How Structural Racism at Regional Planning Agencies Hurts Cities

Regional planning agencies (also known as metropolitan planning organizations) are structured to disempower racial minorities. Chart: Brookings
Regional planning agencies (also known as metropolitan planning organizations) are structured to disempower racial minorities. Chart: Brookings

There’s an obscure intraregional battle happening in the Cleveland area right now that highlights an important source of racial discrimination in urban planning.

The regional planning agency, NOACA (short for Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency), is governed by a board that is disproportionally white and favors suburban interests. The board has six representatives from the city of Cleveland (population 385,000, 53 percent black). Meanwhile, quasi-rural Geauga County (population 94,000, 97 percent white) gets three.

In an attempt to better reflect the population — and at the request of the city of Cleveland — NOACA’s governance committee recently voted to amend its bylaws to give Cleveland two additional seats. It wouldn’t be enough to fully correct the imbalance, but it would make things fairer.

Now Geauga County leaders are balking. The Geauga Maple Leaf reports that county commissioners have refused to approve the resolution for the second year in a row, postponing its enactment.

NOACA distributes tens of millions of federal transportation dollars across the Cleveland region annually. With proportionately less representation on the board, Geauga County would have less power to steer this spending toward the sprawl-inducing projects it has benefited from at the expense of poorer cities like Cleveland.

This pattern is not unusual. According to a 2006 study by the Brookings Institution [PDF], the governance structures of regional planning agencies routinely favor suburbs and white people, just like NOACA’s.

The imbalance is reflected in the racial breakdown of who gets decision-making power at regional planning agencies. Brookings examined the demographics of 50 boards. As you can see in the above chart, blacks, Latinos, and Asians were all underrepresented. A quarter of the boards were 100 percent white.

Cities are also underrepresented. According to Brookings, if cities had representation in proportion to their population, they would have about twice the voting power.

The suburban skew of regional planning agencies favors highway spending and other sprawl-supporting infrastructure and the expense of city infrastructure like transit. Brookings found that for each additional suburban representative at a regional planning agency, the allocation to transit fell 1 to 7 percent.

MPO Boards are stacked to favor the suburbs. Chart: Brookings
Regional planning agency boards are stacked to favor the suburbs. Chart: Brookings

Milwaukee is one of the most egregious examples. Its regional planning agency, SEWRPC, gives Milwaukee (population 600,000) zero representatives on its 21-member board. Instead, each county is apportioned three votes, even rural Walworth County (population 100,000).

Houston is another bad example. The region’s most populous area — Harris County — has one representative on the regional planning agency for every 567,254 residents. Residents of the seven suburban counties have almost four times the voting power: one vote for every 149,240 people, according to research by local advocate Jay Crossley.

Women are also underrepresented, Crossley found. Across Texas, 80 percent of board positions at regional planning agencies are held by men. For the Houston region, the entire executive board is white men.

Back in 1971, Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes — the first black mayor of a major American city — led a major campaign against the city’s underrepresentation at NOACA. He was able to get HUD to temporarily decertify the agency in 1971.

More recent civil rights challenges to the structure and representation of regional planning agencies have met with less success. A number of court decisions have held that the standard of “one person, one vote” doesn’t apply to regional governments, because they have limited authority compared to city and state governments.

Even when agencies do the right thing and try to restructure themselves more fairly, the politics can be tricky, as the Cleveland case illustrates.

  • Michael
  • Sean

    I would be interested to see this study for incomes as well. Pretty much every board member I can think of anywhere I have lived or worked makes well over $100k. What do they know of the scarcity of the transit dependent?

  • Gabriel Hillel

    What nonsense. My experience in Florida during the last 30 years is that each city professes to be making tremendous progress in race relations, and conquering the silliness of implicit bias (we are all biased goes that myth), when the failures really are the responsibility of local governments and elected and appointed officials. Regional planning is no more or less responsible than any other scapegoated target.

  • JKR

    What? Are we reading the same article?

  • Gabriel Hillel

    Clearly not. Regional planning agencies are convenient scapegoats to my mind, because the closer we get to real events and people, that is, the ones we may know, we get uncomfortable with identifying them with the problems of class and racism. It is too close to home. So we come up with removed targets and comfortably find data and statistics which support the deviant theory in which we believe to avoid holding real people accountable.

  • Anthony Cherolis

    Very interesting. In the Brookings report, Hartford CT was noted as a city that tried to sue to get better city representation (but lost). Unfortunately, Hartford metro wasn’t included in the 50 metro regions in the Brooking report. Hartford Metro’s MPO (~1 Million) has a one vote per municipality policy, which clearly biases the voting membership to small suburban towns. Curious where you they got the racial breakdown for the MPO board members.

    For Hartford – I made a quick chart of the votes for cities with > 50,000 residents in the region (5 cities, out of 38 total) and compared votes on the MPO transportation committee to the population. The cities are significantly under represented. Would need to triple their votes to overcome the current difference.

  • Jonathan Krall

    “Regional planning is no more or less responsible than any other scapegoated target.”

    Responsible for what? I’m trying to understand what you are talking about.

  • Jonathan Krall

    Thanks for this. White Supremacy is baked into our society in so many ways that it boggles my mind. For example, the simple habit of police departments to both be aggressive against crime and avoid complaints from politically connected people leads to over-policing of marginalized neighborhoods. Without an explicit plan to avoid police exploitation of marginalized communities, this will continue.We can’t fix White Supremacy without identifying and discussing its many specific aspects, one at a time.

    The great thing about this situation is that empowering minority neighborhoods and investing in cities can go hand in hand. These are things that we should all want (at least those of us who are committed to defending democracy by pushing back against the White Nationalist agenda).

    Related, it would be great if we could agree that we want to invest in cities. Agreement on this point might lead to the many needed conversations about investing in cities to benefit all people instead of mainly rich people.

  • Jason Miller

    It is one thing to suggest that some countys are over or under-represented on the NOCA based on the overall populations within those countys, but it does not necessarily follow that this is because of racism. And if there was proportional representation of NOCA members based on the skin pigmentation of the wider community, does it follow that the decisions of NOCA would be any different? Some long bows being drawn here.

  • 1980Gardener

    I don’t see where racism comes into play. Rather, this seems to simply be a case of unequal representation based upon geographic area.

  • thielges

    Silicon Valley has a similar situation where advisory committees are generally composed of one member per participating city. Tiny, wealthy Monte Sereno (population 3,500) has the same voting power as San Jose (population 1,000,000). The result is the bulk of regional funds are allocated to projects located in the wealthier western half of the valley. The eastern half where a larger proportion of Latino immigrants live contend with more hostile road conditions.

  • Anthony Cherolis

    It depends on the metro area. Hartford-city is a minority majority city with 83% minority, and 17% white. Most of the suburbs in the Hartford MPO are less than 10% minority. Redlining and other structural biases played a significant role in concentrating poverty and minorities in Hartford in prior generations, and the MPO’s (and their board voting policies) date back from when those racially biased policies were in place. So yes, some metro areas were intentionally segregated by race and income, and setting up systems to maintain that inequality is a systemic bias.
    That systemic bias can be called racist in application – even if those participating in the system aren’t individually racist.

  • Anthony Cherolis

    That does suck. Must make it fun to get to public comment meetings.

  • Michael

    My principal concern with regional planning, beyond the systemic disenfranchisement by locating in corn field miles from the closest bus stop, is that I can be well read, interested in the topic and future of the region, and still find their materials entirely incomprehensible. It’s as if they’ve hired lawyers just to baffle the electorate into submission.

  • 1980Gardener

    Interesting. I live in the Hartford area and was not aware of that history. However, I only recently moved to the area from NYC.

    However, that speaks to past racism, not current racism as this article suggests about the board at issue.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    That’s not wholly accurate. Non-Latino whites are ~17%. Whites, including Latino whites, are ~30% (largely Puerto Rican).

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Over-policing of marginalized neighborhoods? You mean the ones where the vast majority of crime occurs? There are legitimate issues related to policing and minorities, but that isn’t one of them.

    I work in a majority-black city and the constant refrain is that more policing is needed in these marginalized communities where violent crime is concentrated.

  • Brandon

    Is there any more recent data. The Brooking report is from 2006.

  • aw82
  • Jonathan Krall

    I work in a racially mixed, but very segregated city. Yes people want police to respond to calls, but, no they do not want to feel harassed by police simply for walking or driving while failing to be white.

    In Virginia, statistics show that non-whites are more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, by a factor of 4-10, despite studies that say all races use drugs at about the same rate. If marijuana is a problem, and if policing is the solution, where are the complaints from the white neighborhoods? Instead, community leaders from minority neighborhoods, along with civil rights activists from all neighborhoods, are pushing back.

    Policing should respond to complaints and improve quality of life for all citizens. Maximizing arrests for the sake of maximizing arrests is not consistent with these goals.


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