More and more, regionalism is a distraction from the things that really matter for cities.

That’s certainly the case in Memphis, and it’s why we’re swearing off any regional plans and programs until it’s proven clearly that there’s something in them for Memphis, because it’s been shown that regional economic development plans do little to help the urban core.

It’s evident that much of our region feel no moral imperative – or enlightened self-interest – to help Memphis.  Often the people in the region simply see Memphis’ problems as Memphis’ problems despite the obvious impact on their cities.  It’s a version of the “it’s all about me” attitude that seems to grip so much of the political landscape these days, whether in the halls of U.S. Congress or City Halls in our region.

Here’s the thing about regionalism: It’s hard for us to think of one plan or program cast as regional in nature that ended up helping Memphis.  The poster child is of course transportation, which time after time promoted highways that fed the sprawl choking the urban core.  Even today, most people are willing to pretend that I-269 is a vital regional economic artery rather than the sprawl-inducing, developer-driven boondoggle, and only Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz is willing to raise the seminal issue about our having one of the most unrepresentative MPO’s in the country.

One-Way Policies

It’s no wonder that for decades, public transit has been an afterthought – if thought of at all – in transportation plans.  With a clientele with little influence and with no lobbyists campaigning for them, riders of MATA have soldiered on with a mediocre transit product that is nothing short of an embarrassment for Memphis.  Not long ago, Congressman Steve Cohen even said that MATA is doing a good job in light of its budget, but as usual, it begs the question of why alleged regional transportation plans – required by the federal government – are content with a third world public transit system for Memphis.

Then there is regional economic development planning, which treats low-wage, low-skill jobs as our destiny.  There have been regional anti-poverty programs, but they have appeared to be designed more to keep the massive welfare machinery and jobs intact than to move poor people out of poverty.

Meanwhile, the region remains oblivious to what ails Memphis, where poverty has risen 27% since 2000 and the poverty rate for adolescents has climbed to almost 45%.   More to the point, the region’s politicians treat troubling trends for Memphis – loss of three middle-class families a day, loss of five people with college degrees a day, population loss of 28% inside 1970 city limits of Memphis and density cut in half – as a boon for their own cities.

That’s why it’s always possible to crowd a room with regional leaders to talk about roads, but it’s just as impossible to get them back to talk about attacking the highest economic segregation rate in the U.S.

Research concludes that to create 100 jobs in the inner city, 850 jobs have to be created  in the rest of the city and 1,450 jobs in the region.  It seems that the trickle down theory is aptly named, because regional growth does little for the inner city.  Part of the problem is that regionalism tends to treat any job as a good job and it focuses on quantity rather than quality.  Contrary to the rhetoric, a rising tide does not lift all boats.

It was about 20 years ago that regionalism was introduced here, and in retrospect, it’s obvious that much more good will and commitment flowed out of Memphis to the region than the reverse.  More to the point, North Mississippi in fact amplified the problems of Memphis by adopting an economic development program whose foundation is raiding our companies.

Yes, we know full well that regions are the economic units of competition in the global economy.  But we now also know now that regions may work for financial capital, but they don’t work for the social capital that is needed to fight the problems facing Memphis.  Aided and abetted by the federal government, the obsession with more and more infrastructure overwhelms programs to fight poverty, improve job training, reform schools, and more.

If the federal government is serious about cities, it would take the Race To The Top approach that forced states to massive reform of public schools and apply it to its regional emphasis.  For example, what could be done if the federal government held out $5 billion to force regional innovation for  urban problems?

That’s why it’s time for New Regionalism – one that is urban-centered.  It’s way past time for us to ease up in Memphis of rhetoric of regionalism and act with single-minded concentration on transformative strategies that can create the city of choice that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton is pursuing – one where talent is developed, attracted and retained; where poor people have pathways out of poverty; and where students are treated as solutions, not problems.

Sadly, too few people in the region understand that solutions to these problems strengthen their futures as well as Memphis’s.  Cities are like people – other people base their value on what value you tell them you have.  Now, we are telling our region – and our own people – that they are not valued by the city itself, because it’s the region that really matters.

New Regionalism

It’s a message too often implicit, if not explicit, in regionalism programs around the nation.

Our region didn’t just happen to turn out the way that it did.  It’s exactly the region that our policies set out to create.  They supported sprawl and subsidized lifestyle choices as people moved farther and farther out.  Of course, reality is setting in, because it’s middle class families that pay for the debt run up for sprawl, for more expensive commutes and with flagging housing prices.

We should begin the era of New Regionalism by rejecting the loud talk about regionalism that will inevitably come.  The Greek chorus of regionalists will unquestionably call again for all of us to sign on to the leading policy concept of the past 20 years, a policy that unfortunately has done nothing to improve the lot of cities.

We need to reject as assertively as possible the “all boats will rise” gospel that says the problems of poverty and joblessness in cities will be reduced with more regional economic growth.  It hasn’t worked that way here, and there’s little to suggest that it will change.  Michael Porter’s research concluded that economic expansion in the region only accounts for about one-third of the urban city’s growth.

It’s the City, Stupid

These days, all of a sudden, people are wringing their hands because the Brookings Institution reports that suburban poverty is growing.  It drew headlines across the U.S. in cities like ours where no one has shown much concern when urban poverty deepened despite the big promises of regionalism.

That’s why we are so glad that Mayor Wharton’s City of Choice plan is unabashedly Memphis-focused and that he’s using his bully pulpit to convene and convince partners to join a campaign to fight for the city.

From where we sit, it’s high time to put the emphasis where it belongs – the heart of the region itself.