Regionalism is About Place Making
What is regionalism? Judging by the way it’s often used in Milwaukee, regionalism would appear to be the notion that new projects should be built further and further away from the City of Milwaukee to serve Waukesha County residents. Case in point? The planned engineering school expansion by UW-Milwaukee to be built in western Wauwatosa in what can only be described as “suburban style”. It’s also used as a way to reconcile the flight of businesses from the region’s urban center.
If the goal of regionalism is to create a stronger region, then moving items out of the urban core and building them in a car-only suburban style sprawled across Greater Milwaukee is a sure fire way to fall short.
But how will Milwaukee succeed at regionalism? Place making. Creating attractive, walkable nodes across the region that expand upon instead of undermining the existing core of the region in downtown Milwaukee.
How will the Milwaukee region create place in locations that are well-located, but poorly designed such as Innovation Drive near the Zoo Interchange? By creating the regional governance units that regionally adopt solid land-use planning and deliver access to jobs and resources. An example of a regional government units that could deliver on such a level, is the recently reformed Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority. SERTA is responsible for creating the KRM commuter rail line, a rail line that could spring nodes of transit-oriented development all the way to the Wisconsin-Illinois state line. Transit-oriented development would not only create sustainable, both economically and environmentally, communities in Racine and Kenosha, but would also connect Milwaukee residents with jobs in Wisconsin and Illinois. It would accomplish this all without hollowing out downtown Milwaukee and the surrounding neighborhoods like the construction of the freeway system did (along with a handful of other factors).
In the coming water debate with Waukesha, Mayor Tom Barrett and the Common Council will need to weigh the pros and cons of allowing Waukesha access to Lake Michigan water. Can it be done in a way that is a win for the urban heart of the region as well the suburbs? Will it grow the overall wealth of the region? I would argue that without increased transportation and land-use planning concessions from Waukesha, it can not, but we’ll see what the elected officials think.
The notion that a rising tide lifts all boats is a key to regionalism. We can’t simply relocate companies to shiny new facilities in other cities in the region and call that growth. But we can attempt to attract new companies to the region, and have it as a win for the region provided we have a sound regional transit system to connect people and solid land-use planning that is focused on creating a sense of place. Likewise, it’s good for the region as a whole not to attempt to block developments within an individual city that will better allow people movement (the Milwaukee Streetcar) or create a sense of place (Shorewood’s steady development of Oakland Avenue into a more urban street).
If Milwaukee is to win as a region, it’s going to have to attract smart people and retain the ones we have. We’ll need the region as a whole to be working together on regional governance issues such as transit and water to achieve that. And cities within the region will need to fight their own internal battles to make themselves a valuable part of the region, be it MPS failing in Milwaukee, or increased teenage drug consumption in the suburbs. All the while working to create destinations that offer enough of a sense of place to attract people in the first place.
As CEO for Cities President Carol Colleta puts it, “if we’re going to promote regionalism—and we should—we need to go in with eyes wide open, knowing that we undermine regional strength when we fail to invest in making vibrant places. When in the name of regionalism the only politically correct meeting place is at an expressway off-ramp, we are consigning ourselves to ever more sprawl. For fear of putting a stake in the ground that any one place in the region matters more than others, we doom our regions to having no places of distinction.”
It’s no small task, but the people of the Milwaukee region can get this done, one issue at a time.