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Self-Organizing the Sun Corridor

Regionalism is too often thought to require government initiative. As a result, progress is associated with full-on structural reform--and so the controversy (and usually frustration) begins.

Look to the Intermountain West, however, and it becomes immediately clear that regionalism need not require top-down government overhaul, and especially need not require it at the “super-regional” scale of the “megapolitan” spaces described by the Metro Program’s 2008 report “Mountain Megas.”

In the Mountain region, after all, a distinctive style of cooperative and voluntary “governance” has begun to gain force that simultaneously embraces regional and super-regional perspectives while affirming strong local decisionmaking prerogatives.

No less than 32 Front Range mayors backed the extensive FasTracks light and commuter rail system in the last decade. How did that happen? They worked steadily through the Denver area’s Metro Mayors Caucus, an informal “non-confrontational arena for the discussion of common issues and multi-jurisdictional challenges.”

Likewise, multiple local governments in the super-regional Wasatch Front area around metropolitan Salt Lake City have for more than a decade retained their decisionmaking power but increasingly incorporated regional and super-regional “visioning” into governmental processes at all levels. Informed by Envision Utah’s famous 10-county scenario planning and public outreach work, multiple metropolitan planning organization (MPO) boards in the Wasatch area now foster and support regional cooperation. Major rail and other successes have been scored.

And now the sometimes fractious Sun Corridor of Arizona has become a hot spot of self-organized super-regionalism. Putting aside petty inter-metropolitan rivalries, leaders from Phoenix, Tucson, and other locales in the Arizona urban super-zone have increasingly been finding ways to work together--though not by fiat from some higher authority.

Prime past examples of the new spirit include the new joint University of Arizona-Arizona State University (ASU) Medical School in downtown Phoenix and the nationally significant Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) initiative. SFAz--initiated in the spring of 2006 by the three statewide CEO groups, the Flagstaff 40, Greater Phoenix

Leadership, and Southern Arizona Leadership Council--represents a unique multi-metro public/private push to make serious investments in the region’s innovation capacity.

More recently, ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy has been serving as an important forum for super-regional discussion, having in 2008 published the report “Megapolitan: Arizona’s Sun Corridor,” co-authored by my Brookings Mountain West co-director Rob Lang, as has the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG).

All of which leads to the latest achievement of bottom-up organizing in the Sun Corridor: the adoption on December 17 of a landmark resolution of planning coordination among the megalopolis’ three critical local government associations: MAG, the Pima Association of Governments (PAG), and the Central Arizona Association of Governments (CAAG). By dint of the resolution, a new multi-metro Joint Planning Advisory Council will now be established in Arizona to transcend even metro concerns and identify mutual megapolitan preoccupations, provide guidance and technical collaboration on joint planning activities, and to enhance communication and cooperation among policymakers in the three metro sub-areas of the giant Sun Corridor megalopolis. How did the new resolution happen? Not by dint of state or federal dictate: Instead, the resolution emerged “horizontally” out of the government associations’ mutual impulse to consider transportation and other development dynamics outside the immediate reach of their specific territories.

In short, regionalism (and super-regionalism) are alive and well in the Intermountain West and elsewhere, but not as matters of formal government initiative. Though the new super-regionalism is voluntary and self-organized, it is in no way insignificant.