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Localism and regionalism are normally seen as contrasting, indeed conflicting, conceptions of metropolitan area governance. Localism in this context refers to the view that the existing system of a large number of relatively small governments wielding power over such critical matters as local land use regulation, local taxation, and the financing of local public services ought to be preserved. The meaning of regionalism is less clearly defined and proposals for regional governance vary widely, but most advocates of regionalism would shift some authority from local governments, restrict local autonomy, or, at the very least, constrain the ability of local governments to pursue local interests. Regionalism would move some power to institutions, organizations, or procedural structures with a larger territorial scope and more population than existing local governments. Regionalism appears to be a step towards centralization. As such, it seems to be the antithesis of the decentralization represented by localism.

Yet, in the metropolitan areas that dominate America at the end of the twentieth century, regionalism is not simply the enemy of localism; it is also localism's logical extension. Localism is about the legal and political empowerment of local areas. The theoretical case for localism rests on a set of arguments about the role of local governments in promoting governmental efficiency, democracy, and community. But in contemporary metropolitan areas, the economically, socially, and ecologically relevant local area is often the region. Consequently, in metropolitan areas, concerns about efficiency, democracy, and community ought to lead to support for some shift in power away from existing localities to new processes, structures, or organizations that can promote decision-making on behalf of the interests of a region considered as a whole. Regionalism is, thus, localism for metropolitan areas.

Of course, the congruence of the theoretical underpinnings of localism and regionalism does not dispel the real world conflict between them. Localists do not become regionalists simply because they live in metropolitan regions. Indeed, the resistance to regionalism is quite widespread in most metropolitan areas. Localism is not simply a theory of government intended to advance certain normative goals. It is also a means of protecting the interests of those who receive advantages from the existing governance structure, including, but not limited to, local government officials, businesses that reap the rewards of the interlocal competition for commercial and industrial activity, real estate interests that profit from the system's propensity to promote the development of new land, and residents of more affluent areas who enjoy the benefits of ample local tax bases. The relationship between localism and regionalism, and the intense localist resistance to regionalism, tells us as much about the role of local self-interest in promoting localism in practice – and, for that matter, in promoting regionalism – as about the connection between localist values and regionalism in theory.

This Article explores the relationship between localism and regionalism. Part I examines the "what" and the "why" of contemporary regionalism: What does regionalism mean and why has it enjoyed so much attention from academics, urbanists, and policy analysts in recent years? Part II reviews the arguments for localism, and explains how, despite the asserted conflict between localism and regionalism, the theories underlying localism actually make a case for regionalism in contemporary metropolitan areas.

Finally, Part III considers the prospects in practice for moving from localism to regionalism.


Law | Law and Politics | State and Local Government Law