Regional Planning in Michigan: Challenges and Opportunities of Intergovernmental Cooperation Project

September 2001 - June 2006


Note: This project was active at CLOSUP from 2001 to 2006. The information below is for archival purposes.

This study represents one of the first academic efforts to systematically examine the factors that affect the formation and ongoing operations of regional governmental planning efforts related to land use issues. Michigan law (as with many states) allows numerous forms of regional planning, though state policy does little to actively encourage such efforts, and the state’s tradition of home rule creates strong disincentives for regionalism. Despite these obstacles, many efforts are taking place around the state to improve planning across political boundaries. Governor Granholm’s Michigan Land Use Leadership Council of 2003, for example, examined land use issues and recommended enhancements to state policies relating to regional planning. Locally, officials across the state are drawing together cities and their surrounding townships and villages to discuss how they might enhance their regional planning efforts. Surprisingly little is known, however, about the range of regional planning currently under way in Michigan or elsewhere. To help fill this void, the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP), under the direction of Professor Elisabeth Gerber, conducted a study of existing regional planning efforts across the state.

Through interviews with participants in selected regional planning efforts and surveys of county officials across the state, the study investigates how local governments in Michigan currently conduct cooperative planning; what kinds of arrangements work and what kinds are likely to fail; how participants in these arrangements assess successes and failures; how and why public, private, and non-profit sector actors participate in these efforts; and how these diverse actors might contribute to regional planning successes. Prior academic research on intergovernmental relations has identified potentially important differences in the factors that affect the initiation of collaborative efforts between governments versus the factors that affect ongoing cooperation. This CLOSUP study discovers a similar distinction among regional planning efforts. 

The study finds that participants from all types of regional planning efforts report valuable improvements in communication and information sharing among members. They report that key factors for initiating regional planning efforts include: the potential for cost savings; a climate of trust and collaboration; and the presence of strong leadership. Factors that help regional efforts sustain cooperation over time include: results and cost savings; political will; and cooperation, communication, and similarities of participating jurisdictions (in terms of size, resources, and goals). Conversely, participants point to turf issues, a lack of trust and information, changes in leadership, rivalries, and tensions between the goals of participants as factors that undermine intergovernmental cooperation. 

The Business Community

The study also addresses the role of the business community in these regional planning efforts. With turf issues and mistrust hindering much cooperative planning, chambers of commerce and other business organizations may be able to make substantial contributions by serving as credible representatives of the regional community. While chambers have no authority over planning, they can help bring together actors from local government units, speak on behalf of the region’s interests, and generate private sector support for a regional plan. For various reasons, however, chambers of commerce are often not formal members of regional planning initiatives. In these cases, chamber representatives can actively participate in public meetings to represent area business interests.

Types of Regional Planning

Four models of regional planning efforts emerged during the research. Individual regional planning efforts within each category share a number of important characteristics and face common challenges and opportunities. The four models include the following: 1) local cooperative planning efforts, which involve representatives from a village or city and surrounding townships, 2) county-local efforts, which are county-wide attempts to coordinate the planning activities of the numerous jurisdictions within a county, 3) multi-county regional planning efforts, which cover a wider geographic area and often have substantial resources available for regional planning (several serve as the metropolitan planning organization for their region and thus receive federal transportation funds), and 4) public-private specialized planning efforts, which focus on one or two regional issues, such as sustainable development or community health. So far, all four models appear to be capable of positive results, with the choice among models dependent on local goals and circumstances and the types of issues involved.


Despite numerous legal and political barriers, regional planning is occurring across Michigan, and has often been successful at achieving positive results. Lawmakers hoping to encourage regional planning would do well to focus on economic factors and tangible incentives for local actors. Local jurisdictions engaged in regional planning should work to foster a climate of trust and build systems that can survive changes in leadership. Business and other non-governmental organizations can be important players in successful regional planning efforts, but they may need to push their way into the process or it may occur without them – perhaps to the detriment of their members. 

For more information, see the CLOSUP Policy Report "Regional Planning in Michigan: Challenges and Opportunities of Intergovernmental Cooperation."