America the late 1920s was in flux. As the Regional Plan Association explains, coastal cities like New York were growing rapidly. Transit technology was changing how people lived and worked. The booming stock market was a few steps from its infamous collapse. Amidst all this change, inequality was roiling in cities. In America’s biggest urban region–shared by New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut–a new group of stakeholders was anticipating its explosive growth and plotting its first “regional plan” to shape the way it would boom over the coming decades. Their report, released in 1929, did end up shaping the region. As the RPA points out, the plan gave FDR a blueprint for which public works to implement during the Great Depression, including bridges and airports. It created the port system that would undergird the post-War consumer boom. It even published the very first regional map.
Today, the Regional Plan Association published The Fourth Plan, following a second plan in the ’60s and a third in the ’90s. And though it’s easy to see echoes of the first plan and its tumultuous age in the document, it’s also unique. Because unlike the last three regional plans, the nonprofit’s latest plan contains a revelation: that moving the country’s most populous region forward isn’t just a matter of proposing infrastructure projects or planning its next generation of transit. It’s now a matter of redesigning the government itself.
“Most of the public institutions that govern the region were established in a different era,” the plan’s authors explain. For instance, the subway system is near collapsing with outdated technology and debt–and the institutions that control it are unable to “properly invest [in] and upgrade” it. Meanwhile, hundreds of individual stakeholder groups across the region make decisions about taxes, schools, and land use, making it nearly impossible to enact reform. There’s no commission or agency in charge of tackling climate change across the region.
We can come up with plans and designs until we’re blue in the face, the authors seem to say, but without rethinking the institutions that fund and control our cities, nothing will happen. “The most distressing thing we heard time and again was that many believed that these and many other problems were just too big to be solved,” they recall about their five years of research. It’s time, they conclude later, to “reassess fundamental assumptions about public institutions.”
So what would that look like? In addition to overhauling the region’s approach to affordable housing and transit, stamping out inequalities in terms of taxing and land use, and engaging the public in policy planning on the local level, here are three proposals from the plan’s section on governance.
The Problem: No One’s In Charge Of Planning (Or Paying) For Climate Change
With many municipalities, rules, mayors, and other stakeholders involved in planning resilience across the region, “fragmented governance makes it nearly impossible to address the effects of climate change in a comprehensive and effective way.” The plan proposes many radical changes in the face of climate change–including the creation of a “climate change national park” in New Jersey’s Meadowlands–but it also contains some governance-oriented ideas.
For instance, it suggests creating a Regional Coastal Commission to plan and fund climate change adaptation projects across the region. The commission would operate across all three states, coordinating across dozens of groups and agencies, including elected officials and scientists alike.
The authors point out that disasters are just going to keep coming, and funding sources will bottom out–$27 billion in needed aid has already gone unmet. The commission would be in charge of allocating funding for resilience projects using funds from another new structure proposed by the Regional Plan: three “Climate Adaptation Trust Funds,” one in each state, which would be funded by surcharges on insurance premiums, or other forms of surcharges yet to be determined.
It’s a radical idea–and it would depend on unprecedented inter-state cooperation. But as climate change gains ground in coastal communities, it may seem less and less wild.
The Problem: The Subways Are Crumbling
As a New York Times investigation recently reported, the region’s subway system is facing a serious crisis, and “progress must be radically accelerated,” the RPA writes. The aging MTA isn’t just sprawling, overburdened with many other responsibilities, and poorly organized–it’s $40 billion in debt. One solution? Rethink the MTA itself.
In addition to reforming how construction projects are planned and bid on, and replacing nighttime train service with buses to give crews time to complete bigger projects, the Regional Plan calls for creating “a new model of transit governance.” They call it the Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corporation, a group that would have “no other goal than to completely rebuild the subway system within 15 years.” The authors compare it to the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which functions like a public benefit corporation, and describe it as a kind of surgically focused task team that would wield “creative problem-solving, efficient decision-making, and accountability” to solve the problems the MTA is tangled in.
In theory, the commission would have complete agency to make decisions about how to speed up the process of rebuilding the train system, with authority handed down by the governor, the mayor, and the MTA. How would this radical new process for planning and approving construction on the subways be paid for? The plan is vague, but proposes ideas like a carbon tax, congestion pricing, and new tolls.
The Problem: We Don’t Even Have Reliable Data
All of the changes proposed in the plan require data, and that itself is part of the RPA’s vision for the future of the region. The plan proposes creating a Regional Census–a nonprofit that would oversee a new kind of analysis of the region to inform all of the transit, infrastructure, and policy changes that will take place in the area over the coming decades. The RPA points to Chicago as an example of a city that’s doing something similar: a partnership between academic institutions, scientific groups, and the city is collecting data about transit and environmental conditions using sensors installed on the city’s streets. Just as it has in Chicago, the idea introduces privacy concerns–especially if private companies are involved–but cites a board of trustees that would oversee the practices of the nonprofit.
If these ideas sound vague to you, it’s because they are. The point of the plan has always been to create an independent framework from which all kinds of stakeholders–from mayors to states to urban planners–can work from over decades. In that sense, it’s broad by necessity. But in this dense document, it becomes increasingly clear that the urban regions of the future don’t just need new forms of transit and planning–they need whole new forms of governance. You can read the full plan here.