Things I’ve Worked On: Regions of Scale

Regions of Scale

In many social and environmental justice circles, the term “economies of scale” is a byword for corporate greed and erroneous growth; private enterprises blindly pursue increased profit margins by increasing output, without regard for the negative externalities created in the process. Despite its frequent discordance with sustainable initiatives, however, economies of scale, as well as diseconomies of scale, can teach planners an important lesson about the value of scale in practice: there is an inherent reduction in per unit costs as the size of the producing system approaches proper calibration with the market. In other words, if we want to eliminate a specific issue, the scale of our solution (i.e., the region) should be proportionate to the issue, not the place. What makes regions of scale, if you will, different from economies of scale is that the reduction in costs created by their implementation extends beyond finances and into the realms of justice, time and ideas—three important consideration for professional planners when tackling the concept of livability.

The financial costs of work in the public sector are so inherent to the process that they are often overlooked in theory. At the Sustainability and Social Justice Symposium (SSJS) at the University of Michigan, the President-Elect of the American Planning Association, Bill Anderson, asserted the importance of fiscal sustainability. Planners need to think about how they are going to fund their ideas. They need to treat their plans as economic commodities. A plan should attempt to fund itself and lead to relative “societal profits” of sort. Like a commodity, then, a plan must be appropriately scaled to the “market” of the issues it is addressing. If an issue affects a region greater in size than the city, then the proposed solution should be greater than the city as well. Clara Irazabel, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University, provided an example of the dynamics of a solution to such a far-reaching issue—namely, pollution—during her talk at the SSJS. The rich of the world, those who consume and pollute the most, are not simply indebted to those around them; they are indebted to the poor of the world, those who consume and pollute the least by virtue of having the least. In this sense, financial attempts to solve pollution cannot be done strictly on a local level; it must be done globally, with the poor as creditors to the rich and the rich actually owing something to the poor (and the earth itself) for polluting the earth and depleting it of its resources. In Planning Ideas that Matter, Robert D. Yaro discusses a more common type of solution, metropolitan planning, in his article, “Metropolitanism” (154). He presents the example of the Commonwealth of Massachussetts’ solution to addressing regional infrastructure needs by creating the Metropolitan Water and Sewer Districts, rather than addressing issues on an individual-city basis (159).

Because the goals of an area extend beyond its economic return, however, it is here where regions of scale depart from economies of scale. Once regions of scale lead to relative economic prosperity, the next step is realizing tangible socioeconomic benefits from said prosperity. Clara Irazabel argued at the SSJS that this connection is vital. Prosperity and equality are codependent; you need one to achieve the other. Harnessing this codependence positively is possible only if thinking is done from a greater regional perspective. For example, in a general sense, Oakland County is the primary benefactor of Metro Detroit’s economic successes, whereas Wayne County is the recipient of its economic woes. A quick comparison of the poverty rates puts Oakland County at 8.7% and Wayne County at 21.4%. The economic prosperity of the Metro Detroit region is not equally distributed, and the codependence between economic prosperity and equality is clearly interrupted there. If planning were to supersede county-level decision making, however, this imbalance could begin to be remedied. Local positive economic returns could turn into farther-reaching welfare returns.

Time, like injustice, is another cost regions of scale reduce. Unlike injustice, however, time is an issue that is largely invisible to those who are unaffected by a particular issue. The mentality of “they can wait” is easy to have when a person is disconnected from a problem. The fact is, however, time is a real cost for those suffering, as Majora Carter, an environmental and community strategist, reminded us with Doctor King’s words in her talk at the University of Michigan: “I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”). The issue of time can begin to be addressed via a regions-of-scale outlook. In her speech at the SSJS, Margaret Dewar, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at University of Michigan, discussed time lags arising due to the tension between Detroit’s initiatives to improve neighborhoods and community-based efforts. Problems like these occur because competing plans are not appropriately scaled to the issues they are addressing. From a regions-of-scale perspective, community-specific problems merit community-specific solutions. The city’s efforts, then, should focus only on the places that are not being proactively targeted by the community. In this way, less time would be wasted with conflicting efforts, and solutions could be achieved faster.

The final and perhaps most nuanced reduction in costs from a regions-of-scale perspective pertains to the concept of ideas. Clara Irazabel argued that planners are often trapped by what they believe. They are limited by their experiences and unwilling to look at alternative options. Within the traditional understanding of planning, certain ideas are dismissed simply because they do not fit a conventional framework. If the regions-of-scale outlook were more widespread, this problem would be greatly assuaged or nonexistent. Ideas that transcend city boundaries would not be ignored simply because they do not fit specific and largely impractical criteria.

Everything is connected. The boundaries between cities are, to a significant extent, relics of the past and austere formalities, and to believe we should think along these lines would be a grave misjudgment. We should instead harness the power of these interconnections à la regions of scale. At the symposium, Harley Etienne provided a parable about the value of understanding issues in scale. While in office, President Clinton was responsible for increased rice production in Arkansas. This led to a significant inflow of rice in the Haitian market, which in turn forced a mass exodus of farmers to Port-au-Prince to look for work. In 2010, an earthquake devastated the poorly constructed and overly populated city, killing hundreds of thousands. President Clinton may not be guilty of manslaughter, but he is certainly guilty of choosing to ignore the systems beyond his country’s boundaries.

It should be said that regions of scale are easier to theorize than to create, particularly in the United States. Treating a plan as an economic commodity also highlights the problem of market competition—territoriality—a point that Robert D. Yaro discusses. He identifies “entrenched localism,” characterized by “ a…strong tradition of localism and home rule, and distrust of distant (including metropolitan) public authorities,” in addition to “the city-suburb divide” and “anti-urbanism” as among the multitude of factors that make ideas such as regions of scale difficult to practice (157).

All things considered, as planners and as thinkers, your ideas have to saturate in their properly sized market. Do not let a city’s border define the limit of your vision. Likewise, do not force an idea to reach areas that do not need fixing. It is not simply a matter of planning regionally in a traditional sense; it is understanding the region of effect of an issue and responding appropriately. Certainly, there are some issues that need to be addressed regionally, but there are also some that need to be addressed locally. Majora Carter serves as a shining example of the latter. In her hometown of the South Bronx, she has been remarkably successful in creating positive local changes for the community, including but not limited to the creation of a river-side park in place of an illegal waste facility.


Sanyal, Bishwapriya, Lawrence J. Vale, and Christina D. Rosan. Planning Ideas That Matter: Livability, Territoriality, Governance, and Reflective Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012. Print.

“Wayne County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau.” Wayne County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2012. <;.

“Oakland County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau.” Oakland County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2012. <;.

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