and citizens to build their capacity to address regional challenges.  He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and can be reached at


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