A Matter of State

NEA design director Jeff Speck launches a program to improve regional planning—by educating governors.

Americans have a long history of being a mobile people. And while this willingness to travel once translated into pulling up roots and relocating—packing up the wagon and going West or following the job when the factory moved South—it now means crossing borders and city lines daily: living in one municipality, commuting to work in another, and entertaining oneself in yet a third. Legislators have noticed this trend and realize they must think more holistically about geography and urban planning. Likewise, civil servants are discovering that they must coordinate their efforts with neighboring jurisdictions, particularly as towns share resources and participate in projects that cross city, county, and state lines.

Jeff Speck, director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), is addressing these changes. In his role at the agency, he oversees two leadership initiatives, the Mayors’ Institute on City Design and Your Town: The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, both of which teach the power of design as well as design skills to municipal authorities. Speck has now announced details for a third educational initiative—the Governors’ Institute on Community Design.

Four Governors’ Institute sessions are slated per year, beginning this December; each will be tailored around specific governors, their cabinets, and the groups’ regional planning needs. The one-day events will take place in or near each governor’s capital city.

Speck, who served as director of town planning at the Miami firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company before assuming the NEA post, is an unabashed supporter of smart growth. Metropolismag.com editor Julie Taraska spoke with Speck about the impetus behind the Governors’ Institute and how it will work, as well as the economics of sprawl.

What gave you the idea to start the Governors’ Institute?
The idea came from two lines of thinking that converged. The first was witnessing the success of the NEA’s Mayors’ Institute on City Design. Here is a program that, eight mayors at a time, has exerted a huge influence on the look and physical form of the American city.

One of my first jobs when I arrived at the NEA was to investigate the effectiveness of this program. I called up a bunch of alumni mayors—after 19 years there are almost 700 of them—starting with the ten who are either governors or in Congress. All told me that their three-day Mayors’ Institute workshop was one of the best things they did while in office. But better yet, almost all of them had at least one story about a specific physical change that had happened to their city as a direct result of the institute—serious changes like: “We reconnected to our waterfront” or “We stopped that highway.” The lesson I took from all this was that programs can be very effective if they bring knowledge to people in power, even if only in brief increments.

The second line of thinking came from my experience as a city planner. At the local level your hands are often tied by decisions made above you, usually at the state level. These decisions make it difficult to build anything but sprawl. If regional planning is to have any teeth at all, it cannot be accomplished on the local level since our regions cross many jurisdictions. So this all pointed to the governors as a good place to look for leadership.

How many governors will the program visit each year?
With our funding and the EPA’s generous match, we are initially planning on four institutes a year. Each will focus on a single metropolis—which in most cases occupies one or two states—and is imagined as a breakfast-through-dinner retreat with the governor and his or her immediate cabinet. Each attendee will be matched with an appropriate expert that we bring in. We will have a former governor for the governor, a community-based schools expert for the Secretary of Education, a narrow streets expert for the Secretary of Transportation, and so on.

Have you identified any states or governors that you’d like to approach to take part in the program?
I won’t name names, but we are most interested in states that are far enough along to want us but not so far along that we can’t make a big difference. Any program that is only one day long has to focus more on inspiration than on education, so there is no point in preaching to the choir.

Where do you foresee the resource-team experts coming from, the government or the private sector?
We are working with our co-operator, Smart Growth America, which won the bid to administer the program, to identify our dream team. But suffice it to say that we know who we want, and they come from every sector.

What sort of follow-up would the governors be offered?
Each institute is imagined as a three-step process, with the event itself framed by limited prep work and follow-up. The prep work is essential because it will allow us to identify where the state needs improvement; the follow-up will focus on bringing home the issues raised that are at the institute and directing the state officials to other national and local resources.

When we were cooking up this program I went to visit Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution. He’s probably the national leader on state policy as it relates to sprawl. I was afraid that [the Governors’ Institute] would be something redundant. He made it clear to me that, yes, there is already plenty of research, documentation, and publication on these topics, but what’s missing is inspiration.

Smart growth is an underlying principle of the program, but its value is still debated in some circles. How will the program help a governor who opposes smart growth or has a constituency that does?
It’s sad that the term smart growth turns certain groups off because in its literal meaning it describes what we’re after. But certain enemies of smart growth claim that it’s about increased government control. In fact smart growth is about removing the barriers that prohibit anything but sprawl. In any case, we’re smart enough not to focus on that term, and we have also won support for the program from governors and former governors on both sides of the aisle, including Parris Glendening (D-Maryland), Christine Todd Whitman (R-New Jersey), and Angus King (I-Maine).

Whatever you want to call it, there isn’t a thinking politician or citizen who believes development turns out better if it is unconsidered. Most people are well aware of what random growth looks like, and they’re ready for something better—especially the state economists, who see the costs. I am confident that once we’re up and running, governors will convince each other of the program’s value.

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