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Working Across Boundaries: A Framework for Regional Collaboration
Land Lines (2004)
  • Matthew McKinney, University of Montana
  • John Parr
  • Ethan Seltzer, Portland State University
The case for thinking and acting regionally has been made in this country for well over 100 years. After surveying the West in 1890, John Wesley Powell published an essay titled “Institutions for the Arid Lands,” in which he articulated his vision that the most appropriate institutions for governing western resources are commonwealths defined by watersheds. He reasoned that "there is a body of interdependent and unified interests and values, all collected in [a] hydrographic basin, and all segregated by well-defined boundary lines from the rest of the world. The people in such a district have common interests, common rights, and common duties, and must necessarily work together for common purposes" (Powell 1890, 114). 

Powell’s prescription to organize around watersheds was largely ignored in the formative years of the settlement and development of the West (Stegner 1953). His vision of watershed democracies, however, is part of a larger story of how American citizens and communities have attempted to govern public affairs on the basis of regions. Some 30 years after Powell’s writing, Lewis Mumford, Benton MacKaye and others created the Regional Planning Association of America in 1923 to focus largely on cities and municipal regions, and to a lesser extent on rural and wilderness landscapes. Although the history of regionalism is characterized by a mix of successes and failures, there is renewed interest throughout North America in addressing land use, natural resource and environmental problems on a regional basis (see Derthick 1974; Seltzer 2000; Foster 2001). 

Today, regional initiatives emerge in response to a growing number of land use and related issues that transcend political and jurisdictional boundaries and often involve business and nonprofit organizations. These issues are most often framed as a crisis or threat, and less so as an opportunity: sprawl across city, county and even state boundaries; water supply for growing communities; water quality protection; wildlife habitat; management of traffic corridors; economic development; and taxation. Effective solutions require people to work across boundaries (jurisdictions, sectors and even disciplines) on a regional scale that corresponds to the challenge or opportunity, as in the New York–New Jersey Highlands region.

Existing institutions, however, rarely have the legitimacy and credibility to convene the plurality of stakeholders interested in or affected by these regional issues. In response, policy makers will occasionally mandate some form of regional collaboration as the most logical way to address trans-boundary issues. Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), for example, are required to develop regional transportation plans in order to secure access to federal transportation dollars. Some landscape-based efforts, such as the Adirondack Park Commission and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, also fall into this category. In these types of cases, policy makers mandate regional collaboration when it is apparent that responding within jurisdictional boundaries is ineffective or threatens the integrity of key resources central to community identity and prospects. 

When policy makers are slow to act, or fail to act, stakeholders may become frustrated and ultimately realize that if anything is going to happen citizens need to step forward, with or without government participation. Thus, regional initiatives emerge as much from the bottom up as the top down. When people inhabiting a common place develop a shared recognition that acting together is the best way to address a regional crisis, threat or opportunity, or simply to achieve economies of scale, we see regional initiatives arise more organically, bubbling up from a shared sense of destiny or fate.

In light of the growing interest in acting regionally, this article offers a framework to help organize our thinking about regionalism, and to begin to identify and promote best practices for regional collaboration. No single model or approach will solve all regional problems. By looking at regional efforts around the country, however, it is possible to identify a common set of goals and principles for initiating, designing and sustaining regional efforts.

Shortly before his death, John W. Gardner, a long-time advocate for regional approaches to solving public problems, argued that there can be "no more regionalism for its own sake. We now need pragmatic regionalism with a purpose" (Parr et al. 2002, 3). While the specific objectives of regional initiatives vary, the overarching purpose of most regional initiatives is to integrate three goals.
Publication Date
July, 2004
Citation Information
Matthew McKinney, John Parr and Ethan Seltzer. "Working Across Boundaries: A Framework for Regional Collaboration" Land Lines Vol. 16 Iss. 3 (2004)
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