Regional Equity as a Civil Rights Issue

The color line in the U.S. is nowhere more visible than between its cities and its suburbs. Urban America, comprised largely of people of color mired in poverty, is the flip side of White suburban prosperity. Gentrified urban neighborhoods and declining inner-ring suburbs are also two sides of that same coin. These patterns of racial and regional disparity define the landscape of metropolitan areas. They also reflect the maldistribution of power and opportunity. Indeed, White suburban privilege is made possible precisely because of urban distress and racial oppression. In short, it matters where one lives.1

Despite these seemingly intractable conditions, progressives are increasingly challenging this social order. One strategy community organizers are pursuing is to inject themselves into current regional planning debates. Urban activists have turned towards regional level organizing because community-building efforts are being undermined by larger regional-and global-forces. Community builders are witnessing the undoing of hard-fought gains on a daily basis. Powerful actors and developments in other parts of metropolitan areas are severely altering the shape of urban neighborhoods-from the availability of jobs, housing, health care, education, and public space, to crime and punishment-no matter what activists and residents do. These conditions demand a new approach to community organizing: one that not only takes regional developments into account, but can also affect them.

Thankfully, the past decade has seen a spate of scholarship, policy analysis, foundation-sponsored funding initiatives, and, most importantly, social change efforts-all focused upon understanding and affecting regional area dynamics. “Regionalism”-a buzzword that sees the fate of cities and suburbs as intertwined-has become a new cottage industry (Swanstrom, 2001).

While there are different approaches to regionalism, some community-based urban organizers are making concerted efforts to reframe this policy discussion as a civil rights issue. Because regional dynamics affect people’s opportunities and shape lives, a regional strategy has become, for a variety of activists, the key to achieving racial equity and economic justice. Along these lines, community-based organizations, radical labor unions, environmental justice groups, innovative policy institutes, and progressive law-makers are promoting a regional agenda that stresses equal outcomes as opposed to “equal opportunity.” They view the latter concept-a mantra for opponents of affirmative action-as essentially spurious.

This essay analyzes the movement for regional equity and examines its potential for radical social transformation. We begin with a review of different approaches to regionalism.

Component parts of regions affect each other. The problems and solutions of cities and suburbs are thereby connected. They have common interests and a shared destiny. These arguments are used in a growing number of regional public policy initiatives such as “anti-sprawl” and “smart growth” projects as well as in “anti-gentrification” campaigns.

Yet, suburbanites apparently are prepared to pay the costs of what they now have and to forego the benefits of more integrated regional planning arrangements, especially if racial concerns and equity outcomes are prominently promoted. Many suburbanites believe that their gated communities are worth it.

Nevertheless, their isolation may be an illusion. The economic fortunes of suburban dwellers are in large part dependent upon the health of the region they live within, whether they know it or not. It may not be obvious to residents of either community, but central city disadvantage imposes costs that go beyond municipal boundaries, such as problems associated with suburban sprawl. Such costs affect the viability-and sustainability-of whole regions. Metropolitan regions have always been the economic engines of nations. In an increasingly global world, the conditions of cities and suburbs are increasingly linked. Ultimately, they rise and fall together.

Along with the decentralization of urban growth, these realities have led many community-based social change agents to increasingly think and act regionally. Most social, economic, and political problems cannot be solved by independent actors and fragmented governmental jurisdictions acting alone. Cross-jurisdictional problems demand cross-jurisdictional solutions at the metropolitan or regional level. However, there is significant disagreement about the nature of regional dynamics. Analysts differ both in the problems they focus on and in the explanations they propose. Moreover, they promote different strategies and policies to remedy them.

There are two broad approaches to regional problems: market-driven regionalism and democratic regionalism. The first sees materially self-interested individuals acting to advance personal benefits and minimize their costs. This approach, which draws heavily on neoliberal economic theory and public choice models, favors market-oriented solutions to regional problems. When government intervention is invoked, it is in the role of exploiting “natural” comparative advantages to promote economic growth.

The second general approach, democratic regionalism, sees regional problems as the outcome of long historical processes and favors radical intervention aimed at structural change. It also sees racial dynamics as intimately bound up with regional disparities, and thus posits the goal of regional and racial equity as necessary to solve problems and lay the foundation for sustainable development. Regional planning that makes equity central is a useful means for communities of color to attain redress.

Interestingly, both approaches see central city disinvestment as problematic-for inner cities as well as for inner and outer-ring suburbs. Both regional approaches accurately view the federal government’s funding of state priorities (e.g., transportation) as reflecting pragmatic and bureaucratic concerns, along with pork-barreling, leading to dominant groups coming out on top. But important differences in their diagnoses of regional and community-level problems lead them to draw very different strategies for reform and remedy.

Market regionalists argue that a minimal amount of regional planning can promote greater efficiency and better services. Although some regional advocates and policy-makers see fragmented metropolitan area governance as not all bad-fostering competition among governments – others argue that cooperation among different jurisdictions can better meet the needs of governments with few resources, such as for fire, sewers, police, utilities, etc. (Dodge, 1996).

Market regionalists focus primarily on the problems in the suburbs-such as “sprawl” and how to limit it-and only secondarily, if at all, on the revival of inner cities. Suburban sprawl, defined as the spreading out of housing, strip malls and businesses to more distant and once rural areas, produces loss of green space, increased traffic congestion, and environmental degradation. Sprawl wastes land, water and energy (Benfield et al., 1999).

Yet many market regionalists do not connect sprawl-and the accompanying social segregation and racial polarization-with the centrifugal forces that propel people and resources outward from central cities. Like an earthquake that devastates its epicenter and sends shock waves outward, economic and social forces push growth toward the suburbs and produce geographic polarization. As private investment and jobs leave cities, people follow. Moreover, resources and people are simultaneously pushed outward by the concentration of urban problems-unemployment, poverty, crime, poor schools, poor services, and decaying infrastructure-all in part due to a dwindling tax base and comparatively low per-capita government spending. The effects of concentrated poverty in cities can be amply seen in education, jobs, housing, health, neighborhood safety, crime, incarceration rates, and environmental conditions. Conversely, suburban jurisdictions disproportionately reap huge benefits from racial polarization, even as they exacerbate the problems of sprawl (depleting green space and endangering fragile environmental resources).

At the same time, inner-ring and older suburbs are experiencing problems similar to declining inner cities, including increased poverty, declining infrastructure, decaying housing, unemployment and crime. Unlike their wealthier suburban counterparts, however, inner-ring suburbs find themselves ill equipped to handle such problems, because their smaller tax-bases provide them with insufficient revenue for economic development and public services. Consequently, problems once thought to be confined to central cities have become more widespread, further propelling people into the exurbs and thus creating ever more sprawl. Importantly, as cities and inner-ring suburbs decline, so too does the whole metropolitan region. Thus, problems affecting suburban communities are directly related to the devaluation of central cities.

In response to these developments (albeit not always from the above analysis), suburban-based “anti-sprawl” and “smart growth” initiatives have sprung up over the past decade. The thrust of these campaigns is to try to control development so that sprawl does not ruin the quality of life for suburbanites. This may entail some form of cooperative governance-coordinated action by separate political jurisdictions-in which regulatory power steers the market toward efficient ends (Downs, 1996). Under its best form, regional governments promote fiscal cooperation-e.g., through revenue sharing-that can improve services in cities and suburbs alike. This requires political alliances. A relatively progressive and successful example is the Twin Cities Metro Council, one of the few regional governments in the U.S. today.3 Other jurisdictions use planning methods to achieve “smart growth” (i.e. limit sprawl while promoting economic development) by establishing boundaries, and using zoning and land use policy for resource conservation and environmental protection (Rusk, 1993). Essentially, such efforts attempt to manage mutual economic self-interest across the distinct political units that make up a region.

Increasingly, these kinds of suburban-based initiatives are gaining traction. In 1998, for example, there were 240 ballot measures across the country proposed to limit sprawl. Soon after, Congress formed bipartisan task forces to investigate sprawl; the GAO produced reports examining its causes; and the Clinton White House introduced a new “Livability Agenda.” In the 2000 elections there were more than 550 growth-related measures on the ballot in 38 states (primarily anti-growth ballot proposals), 72 percent of which passed (Myers and Puentes, 2001). These ballot measures-launched by various citizen groups and state representatives-included issues covering open space, transportation and infrastructure, economic development, growth management, and regional governance arrangements. Vice President Al Gore also put sprawl squarely on his presidential campaign agenda, attempting to appeal to suburban voters. More recently, New Jersey Governor McGreevey made anti-sprawl policy the centerpiece in his state of the state address: “There is no single greater threat to our way of life in New Jersey than the unrestrained, uncontrolled development that has jeopardized our water supplies, made our schools more crowded, our roads more congested and our open space disappear” (New York Times, January 15, 2003). In typical fashion, McGreevey called for “smart growth” measures that would protect farmland, parks, and drinking water by empowering localities to rewrite land-use laws (now tilted toward developers) to limit construction and impose fees to spurn new malls and housing.

While these measures aimed at limiting sprawl might better manage economic development in the burbs and save rural green space-certainly positive steps for regional systems-they remain, however, sharply biased. When McGreevey calls for preserving “our way of life,” who and what are clear: White suburban interests. A role for urban community-based organizations is almost always absent in such initiatives; nor is racial equity or the plight of distressed urban and working-class communities anywhere to be found on these agendas. In fact, this type of regionalism is typically “race-neutral” and deceptively couched in universalistic language. For all the touting of mutual interests and impacts, market-driven regional approaches essentially maintain and reproduce gross inequalities.

Democratic regionalism, by contrast, makes race and class central. Explicitly highlighting minority and working-class concerns, it calls for greater cooperation among competing jurisdictions, with a particular focus on reviving urban centers to assure that they have affordable housing, quality education, and jobs with livable wages. Moreover, giving the race-factor its due, democratic regionalists squarely frame efforts to forge greater regional equity within the rubric of the civil rights movement (powell, 2000).

This approach to regional problems tries to bend government-the federal government (which can be more re-distributive) and state and local governments (which can be made more responsive)-toward making cities more livable through: preserving and improving existing infrastructure, including public housing; using transportation funds to connect communities to jobs; increasing citizen participation in civic institutions and political action (which can make politicians more accountable); and promoting programs aimed at improving racial equity, and community and regional ties.

Thus, community-building efforts must include some regional-level organizing-or at the very least aim to affect regional area dynamics-because the health of a neighborhood is linked to the health of the region to which it belongs. Community organizers will only be effective if they work from a regional perspective that presses for equity in decision-making. Improving the well-being of people of color and working-class residents-particularly in cities and inner-ring suburbs-requires taking action beyond the neighborhood level. Applying a regional lens to community problems highlights particular institutions and actors that community organizers can then target, and helps forge effective strategies for social change. In short, democratic regionalism is a critical missing link for effective community-building.

Democratic regionalism addresses the legacy of the past. The current pattern of segregation (of people and opportunity) is the result of a host of public policies and private practices enacted over time, reflecting powerful economic and political interests. Democratic regionalists know that racial considerations have been central to these developments. Compared to market regionalists, they hold a broader conception of community, and place greater value on equity and democracy. Ultimately, they favor explicitly confronting dominant interests, and they aim to transform racialized institutions and policies.4

One strategy is to expose how race and class inequities across space reflect accumulated White ruling-class power. This approach exposes the historical processes and institutions that produce and reproduce disparate outcomes. Part of the reason communities of color and working-class residents in metropolitan areas face such enormous problems-from inadequate housing, jobs, schools, transportation and public services to higher crime and concentrated poverty-is that suburbanization siphoned off needed resources from cities. The well known story of how post-World War II deindustrialization and suburban growth hollowed out urban centers and created harsh and desperate conditions for millions is perhaps a bit clichéd, but it is nevertheless integral to reframing contemporary regional discussion and organizing. For example, it is critical to show how suburban prosperity is not coincidental: that it has been subsidized by the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars funneled through a host of public programs, from the GI bill and FHA mortgages to tax and transportation policies. It is equally crucial to note that people of color were precluded from access to such resources and opportunities by discriminatory public policies and private practices-enacted and carried out through racialized institutions-that lock them into declining urban areas and pockets of poverty.5

This kind of analysis not only helps explain why the world looks and operates the way it does; it also points to targets for local and regional action. One problem is gentrification. External forces undermine community-based campaigns that successfully reclaimed abandoned buildings and vacant lots and turned them into livable homes, community centers, gardens, and public parks. A regional equity analysis helps community organizers identify such forces and respond to them.

Such an approach can address the problems of racism and poverty and help build community-based power. It also suggests ways to achieve development without displacement. At the same time, it highlights undemocratic political institutions and processes that foster racial and regional inequities. The fragmented American state (i.e. federalism) allowed racial and regional inequalities to flourish. Such disparities were created and persist in large part because fragmented decision-making structures allow public policy outcomes to disproportionately benefit powerful interests. Moreover, as political power moved to the suburbs-along with population and investment-the anti-urban bias in U.S. public policy grew ever more pronounced. Race and class inequalities in employment, education, crime and punishment, housing, taxation, subsidies, patterns of spending, and service delivery can be directly attributed to the undemocratic distribution of influence within public policy structures. To forge progressive change, it is imperative to frame regionalism explicitly as a democratic project aimed at achieving equity, especially racial equity.

Activists need to think and link regionally. To this end, some democratic regionalists have developed innovative strategies and “tools” that aim to achieve racial and regional equity, and have launched dozens of regional equity campaigns across the U.S.6 Equitable and sustainable economic development is possible only when all stakeholders (or their representatives) sit at the table where key decisions are made, that is, when such decisions are made democratically. This is no easy task. Community organizers must not only locate the tables where decisions are made, they must also inject themselves into decision-making processes. Once there, they can show that effective solutions are not possible without tackling the problem of racism and poverty.

To get to these tables, regional equity advocates employ a variety of creative strategies and tools that include: conducting “equity audits” that literally map where a region’s population is, by race and income in relation to resources, opportunities and distress (Institute on Race and Poverty,; using schematics to identify key institutions and actors that wield decision-making power in various policy areas; and developing innovative legislation in key community-building areas. Take housing for example. Community organizers have crafted inclusionary housing programs and innovative zoning laws that regulate the private housing market, creating nonprofit-owned affordable housing through leveraging market-rate development, and preserve publicly-assisted housing. In addition to defending traditional rent control, regional equity advocates also press for “conversion controls,” which attempt to restrict the amount of rental housing that can be converted to owned housing (coops, condominiums, etc.); and they have imposed “transfer taxes”-also known as “anti-flipping” policies-which charge the capital gains made on properties that are bought and re-sold rapidly by speculators who cash in on gentrifying areas without making any improvements (PolicyLink, Transfer taxes not only discourage such speculation, they also raise revenue for affordable housing. Through these and other mechanisms, regional equity advocates have obtained vital resources to build and retain thousands of units of affordable housing in communities of color across the U.S.

Activists have also developed other strategies that have proven fruitful in the quest for regional equity. They have wrung funds out of federal, state and local governments-as well as foundations and private corporations-to finance new public transportation; invented revenue schemes to fund new schools and educational programs; developed mechanisms to regulate private development (limiting displacement and environmental damage); promoted job-creation and asset-building in distressed areas; and used new legal strategies (as well as traditional lawsuits) in racial and regional equity campaigns (Dreier et al., 2001). Such strategic interventions have produced gains in many policy areas and in dozens of metropolitan regions.7 For example, the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles organized bus riders into a union and won a lawsuit that expanded bus service into poor and minority neighborhoods, linking them to other parts of the city, county and region ( Not only did these changes facilitate the movement of people to jobs; they also moved jobs to people by spurring investment and economic development. The Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS)-in collaboration with labor unions, community-based organizations, workforce development institutions (such as community colleges), and some employers-pioneered a “high road” economic development approach that has created and retained jobs and boosted wages, particularly in low-income and minority neighborhoods in Milwaukee. These are but two of many cases.

In addition, community organizers promoting regional equity have successfully pressed suburban-based “smart growth” initiatives and “anti-sprawl” campaigns to take up urban concerns and the interests and input of racial minorities (Stolz & Ranghelli, 2002; Lindstrom & Bartling, 2003). For example, a coalition of interfaith groups in northwest Indiana opposed the development of suburban industries without reinvestment in adjacent older cities, and also successfully pressed for the deconcentration of low – and moderate -income housing (Blackwell et al., 2002: 158). Such multiracial coalitions, with their experience in paying attention to particular members, often deal effectively with the uncomfortable issue of race.

Regional equity advocates are thus shifting the debate about sprawl to include civil rights concerns, by making the link to urban distress (powell, 2000). They are also attempting to create a new table for public policy decision-making: regional governments. Ideally, such bodies could redistribute resources and substantially transform regions. So far, however, the few existing regional governments are relatively weak, and remain tepid on racial issues. While these governments have helped revive portions of urban centers and produced some modest redistribution (primarily through revenue-sharing), they have a long way to go to achieve regional equity.

The potential for regional equity campaigns is vast, but it remains unrealized in many locales. One of the greatest challenges in any such campaign is to promote links between progressives across geographic and cultural spaces. Although viable coalitions have sustained campaigns that have won significant victories, in many jurisdictions sharp divisions-particularly among parts of the working class-continue to thwart regional equity advocates. Initiatives for regional equity cannot be neutral on race and class; they must make race and class explicit and central. Campaigns that remain race-neutral and promote universalistic solutions, even if they do so for strategic reasons so as not to scare off White middle – and upper-class suburbanites, tend to elevate the concerns of the latter at the expense of addressing the plight of working-class urban and minority residents.

Of course, broad political mobilization has been a critical factor in successful efforts at leveraging resources necessary for community-based regional empowerment. Political mobilization remains the greatest asset-and challenge-for regional equity advocates.

Community-based activists need to know what happens in their broader metropolitan region. Progressives in both urban and suburban communities need to “think and link” regionally in order to combat insidious forms of racial sorting that continue to segregate people residentially and malapportion benefits and burdens. The value of regional analysis and action is that they expose inter-connections among people and places, and point to targets that can help community builders form effective strategies and alliances for radical social change. Racial and class equity are critical to making all portions of a region viable and sustainable. Racial equity in particular must become the basis for the sustainability of regions; this entails challenging White supremacy.

Moreover, if cross-jurisdictional solutions are required to address economic and social problems, they will need strong cross-jurisdictional coalitions. Action on a regional scale requires collaboration. Democratic regionalists seek solutions that involve all regional stakeholders rather than inner-city residents alone. This may necessitate forming political alignments among groups who may not believe that they share issues in common, or, even if they believe it, feel little reason to act on it.

Regional-level solutions-particularly at the political level-can address varying kinds of problems that affect different groups. The challenge regionalism poses for community-builders is to forge effective coalitions that make racial and class equity a central part of their everyday operation. Fortunately, recent successes by groups promoting regional equity offer direction and promise. While there is much ground yet to cover, the mobilization of democratic regionalists has begun to reshape the color line-not in the manner of those who push for colorblind policies (such as abolishing affirmative action and bilingual education)-but on their own terms. Community organizers are moving resources to people and people to resources, making regionalism a civil rights issue.


1. The metaphor of places and people being two sides of the same coin-and their relationship to each other-is similar to descriptions of international development and underdevelopment. See, for example, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) and Andre Gunder Frank’s The Underdevelopment of Development (1996).

2. Throughout this essay, I use “region,” “metropolitan region” and “metropolitan area” interchangeably and synonymously. The U.S. Bureau of the Census uses “Metropolitan Statistical Areas” (MSAs) to define a metropolitan area by a finite geographic area and number of people within it, often a city of 50,000 people or more, and several additional counties that contain a number of municipalities and suburbs. Approximately 80% of the total population in the U.S. currently resides in metropolitan regions.

3. Myron Orfield, a Minnesota state legislator, effectively “educated” Twin City suburbanites to see that their self-interest is linked to the vitality of cities, thereby making regional equity much more popular (Dreier, et al., 2001; Orfield, 2002). The Portland area of Oregon, for its part, has the nation’s only democratically elected regional governing body. Such bodies can make policy across many political jurisdictions on regional matters (e.g., revenue sharing) while leaving other matters to local governments.

4. Gender inequities and the role of sexism are rarely mentioned in regional equity debates, a glaring and significant omission. It must be stated that no project aimed at radical social transformation can be successful without incorporating the issues and participation of women.

5. Massey & Denton, 1993. While suburbs are rapidly diversifying they still remain overwhelmingly White and prosperous, and, on average, score higher than inner cities in nearly every opportunity category, including income, employment, assets, education, health, and crime. Two good overviews of the literature and data are Altschuler et al. (1999), and Dreier et al. (2001).

6. Several national organizations have launched initiatives and campaigns that have borne fruit, including PolicyLink’s “Equitable Development Tool Kit” (; the Institute on Race and Poverty’s (IRP), “Racial Justice & Regional Equity Project” (; the Aspen Institute Roundtable’s Project on Race (; the National Community Building Network (; the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities ( In addition, dozens of locally based groups have developed regional equity campaigns, including the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles (; the Environmental Justice Resource Center in Atlanta (; the Labor Community Advocacy Network in New York (; and DC Agenda ( Many groups facilitate collaboration among organizations that are engaged in community-level social change work, thus expanding the potential for regional alliances-a critical step in winning regional equity.

7. While no comprehensive list of such campaigns exists, dozens of locales have won substantive regional equity achievements. For information on many of these campaigns, see the websites listed in note 6.


Alshuler, Alan, et al. (eds.). 1999. Governance and Opportunity in Metropolitan America. National Research Council, Committee on Improving the Future of U.S. Cities Through Improved Metropolitan Area Governance. National Academy Press.

Benfield, F. Kaid, et al. 1999. Once There Were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl is Undermining America’s Environment, Economy and Social Fabric. National Resources Defense Council.

Blackwell, Angela Glover, et al. 2002. Searching for the Uncommon Common Ground: New Dimensions on Race in America. New York: W.W. Norton.

Dodge, William R. 1996. Regional Excellence: Governing Together to Compete Globally and Flourish Locally. Washington, D.C. National League of Cities.

Downs, Anthony. 1996. The Challenge of Our Declining Big Cities. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution.

Dreier Peter et al. 2001. Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-first Century. Kansas: Kansas University Press.

Lindstrom, Matthew J., & Hugh Bartling. 2003. Suburban Sprawl: Culture, Theory and Politics. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Massey, Douglas, & Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Myers, Phyllis, & Robert Puentes. 2001 “Growth at the Ballot Box: Electing the Shape of Communities in November 2000.” Washington D.C: Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.

Orfield, Myron. 2002. American Metropolitics. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Pastor, Manuel et al. 2000. Regions That Work: How Cities and Suburbs Can Grow Together. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Powell, Jon. 2000. “Addressing Regional Dilemmas for Minority Communities,” in Bruce Katz (ed.), Reflections on Regionalism. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution.

Rusk, David. 1993. Cities Without Suburbs. Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

Stolz, Rich, & Lisa Ranghelli. 2002. “Community Organizing: A Populist Base for Social Equity and Smart Growth.” Livable Communities @ Work, vol. 1, no. 1. Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities. (

Swanstrom, Todd. 2001 “What We Argue About When We Argue About Regionalism.” Journal of Urban Affairs, vol 23, no. 5.

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