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The Politics of City Regions in Comparative Perspective

Paul Kantor et H.V. Savitch


L’âge du «régionalisme urbain» est arrivé. Le capitalisme postindustriel se développe avec des modalités qui accordent une nouvelle importance aux villes-régions. De nouvelles formes d’interdépendance économique, l’émergence d’une production spécialisée flexible, la diffusion des nouvelles technologies, et d’autres facteurs font des villes-régions un nœud prédominant dans l’économie globalisée d’aujourd’hui. Bien que les gouvernements de tous niveaux aient fourni des réponses pour gérer cette réalité, l’intervention politique demeure un objet de conflit parce que le développement économique régional a libéré de nouvelles tensions politiques. Certaines tensions naissent des obstacles économiques à une coopération politique de niveau métropolitain. D’autres proviennent de l’intérieur même du processus politique des villes. De nombreux intérêts politiques, y compris ceux des gouvernements, s’opposent à une collaboration jugée nécessaire au niveau des villes-régions parce que cette collaboration met en danger ceux qui ont peur d’y perdre du pouvoir, un statut ou des ressources. Les forces politiques qui font de la résistance aux niveaux local et métropolitain diffèrent cependant en Amérique du Nord et en Europe de l’Ouest.

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1History has a way of reversing grand expectations. Instead of reducing the appeal of cities globalization and free markets have enhanced many of them. The turn of fortunes has been unpredictable. Cities that were only «big» have gone «global» with vibrant central business districts that connect them to all parts of the world. While suburbs and exurbs have grown significantly, they also are connected to central cities in myriad ways. Economically, suburbs and exurbs often serve as commuter sheds for central city employment or as back office locations for central city headquarters. Sociologically, the residents of small hamlets outside the central city often identify with it, frequent its theaters, museums, restaurants or visit friends. At the political level, some central cities have combined with those living outside of it in different forms of metropolitan or regional governments or are joined to their central city cousins through special functional authorities or public benefit corporations.

2The fact of the matter is that cities, suburbs and proximate rural areas could not escape each other. Indeed, they have grown closer because of glo­balization and its attendant effects. Emerging from that closeness is the rise of the city region – described socio-economically as «dense, polarized masses of capital, labor and social life that are bound up in intricate ways» (Scott, 2001). Other writers see city regions more politically as a field of power spreading out from a municipal area, and containing a range of institutions, exercising some form of governance (Ache, 2000 ; Tewdwr-Jones, McNeil, 2000). Still others envision city-regions as encompassing a broad policy net over which common decisions can be made for economic betterment (Barnes, Ledebur, 1994, 1998).

3Our own definition synthesizes the political, economic and sociological aspects of city regions.  We see the city region in terms of a diverse set of in­teractions between a central city and a bounded area around it (often identified by commuter sheds, socio-economic interdependence and shared insti­tutions). Some of the most important interactions within city regions entail (i) the integration of production, employment and transportation between central cities and outlying areas (ii) the existence of human settlements and flows that occur within and around central cities and outlying areas, and (iii) the generation of political, planning and policy linkages between central cities and outlying areas.

4City regions are by no means perfectly formed. They may not be com­mensurate with economic realities and their policy nets often are incomplete. Citizens may not identify with their regions and still hold onto the names of their smaller villages, townships, boroughs or communes. Political institutions which purport to cover a region may only be partially intact or engage in a destructive rivalry with other levels of government. Nevertheless, city regions continue to have standing, they can be influential and they have achieved both domestic and international recognition. This alone makes them worthy of ex­tended examination. Moreover city regions should not only be examined in terms of their holistic properties (as a single regional entity) but in terms of how their components operate and relate to one another (central business districts, municipal areas, suburbs, exurbs). This interaction is often informal and piecemeal but it is very real and manifests itself in city regions accounting for a contribution to their respective Gross National Products. As a final note to this section, we should also add that city regions continually change and were not brought about in one stroke. Far from an instant birth, city regions have gone through a continual evolution, decomposition and re-invention.

The Twists and Turns of City Regions

5Three basic factors shaped the shifting fortunes of city regions. These consisted of (i) an increasing spatial complexity that enveloped cities and the territories around them (ii) the larger forces of globalization and free markets as they penetrated government at all levels (iii) efforts by government at all levels to initiate adjustments to  unforeseen challenges ( socio-economic and en­vironmental).

Increasing Complexity Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s

6The period after World War II saw a massive decentralization of industry and people into the hinterlands. As industry and people spread from central cities they evolved into a network of specialized and non specialized centers. Much of this was made possible by cheaper land, labor and extended trans­portation (highways, rail systems). In some cases factories, assembly plants and light industry moved either because of government action (Western Europe) or market forces (North America). Businesses chose concentrated locations – called «industrial poles» in France, «central areas» in the United Kingdom and «office parks» in the United States. Shopping malls, schools, housing subdivisions and sports/cultural facilities arose to service burgeo­ning populations. Government helped build new towns in Western Europe and Japan while in the North America private enterprise took the lead in rapi­dly constructing a new suburban landscape. Throughout the advanced indus­trial growth machines were in full force, either led by government planners in Europe and Japan or left to its own devices in the United States.

7This new movement was accompanied by a demographic revolution. At a domestic level more people left farms and assimilated into manufacture and service industries in and around central cities. At an international level, advanced industrial societies saw unprecedented levels of immigrants. Most of the newcomers settled in working class sections of central cities (London, New York and Tokyo) or in suburban factory towns (Paris). Typically, immi­grants were put up in massive, anonymous blocks of public housing. Ethnic and social segregation became an endemic part of the regional social order.In Tokyo the labor shortage was filled by rural to urban migration.

8What has often been described as fragmented regions can also be seen as a rich, complex, patch-quilt of different functional spheres that extended well beyond the central city. Despite, the seeming separateness of these spheres, they were all profoundly interdependent.  Production and consumer outlets required a substantial residential base; capital needed labor (including immigrant workers), much as labor needed capital to survive. All of these actors needed services, infrastructure and public support. One way or another, this dense, highly different, often polarized and intricate society needed to be connected. The more varied and complex the social order, the greater was the need for coordination.

9The city region became the indispensable device, though which connec­tions and coordination could be achieved. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s they were legitimated as «reformist institutions» that would embrace com­prehensive planning, rationalize better government and enhance overall effi­ciency. In the American literature city regions were characterized by the word «reform» while in Europe terms like «functional urban regions» or FURs described the phenomenon (Wallis, 1994 ; Cheshire et al. 1988 ; Savitch, Vogel, 2009).

10City regions would be governed in many different ways and their scope of operations would differ from place to place, but their introduction as a func­tional entity was quite widespread. These city regions grew by increments, and as they took root their manifestations differed; first in the form of statistical designations by government agencies and gradually metamorphosing into various institutional forms.

11The labels for city regions often changed and sometimes they were infor­mally or partially governed. During the 1960s New York’s city region was referred to as the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA) and its larger region was called the Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA). For a time this city region was led by the Tri State Regional Commission while other specific functions were conducted by public benefit corporations (Port Authority of New York and New Jersey).

12 By 1964 London was designated as Greater London and it was led by a strategic body known as the Greater London Council (GLC) ; its larger area was referred to as the South East Region. Likewise during the 1960s Paris and its surrounding areas went through a decisive change. The city of Paris was also designated as a «departement» and along with seven other departements, the region took on the appellation of the Île-de-France» (Island of France). During this time crucial decisions were made by a state agency called Délégation à lAménagement du Territoire et à l’Action Régionale or DATAR, and later joined by a regional council.  In Tokyo wards, towns and villages merged with the City of Tokyo and created the Tokyo Metropolitan Govern­ment (TMG) in 1943. This was largely an effort to rationalize government and administration against the background of WWII.

13Taking a broad perspective on the 1960s and early 1970s this was a period of optimism about the ability of government to comprehensively plan larger regions. Across North America, Western Europe and parts of Asia, nation/states promoted city regions as a way to tackle economic and social transition. City regions arose in the milieu of government intervention, during a time when the welfare state was ascendant and neo Keynesian solutions to econo­mic challenges were popular (Brenner, 2004; Rodriguez-Pose, 2008). Generally, the government of these regions tended to be hierarchical, command centered and formal. Policies were made from relatively broad perspectives (national or regional) and implemented from the top down. This too was an age of mega-structures where bigger was better and housing projects, auto routes and stadia were built to mammoth proportions.

14All this changed during the mid and late 1970s. By then de-industrialization had set in and factories had begun to move from the suburbs of city regions to other parts of the world. The optimism that comprehensive planning, better governance and public investment could stop the decline had waned. Parts of Asia profited from this transition, and for this reason the Tokyo city region remained an exception. In contrast to New York, London and Paris, the Tokyo region prospered. Indeed, Eric Vogel (1979) was able to write a book with the title «Japan as Number One» which conveyed the sense of the time.

The Impact of Globalization and Free Markets by the 1980s

15In North America and Western Europe the stagnation of the previous era was penetrated by globalization and free markets. The injection of digital technology radically changed economic conditions and open borders radically affected social conditions. The immediate impact was negative, though the longer run would show some positive results. Capitalism had struck North America and parts of Western Europe.

16By the 1980s manufacture moved out of cities in search of cheaper labor. Vibrant ports fell into disuse because they could not accommodate large container ships. As jobs were lost people moved from inner cities into outer parts of the city region or beyond. In the United States, Great Britain and France there was a discernable migration from north to south or mass movements into what became known as «sunbelt regions».  Economic decline had profound implications for the built environment, as inner city neighborhoods and even central business districts crumbled. In the wake of de-industrialization competition between cities became especially sharp. What once had been celebrated as a popular call for every city region to seek its «comparative advantage» (city regions specializing in what they could do best, but trading with other city regions for mutual benefit) was now replaced by a call for «competitive advantage» (city regions situating themselves to beat out rivals). Localities of all types did what they could to attract business investment.

17In the United States cities offered innumerable «supply side incentives» to attract business, including tax abatements, free land, workforce training and the like (Kantor, 1995 ; Savitch, Kantor, 2002). New York supplied grants and interest free loans to developers and offered multiyear tax reductions for the conversion of abandoned industrial lofts into residential space (Zukin, 1989). In the United Kingdom and France development corporations joined with private developers to regenerate urban spaces. London saw efforts to rebuild its abandoned ports through the London Docklands Development Corpo­ration (LDDC). Paris witnessed a massive effort to construct a new central business district in La Défense (Savitch, 1988). In Japan government and bu­siness collaborated to make its resurgent industrial base still stronger. In To­kyo the CBD of Shinjuku emerged as a major commercial hub while Shibuya became a fashion and media center. The Tokyo waterfront was also developed on reclaimed land.

18The response to these larger forces from national government and ulti­mately city regions was also significant. The elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan changed the political economies of Great Britain and the United States and led to similar changes elsewhere in the world. Promoted in different ways, a new movement of neo liberalism advocated less govern­ment intervention, more private enterprise and the facilitation of an already strong impetus toward a global market economy. America, Great Britain and to a lesser extent Japan became champions of globalization. France and much of Continental Europe remained skeptical.

19Rather than markets doing away with the state, neo liberal ideology pus­hed political authority down to the regional or local levels. National govern­ments began to de-regulate and shed responsibility for social welfare. That­cher’s Great Britain and Reagan’s America cut national support for localities and shifted fiscal responsibility downward. Though it retained the welfare state, even Socialist France inaugurated a wave of political decentralization, presumably to allow localities greater democracy, but also to enhance their ability to compete in the global economy. Japan relaxed planning restrictions and made it easier to access private capital for development.

20Frequently the recipient for neo liberal initiatives was the central city or the city region. A new territorial scaffolding was erected to accommodate the tremendous influence of global markets (Brenner, 1999, 2004). City regions were positioning themselves to better compete in these new conditions and they tried to adapt. What had once been the purview of the national state was now closer to the city region, though with a new lexicon that reflected the change. Instead of «regulation» and «re-distribution», city regions pursued «public-private partnerships» to promote «economic development». Ra­ther than formal governments, operating vertically to carry out comprehen­sive planning, city regions adopted a form of flexible «governance» which was incremental, more attuned to private enterprise and operated laterally (Savitch, Vogel, 2000). City regions were thought to be more autonomous, de-centered and anxious to «unleash the pent up forces of capital» (Stoker, 1998 ; Jessop, 2000). As such they were more capable of enabling rather than directing private capital.

21During the 1980s city regions became one of the platforms upon which neo liberal policies were launched. One of these policies involved the urban enterprise zone, which struck a chord in Great Britain (where it originated) and the United States (where individual states adopted it). Sometime later a modified version of enterprise zones was introduced in France under the rubric of zones franches or «free zones». The idea for urban enterprise zones was grafted from Hong Kong, where a flourishing economy had been nurtu­red by unregulated markets, practically no taxes and the availability of cheap labor. Transferred to depressed areas of city regions, urban enterprise zones were supposed to significantly reduce taxes, relax environmental protection, speed up the acquisition of licenses and permits for conducting business and minimize other regulations. In the United States urban enterprise zones were used in depressed city regions of New York and Detroit. In the United Kingdom they were applied in run down areas of Glasgow and London. In France they were used in depressed suburbs around Paris and parts of Mar­seilles, where industry and labor were excused from some government restric­tions and received public funding to stimulate development (Savitch, Kantor, 2002). These zones often covered vast stretches of territory. Booming Japan, led by the Tokyo city region had no experience with urban enterprise zones but they did eventually reach it.  In the 1990s similar ideas were introduced into the Tokyo region.

22The 1980s ushered in a period of expansion for city regions. New York saw a maturation or proliferation of public benefit corporations (PBCs) like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) the Empire State De­velopment Corporation (ESD) and the Times Square Redevelopment Cor­poration. The extension of highways and bridges spurred still more growth in the suburbs as the city region expanded at their northern, southern and wes­tern limits. London and its Greater South East Region also grew around its Heathrow Airport and the expansion of motorways that led into the suburbs. During this period the Thatcher government made considerable use of quasi government autonomous agencies (QUANGOS) to stimulate develop­ment. The Thatcher government also tried, without success, to compromise the much cherished Green Belt that surrounded Great London and prohi­bited development within its range. As it turned out, developers did a leap-frog over the Green Belt and built beyond it. New towns like Milton Keynes continued to grow and areas around ancient university towns like Oxford and Cambridge blossomed. In the Île-de-France five new towns planned more than a decade earlier took root and became part of a larger urban corridor surrounding Paris (connected by rail and auto-routes). The Tokyo city region also expanded. As property prices in the central city kept rising, development pressures displaced local residence and residents settled into more distant suburbs and exurbs.

Adjustments to Unforeseen Challenges and the New Regionalism in the 1990s

23By the 1990s both the successes and the excesses of neo liberalism had be­come apparent. On the one hand, globalization and free markets had created new generators of wealth, often built on financial services. Some central cities and their regions had «reinvented» themselves as international commercial hubs, global service centers and as headquarters for trans-national corpora­tions (TNCs). The new wealth had rebuilt existing Central Business District cores with skyscrapers, upscale boutiques, hotels and restaurants.

24This period saw a burgeoning of development around existing CBD cores and, in some cases, the construction of new CBDs. As New York’s financial district boomed it gave birth to a new neighborhood in lower Manhattan cal­led Battery Park City. The spinoffs in other boroughs of the city were consi­derable as CBDs were rejuvenated in downtown Brooklyn, Fordham Road in the Bronx and Jamaica, Queens. London’s relaxation of financial regulations brought about its «Big Bang» and invigorated its CBD with a new influx of bankers, traders and analysts. The new boom led to the construction of taller buildings throughout parts of Central London and a change in its historic skyline. London also saw the creation of a new CBD near its docklands at Canary Wharf. Paris’ CBD was too small to accommodate international demand and La Défense, located on the western outskirts of the city, took on that role.  The growth continued and by the 1990s La Défense extended into La Défense II, all of which is connected by rail to the center of the city. In Tokyo, the wa­terfront area was targeted to accommodate the increased demand for office spaces. A large sub-centre was built on the reclaimed island in Tokyo Bay, ai­med at facilitating international business.

25Building up CBDs had become a strategic objective, designed to both position cities for international competition and pump up the economy in their surrounding regions. In New York this was dubbed the «Manhattan strategy» (Savitch, 1987). New York’s strategy of replicating Manhattan in some of its other boroughs was matched by London’s own version of «Man­hattanization» amidst efforts to construct tall buildings in Central London. Paris’ brand new CBD in La Defense was sometimes called «Manhattan sur Seine». Even Tokyo’s future envisioned mega projects and was referred to as the «Manhattan Plan». More often than not, the ramifications of the CBD into other parts of the city region created still more CBDs and commercial sub centers. These sub centers could also function on their own as points of business concentration in the rest of the region. In effect city regions be­came strongly polycentric and extended in a latticework of secondary CBDs throughout the region.

26The social ramifications of booming CBDs have been profound. On the one hand, a new class of managers, financial specialists, professionals and ar­tists bought luxury apartments close to these CBDs. The new class of «yup­pies», as they were sometimes called gentrified working class neighborhoods and they often moved into large, lavish houses in the suburbs. Moreover, the sheer energy generated from CBDs often spread into the rest of the city re­gion, which accommodated back offices, warehouses, housing projects, fancy townships and new universities.

27On the other hand, the global market surge had exacerbated social dis­parities and environmental problems. Differences in income between social classes continued to worsen, and so too did social segregation as immigrants found themselves encased in urban and suburban ghettos.  These problems existed in central cities but also spread into the rest of the region, especially the inner suburbs. Parts of the New York region (South Bronx, Newark) were almost entirely reserved for the poor, while London experienced similar se­gregation on its East End and South Bank (Tower Hamlets, Southwark). The northeastern suburbs of Paris (La Courneuve, Clichy-sous-Bois) contained massive housing projects and unassimilated immigrants where conditions equaled the stark ghettos of its sister cities. Given these conditions and dispa­rities it was hardly surprising that riots broke out in Paris’ northern suburbs in 2007.

28The level of disparity and segregation is lower in and around Tokyo compa­red to our other cities. However, traditional blue collar areas in the northeast’s 23 wards (Kawasaki) recently recoded higher degree of unemployment. Ho­meless and overnight sleepers have become visible in everyday life. At the same time, gentrification transformed the waterfront and once industrial area. New condos attracted well-paid professionals and managerial classes. In the suburbs, some neighborhood experienced negative equity in housing asset. Those who bought homes at the peak of bubble economy in the late 1980s suffered from lower housing values in the 1990s. Above all, Tokyo region’s socio-economic landscape, which was once quite homogenous, now shows sharp divisions.

29While the 1990s was largely a period of growth and prosperity in ad­vanced industrial societies, it also posed serious problems within those same societies. Social disparities and exclusion were not the only challenges to be faced. Economic growth within central cities and gentrification of older, neighborhoods pushed out working class and poorer households.  In the rest of the region economic growth engendered a loss of green space and waste­ful sprawl (especially in the United States). At the same time globalization brought Asian nations besides Japan into advanced industrial societies. India, China, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore now consumed more energy and used more automobiles. Added to the consumption patterns of the West, the city regions of these nations caused havoc with the environment (global warming, air pollution, soil erosion etc.).

30The era also ushered in new national leadership, which rejected the heavy handed bureaucracy of the 1960s as well as the market fundamentalism of the 1990s. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were centrists and pragmatists who adopted a political «third way» (Giddens, 1999). Given the accumula­ted challenges, the city region became the natural repository for potential solutions. What became the «new regionalism» was supposed to take the best of earlier practices and apply them toward the resolution of social and environment problems. Government could be both lean and energetic and it could use market practices to make the public arm more effective (Savas, 1987; Osborne, Gaebler, 1992). Old priorities could also be given a new di­rection, so that «social welfare» (the government dole) became «workfare» (more jobs) «urban development» (build to market demand) became «sus­tainable development» (build for conservation and future generations) and «suburban growth» (sprawled housing) was converted to «smart growth» (compact communities).

31Naturally, new regionalism worked differently in North America than in Western Europe. In New York, new regionalism worked by increments and in functional terms. Thus, PBCs coordinated development, or provided fi­nanced for airport or improved public transportation. In the London region, a multiple array of smaller jurisdictions in the South East was coordinated by either the central ministries, regional development agencies or a consor­tium of local authorities (SERPLAN). In the Paris region, a regional council (CRIF) has taken on some responsibilities but often finds itself in conflict with other jurisdictions. Meanwhile the National Assembly has called for creating an institution body (urban community) that might represent Greater Paris.  The content of «new regionalism» is not as in Tokyo However, the public discourse tends to emphasize de-centralization, more local autonomy and less control by the national bureaucracy. Coordination among the local government hardly surfaced as a public agenda, except for specific transport and logistic issues.

32Whatever might be the institutional variation for the new regionalism the fundamental idea of using government (or governance) in altogether diffe­rent ways became quite popular. New regionalism is neither «right wing» nor «left wing». While it was sympathetic to free markets and globalization, it has been aware of the possibilities for market failure and global overreach. It may also be that the times have generated city-regions. If new regionalism were not present some form of it would have to be invented.

33We should emphasize that new regionalism conceived of spatial politics differently. By the 1990s it was theoretically embedded in globalization. Some writers saw it as «an outcome of deeper political economic processes» (Storper, 1997, p. 3). As one scholar of the subject put it, «city-regions are beco­ming increasingly central to modern life and all the more so because globaliza­tion has reactivated their significance…» (Scott, 2001, p. 11). Other writers saw city regions replacing center cities as a result of an historical evolution. As they described the phenomenon, economic dynamics and social change did not happen in cities as much as they did in larger regions (MacLeod, 2001; Saxenian, 1994).

34The «new regionalism» also had an abiding faith in the ability to reor­ganize spatial relationships so that more resources could be harnessed, more assets could be shared and ultimately localities could be made stronger. In an age where competition is king, great premiums are placed on the capacity to innovate and share costs. City regions are small enough to operate flexibly and efficiently, yet large enough to knit together a diversity of industries by fur­nishing extensive infrastructure, transportation and planning.  In a sense, city regions have become indispensable to modern capitalist economies because they provide the territorial stages from which competitive advantage can be pursued.

Political Tensions and City Region Governance

35Increasing economic regionalization has unleashed new political tensions. Economic change invariably creates new political interests and threatens older ones, as Schumpeter famously observed (1975). Thus, economic and politi­cal regionalization are quite different processes. Although they may function in counterpoint, governmental responses are by no means simple reflections of changing economic pressures. Rather, the politics of regional governance is invariably a matter of contention. Throughout the industrial West private and public interests are seeking to re-shape or preserve political institutions in the course of using public power to manage urban economic change. Conse­quently, regionalization is permeated by formidable obstacles at various go­vernmental levels in North America and in Western Europe.

Economic Obstacles

36Some of these obstacles have their roots in the process of global economic change itself. The globalization of urban economies has two faces (Kantor, 2006). One face has to do with the rise of greater economic interdependence among businesses and governments in city regions. These new urban interde­pendencies provide reasons for governments and citizens to pull together more in order to improve their economic well being (Orfield, 1998). As ci­ties and suburbs recognize how much their economic fortunes are interde­pendent, they may be more likely to collaborate politically on some issues, facilitating regionalization of local governance.

37The other face of globalization makes political cooperation more difficult because it increases economic fragmentation within city regions. Globaliza­tion has made some business sectors, such as international finance, certain kinds of wholesaling, and advanced producer services, more connected to international markets and less anchored in local or regional economies. For example, large swathes of the corporate services and international finance sec­tors found in major global cities like London, New York or Paris, have strong linkages to world economic networks, as described earlier (Storper, 1997 ; Sassen, 2002). Although these linkages do not render purely local and regio­nal ties irrelevant, they engender competing priorities on regional economic issues for some businesses and this, in turn, affects their local governments. For example, one study of in American central cities found that many business groups having international ties were not very engaged in local or regional po­litical issues due to their compelling interests in affairs outside of the metro­politan areas (Hanson et al., 2010). The selective sorting out of business and job sectors within already politically fragmented metropolitan areas can pull local governments further apart in responding to common problems (Kantor, 2010). In sum, the dynamics of globalization work to divide governments in city regions at the same time as it also unleashes forces bringing them more together. What matters is the balance of these pressures in particular urban re­gions. In some metropolitan areas local governments find more to share than in other regions if only because of differences in economic interdependencies (Kantor, 2008 ; Crouch, Le Gales, Trigilia, Voelzkow, 2001). Consensus and contestation among governments can vary from region to region as the mix of economic interests shifts.

Political Obstacles

38Obstacles to regional governance also arise from the urban political pro­cess itself. Many political interests, including entire governments, oppose political collaboration necessary for regional governance because it threatens them with loss of power, status or wealth. The political forces encouraging resistance at the local level tend to be somewhat different in North America than in Western Europe, however.

39North America. In North America city region politics is decisively shaped by political tensions linked to federalism. Although Canada and the USA have very different federal governmental systems as well as some different politi­cal traditions, both nations have decentralized responsibility for urban deve­lopment to lower governmental levels more than have most West European nations in the EU. Further, partisanship does not afford a very stable base for transcending urban governmental rivalries for regional approaches in either the USA or Canada. Ideological political parties are mostly absent, and there is usually weak party discipline at the local, state and provincial levels. Thus, political tensions over regional governance primarily get played out outside of national politics at the local, state or provincial levels. Proposals for regional cooperation among local governments are easily challenged or frustrated by a multiplicity of interests.

40This reality is particularly true in the USA. Decentralization of urban development policies has been increasing since the 1980s as the federal go­vernment retrenched in urban aid. National political-electoral realignments during this period further marginalized central cities in urban policy. This has meant growing reliance by local governments and states on their own revenue bases and a more limited federal governmental presence in urban affairs ge­nerally. In turn, intergovernmental economic competition and rivalry among cities, suburbs and state governments escalated. Thus, just as pressures of economic regionalization have been increasing, national governmental inter­vention to encourage political regionalization has been decreasing (Savitch, Kantor, 2002). This convergence of politics and economics has left decisions over city region governance more to local and state governments. It has often weakened attempts by these lower level governments to bring about regional reforms, such as city-county consolidation, as well as more limited programs of regional cooperation in urban development (Dreier, Molenkopf, Swans­trom, 2001). In most, but not all, cases where reform has succeeded in the USA the state capitals have usually played a role in imposing it on recalcitrant local governments (Orfield, 1998 ; Rusk, 1999 ; Weir, 2000).

41In Canada, regional governmental development has been more vigorous compared to south of the border. Canadian provincial governments generally have been less willing to decentralize fiscal and policy responsibilities com­pared to the American state governments and some provinces have actively supported the creation of metropolitan-wide governmental approaches, as in Ontario with Toronto. Although Ontario provincial authorities have dimi­nished their support for some forms of regional governance in recent years, Canadian provincial intervention continues to be more supportive of regional perspectives than in most American states (Savitch, Kantor, 2002 ; Rothblatt and Sancton, 1993). Nevertheless, even in Canada federalist politics remains relatively permissive of local obstruction by local as well as provincial officials.

42Western Europe. In the UK and Western Europe more integrated unitary governmental systems predominate (although there are obvious exceptions, such as Belgium), giving national governmental authorities a comparati­vely stronger hand in reforming regional governance to address economic changes. Compared with the USA and Canada, national officials in these centralized systems have a number of advantages in promoting greater lateral political cooperation among governments in metropolitan regions. National systems of fiscal assistance and tax policies, together with more extensive na­tional safety net programs, relieve local governments of major dependency on their own tax sources. Extensive national welfare states also limit local or pro­vincial responsibility for most social programs, such as housing, employment and income assistance. This limits tax competition among local governments as a source of rivalry almost everywhere in Western Europe, including Great Britain. In addition, the presence of more disciplined and ideological political parties in Western Europe tends to foster political collaboration between na­tional and local authorities in forging programs that transcend the borders of local government (Savitch, Kantor, 2002).

43In some cases these advantages enable national governments in Britain and continental Europe to stimulate local attention to the importance of the regional economy (Jouve, Lefevre, 2002). It also allows national officials to use their authority to directly promote efforts to consolidate or encourage intergovernmental cooperation in metropolitan areas. For example, regio­nal planning has been undertaken for decades in Holland’s Randstad where Dutch authorities have promoted various measures to encourage political cooperation within metropolitan areas. In Britain regional development au­thorities, including some covering entire regions (such as Scotland and Wa­les) have been created to give higher priority to the economic region in urban change. In France national governments have created programs to encourage intergovernmental cooperation within metropolitan areas (Lefevre, 2009).

44Nevertheless, even these governments struggle to achieve political coo­peration at the local level and they often fail at this task despite their apparent political advantages (Newman, 2000). The reason : Unitary-style political sys­tems also have sources of political fragmentation; these counterbalance their other advantages in supporting regional political cooperation.

45For one thing, regional governmental cooperation in Western Europe is often difficult because of bureaucratic fragmentation (Salet, Thornley, Kreu­kels, 2003; Jouve, Lefevre, 2002). The presence of large public sectors hea­vily financed by national governments may relieve local governments of big financial burdens, but it does not necessarily diminish political rivalry among governments at the local level. Rather, big welfare state systems require very large bureaucracies organized at multiple levels. These bureaucratic agencies and governments compete for funds, power and autonomy in ways that are not unlike local governments in more decentralized polities. For example, in the Netherlands local governments compete vigorously among themselves for national grants by seeking to expand public services, populations and by seeking to maximize their limited own-source revenues. This has weakened participation by Randstad local governments in schemes for regional coope­ration. For their part, Dutch voters have rejected proposals to consolidate city and suburban service provision in part at least because they fear losing their control over the mix and costs of community services provided at the local level (Kantor, 2006).

46Integrated political systems like Holland’s with a long history of national planning also find it particularly difficult to induce local governments to join in programs of regional intergovernmental cooperation. Local government bureaucracies and their elected officials have invested enormous political ca­pital in building national-local channels of access; they do not easily give them up in favor of joining regional coalitions to settle common problems. Dutch local officials in big cities are inclined to avoid team-playing with other local governments in favor of using their own direct channels of influence to get what they want from national governmental agencies (Kantor, 2006, 2008).

47It remains true that European centralized governmental systems some­times are more successful in imposing regional government than in the USA. Yet once these regional governmental institutions are created they do not ne­cessarily suppress political rivalry or bring about extensive political cohesion within economic regions. Regional governmental institutions produce their own particular divisions and conflicts (Newman, Thornley, 2005).

48Sometimes this is because new systems of metro governance incompletely encompass the actual functional economic region. This is the case in London where the creation of the GLA in 2000 has provided much of metropolitan London with a single authority. But the GLA has limited territorial reach, lea­ving out much of the Southeast of England which is closely integrated econo­mically with metropolitan London. Because of this, the planning of strategic development in these peripheral areas has been organized directly by central departments in Whitehall. Three different development agencies accountable to national, but not local authorities, hold sway, making the London region highly fragmented politically even after the reform (Thornley, 2009).

49When the scale of regional governance is more encompassing, rivalry and fragmentation among the various governments and interests can persist and even expand in new directions. This reality emerged in urban Scotland after it came under the aegis of a single development agency during the 1970s that was accountable to the Scottish Office. Initially, the development agency sought to give priority to assisting declining urban areas and evening out eco­nomic development opportunities across the parts of Scotland to which it was responsible. By the 1990s, however, this agency, Scottish Enterprise (SE), decided that its main priority was to stimulate economic renewal and growth anywhere it could in Scotland. Its interest was to create jobs quickly in order to survive Whitehall scrutiny and succeed politically in Westminster. Conse­quently, SE began to favor promoting development projects in suburban areas most capable of attracting private investment, rather than continuing to give priority to inner-city renewal in Glasgow and other black spot areas. Glasgow and other declining parts of West Central Scotland protested SE treatment, complaining of abandonment by regional officials who were once there to help them (Kantor, 2000). As the scale of regional governance expands, the potential for division and conflict among participants in the regional govern­mental institutions also grows.

Economic and Governmental Regionalization in Counterpoint

50In some respects, the age of the urban regionalism has arrived. Postindus­trial capitalism is evolving in ways that are giving agglomeration economies renewed importance. New forms of economic interdependence, the rise of specialized flexible production, the spread of new technologies, and other factors are making the city region a prominent node in today’s globalized economy. The urban region has assumed new status. During the last several decades governments at all levels have been responding to manage this reality.

51Yet political change does not automatically follow economic transforma­tion. Although there is increasing governmental attention to forces of urban regional development, political regionalization remains a contentious matter. Regional economic development has unleashed new political tensions over the governance of city regions. In Western Europe and North America politi­cal responses have evolved in counterpoint to economic change without yet resolving important sources of conflict over political regionalization. Despite political differences, North American and Western European approaches af­ford many opportunities for political challenges to regional governance.

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Paul Kantor et H.V. Savitch, « The Politics of City Regions in Comparative Perspective »Métropoles [En ligne], 7 | 2010, mis en ligne le 09 juillet 2010, consulté le 06 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Paul Kantor

Fordham University

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H.V. Savitch

University of Louisville

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