April 1 2006

What makes a community strong, vibrant and attractive as a place to live and work? This question is important because, in our global economy, companies and individuals today can locate almost anywhere. In 2006, community vitality may matter more than ever.

(April 2006) Quality of life and quality of place are major factors in every aspect of Pennsylvania’s future. Community vitality is a prerequisite and a complement to economic competitiveness. A high quality of life is essential to attracting people and employers, especially those needed for the economy of the 21st century, and it’s important to keeping people and employers in Pennsylvania.

Demographic patterns foretell a disturbing future for Pennsylvania. A glimpse at the state’s demographics reveals this trend: in spite of all that the Commonwealth as a whole has to offer, maintaining community vitality is a problem in much of the state, and people can “vote with their feet” by moving.

Pennsylvania’s is an aging population -- and one that is growing very slowly. Perceived economic and social conditions – even the weather – could be big factors that drive Pennsylvania's growth trends. For more on demographic trends in Pennsylvania and a closer look at regional patterns, read this IssuesPA Article. And while some factors influencing community vitality are outside the purview of government, others do fall under its authority and influence.

What’s the role of municipal government in community vitality?

Local governments can’t control the weather, but they can influence many other factors of community vitality. But Pennsylvania has over 2,500 municipalities -- each with considerable authority over economic development, transportation, land use, and public safety within its borders. The result? Fragmented systems of planning, communications, protection, and land use policies, and inefficient and uneven service delivery.

The state – both its citizens and its broader economy – would benefit from more coordination among municipalities within a region, including integrated police protection, tax collection systems, economic development, and land use and growth planning.

State government has a role in creating incentives for regionally-based coordination among municipalities. And local governments also have an important role: putting aside limited thinking within municipal boundaries and considering the region as a whole -- its people, its economy, and its geography.

Public safety may be a good place to start. Experts believe that first, people must feel safe. Without a sense of safety, other factors of community life such as arts and culture, diversity, infrastructure, and land use and planning hold little sway. The events following September 11, 2001 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina provided a stark illustration of what happens when there isn’t a coordinated communications system among emergency service providers. And already there are local governments in Pennsylvania experiencing positive effects from consolidating police services.

What’s state government’s role?

Leadership and incentives.

The primary role for state government in promoting quality of life is leadership. That leadership could involve offering incentives for regionally-based economic development and planning, leveraging private money, and investing in local projects with a strong plan and proven approach. Strategic use of funds is more important than total dollars spent in dribs and drabs.  

What are other potential roles for state government? Consider the following:

Housing. Pennsylvania is hampered by the lack of a housing policy. State government could investigate housing policy examples in other states and focus state investments in areas where the market doesn’t work on its own.

Environment. The state must play a necessary role as regulator. Further, the state could foster regional collaboration and partnerships by helping facilitate regional initiatives and requiring regional thinking from applicants for environmental grants and loans. 

Bottom line?

Community vitality may be difficult to define, yet in these early years of the 21st century it’s an issue policymakers and candidates cannot ignore. Local governments should look beyond the provincial boundaries and think and act regionally. State government should create more incentives to encourage regional thinking.

The result could be a more efficient and more coordinated approach to planning, service delivery, and development that better reflects the way Pennsylvanians live and the economy works in this global century. In 2006, who will step up and lead on this issue?