The academic debates in urban studies around metropolitan regions and their evolution are yet again focusing on defining the object of study. Recent contributions to the field suggest that the entity of the city-­region may be a thing of the past—if it ever existed. Most large agglomerations have not a centre and a periphery but rather several functional hubs spread across an amorphous urbanized territory.

Meanwhile, in the practical world of policy-making, cities, provinces and other subnational governments continue to face real issues, such as air and water pollution, traffic overloads, biodiversity loss and socio-economic segregation. These problems are caused by and have an effect on more than one local jurisdiction. They are supralocal or metropolitan in scope. These wicked, crossjurisdictional issues present a difficult challenge for policy-makers and can typically be tackled only if all municipalities, counties and other units of government involved agree to take joint action.

The New Regionalists—as distinct from the Old Regionalists, who advocated for metropolitan amalgamation as a way to solve regional problems—offer up voluntary regional collaboration as a remedy to the problems of city-regions. The premise is simple: local jurisdictions, with a bit of nudging from provincial or state governments, will collaborate and work together on larger issues when and if it meets their interests. And higher-level governments are buying into this: in 2010, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) created the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants to support “metropolitan and multijurisdictional planning efforts” and foster metropolitan collaborative planning. Similarly, in 2012, the government of Alberta created its Regional Collaboration Program, with the same objective.

Voluntary collaboration has become the palatable solution to the metropolitan problem, appealing to those on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Yet most studies of the phenomenon focus on what’s driving it, rather than how well it is working. There is little research to tell us to what extent collaborative schemes involving three or more local jurisdictions achieve what they set out to achieve.

My research tackles this question in the North American context. After studying 110 of the largest metropolitan regions in the United States and Canada, I’ve found that regional collaboration does have a statistically significant effect on at least three important outcomes, all of which are determinants of regional resilience as measured by Kathryn Foster’s resilience capacity index: levels of air pollution, levels of income segregation and small-business incubation.


However, there are three important caveats to these findings. First, it appears that different types of collaboration have different effects. For instance, collaboration mandated by higher levels of government (such as California’s Regional Air Districts or Ontario’s Places to Grow) is more strongly and consistently associated with environmental conservation and socio-­economic integration than bottom-up, voluntary collaboration (e.g., HUD’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants) or functional or contractual collaboration (e.g., the former Montreal Urban Community [MUC] or Toronto’s former Metro government).

Second, it appears that the effects of regional collaboration may not be immediately apparent. One collaborative initiative often leads to another, which may eventually lead to some legislative change or some other form of collective action. Indeed, the first-order effect of collaborating across jurisdictional boundaries is often to reinforce a given region’s governance capacity, which leads over time to more genuine, voluntary, open, sustained and effective collaboration. The evolution of regional collaboration, exemplified by such organizations as the Association of Bay Area Governments (in the San Francisco Bay area) and the MUC (before it was disbanded in 1999), shows this quite convincingly. Collaboration usually works. But it may take time.

The third and probably most important caveat is that collaboration at the metropolitan level is not always a “good”; it can also be a “bad” when and if it is seen as a way to avoid dealing with the complexity of a problem rather than acting. I have found, as have others, that participants in voluntary collaborative processes often perceive the process as being effective when in fact it is not. Such a situation—where there is an obvious disconnect between perceived and actual policy effectiveness—can become a “collaborative trap” of sorts, whereby large amounts of time and energy are dedicated to working “in collaboration” to no real effect, even as the pressing regional issues that provoked collaboration in the first place go unattended. The Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Communities, a collaborative effort in the Bay Area that started in 1997, is a good example of a process that effectively entrapped its participants for a decade.

In sum, collaboration begets collaboration and can be effective under certain conditions and over time, but collaboration itself often is not enough to move the needle—at least not for the kinds of urgent problems our cities and regions are facing.

Photo: Shutterstock

Joël Thibert is an urban planner and a consultant. He is a Trudeau Scholar, a former Loran Scholar (2000) and the author of Governing Urban Regions through Collaboration: A View from North America. He holds a PhD from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and an MA in urban planning from McGill University.

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