Investing in Emerging Regional Institutions to Promote Equitable Climate-Ready Regions

By Catherine Ashcraft (University of New Hampshire) and Christina Rosan (Temple University)

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of the STATE OF THE FIELD – American Regionalism and the Constellation of Mechanisms for Cross-Boundary Cooperation symposium.

In this contribution, Catherine Ashcraft (University of New Hampshire) and Christina Rosan (Temple University) explore the potential for regional planning solutions to the climate crisis in a case study of two initiatives in New England. They note that climate change, like many wicked problems, is a complex set of issues that faces numerous political barriers, and that solutions are unlikely to be unlocked at one level of government. They see the region as an important scale to coordinate local action but aligning “problemshed” and “solutionshed” means thinking flexibly about defining that scale – this means adopting more creative solutions that do not necessarily rely on strong institutionalization. This doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about creating powerful regional institutions but that shouldn’t be our only focus. In the interim, there are many tools to make progress on wicked problems, such as climate change, at the regional scale. They argue that we should explore the network of institutions emerging in the U.S. that already “does regional work.” In short, this means leveraging the constellation of (regional) actors that can contribute to collaborative solutions and focus on coordination, learning about localized needs and capacities, and making impacts (no matter how small). Relying on such a broader network has the added benefits of tapping into and giving voice to local knowledge and experience and of creating opportunities to center social justice and equity through inclusion. The focus on the strength of informal relationships in this contribution has strong parallels with Lucky Anguelov’s exploration of networks that have formed around the opioid crisis in the Pacific Northwest, reinforcing the point that our focus on “formal” and “visible” forms of regionalism may be overlooking the important impact that ad hoc forms of regionalism can have. Together, these findings suggest that, in the absence of or in tandem with “powerful” centralized leadership or regulatory authority, some solutions to the wickedest problems – associated with housing, climate change, equity, public health, and more – may be effectively found in the humble and improvised comings together of existing actors.

The Challenge: Regions as contested planning spaces and opportunities for just climate resilience

In the U.S., governing our regions has always been complicated, but with climate, the need for regional solutions is amplified and more urgent. Given exciting new federal financial and technical assistance to support climate and justice actions that is becoming available through the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, we see exciting opportunities to amplify and expand existing regional governance efforts to make them more inclusive and increase regional resilience1. We argue for investing in and building on emergent climate regionalism as a pragmatic pathway of least political resistance and immediacy. We see networks of regional actors who are embedded in relationships with existing, trusted, democratic institutions and have a track record of success as natural leaders of efforts to center equity and justice in climate planning toward more fundamental and structural change. In this post, to illustrate the possible pathways for emergent climate regionalism, we consider two different cases in New England, the New Hampshire Climate Adaptation Working Group (NHCAW) and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), that on paper may not seem to have what we traditionally think about as “power”. This post presents our shared findings based on research and experiences with these organizations (Rosan 2016), which includes Catherine Ashcraft being a member of NHCAW.

Why Are Regions the Right Scale?

United States (U.S.) regions are already impacted by climate. To name a few effects: we observe more nuisance flooding in coastal neighborhoods, evacuation orders and unhealthy air in areas affected by wildfires, water cuts as droughts strain water supply systems, urban heat island effects, and school closings because buildings were not designed for prolonged, intense heat. Unfortunately, climate challenges exacerbate the inequities that have been built into many American metropolitan regions where your ZIP code determines both your environmental and climate vulnerability (Rothstein 2017; Blackwell and Treuhaft 2008). Metropolitan neighborhoods that were “redlined”, deemed to be high risk and undesirable for investment due to high percentages of Black, immigrant, or lower income residents (Rothstein 2017), today are “struggle spaces” (Rosan, Zerbo, and Heckert 2021) with less tree canopy, more days of excessive heat, higher vulnerability to flooding, and a greater likelihood of higher deaths from Covid-19 (Rosan and Heckert 2020). These communities will need more investments to prepare for climate. Fortunately, the financial and technical assistance designated for disadvantaged communities included in recent federal legislation provides new resources to respond to such inequities, but only if we rethink regional governance institutions.

The Region as the Problemshed and Solutionshed

Given the challenges we face and the opportunities presented by recent legislation, the region is a critical scale for thinking and action. The region is both a “problemshed” and “solutionshed”, an intermediary space defined by geography and issues in which individuals and groups contest and collaborate to identify political and environmental issues and address them through regionally framed institutional arrangements (Balsiger and VanDeveer 2010). To promote more regional solutions, planners have recommended new and stronger regional institutional solutions with greater authority to foster more effective and equitable climate solutions (Griffith 2000; Norris 2001; Termeer et al. 2011; Corfee-Morlot et al. 2009). An early version of President Biden’s plan to address climate and environmental justice even recommended the creation of regional climate resilience plans. We have numerous regional governance arrangements in the U.S.; however, they are often unevenly coordinated and have varying levels of authority and effectiveness (Rosan 2016; Barnett 2020; Nelles and Miller 2018, 2020; Klein 2015). Regional institutions can be formal, such as Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) in which local officials in regions of more than 50,000 people meet to decide on large-scale transportation investments. In other cases, regional institutions emerge through diffuse interactions of networks and practices that may not correspond to obvious boundaries or community identity (Paasi 2010; Allen and Cochrane 2007). In both cases, regions tend to be much less visible in people’s daily lives, in comparison to municipalities.

Why is Regional Governance So Difficult?

The municipal government continues to be the central political and economic unit that some view as more democratic, accessible and transparent for developing legitimate, place-based climate policies tailored to local knowledge, concerns and constraints. In comparison to regional and county approaches, people can readily see how engagement in municipal democratic processes connects to outcomes that impact their lives, such as local elections and budget decisions to support schools, libraries, public works, and police and fire departments. However, local land use decisions can lead to fragmented, inefficient, ineffective, and inequitable outcomes. Too often local land use decisions prioritize maximizing property tax revenues while ignoring scientific scenarios about how the climate is reshaping ecological constraints (Molotch 1976; Shi 2019; Logan and Molotch 2007; Mach and Siders 2021). For example, local zoning requirements for large lots or detached single-family homes prevent development of affordable housing, exclude low-income residents, exacerbate racial wealth gaps, and promote unsustainable suburban sprawl, habitat fragmentation, and climate vulnerability (Manville, Monkkonen, and Lens 2020; Rosan 2016). While wealthier communities and residents in a region may be able to pay to adapt, lower-wealth municipalities have limited budgets and staff capacity to respond and are less able to protect themselves in the same ways. Uncoordinated local efforts to reduce climate vulnerability in one place can also increase vulnerability in adjacent areas, for example through the construction of a sea wall that deflects wave energy.

At its best, regionalism presents an opportunity to be efficient, strategic, reflective, deliberative, and creative: critiquing past, current, and future conditions, recognizing the intersectionality among geography, time-scales and equity (Rein and Schön 2013), and allowing for learning and innovation (Dryzek 1990; Forester 2009). For example, when emergent regional institutions use a “regional equity framework” they can identify sources of inequity, promote institutional and policy change, build both communities of practice and political will (Blackwell and Treuhaft 2008), and avoid the pitfalls of reproducing injustice (Shi et al. 2016; Malloy and Ashcraft 2020). Efforts to expose regional inequity have already been at the foundation of some of the regional equity atlas work done around the country (see Bay Area Equity Atlas 2021); however, this work has been more exploratory than transformative of planning practice and resource distribution.

Critics of regionalism, however, contend that new regional approaches with greater authority threaten property rights, local autonomy, and democratic decision-making (Rosan 2016). Because of such opposition and the current polarized U.S. political reality, we consider it unlikely that new regional institutions with significant authority will be created or that existing institutions will be transformed immediately. Through a comparison of two case studies of emergent climate regionalism, we look for ways we can learn from, replicate, and amplify the network of existing institutions emerging in the U.S. that already “do regional work”, often under the auspices of “governance” or “working groups” rather than government, at the same time as we continue to work on new regional policy. In advocating for emergent forms of regionalism, we are echoing the calls of many before us who have advocated for seeing the value in “boundary crossers” and emergent forms of regionalism (Peirce and Johnson 1997; Institute for Sustainable Communities 2014). Rather than argue for the “voluntary regionalism” of the 1990s (Jonas and Pincetl 2006; Basolo 2003; Brenner 2002), we hope to capitalize on existing strengths through regulation and investments in regional institutions.

Looking for Clues: Analyzing Two Cases of Emergent Climate Regionalism

By comparing and contrasting two cases of emergent climate regionalism, we search for lessons that can be applied in other regions. NHCAW is an ad hoc workgroup that developed organically in the late 2000s among people who wanted to build on their past collaborative efforts, including efforts to manage the effects of growth and NH’s 2009 Climate Action Plan, to address climate adaptation. It connects representatives from coastal municipalities, state and federal agencies and partnerships, regional planning commissions, nonprofit organizations, consulting firms, and universities, to provide technical assistance, resources, facilitation, and guidance to NH coastal municipalities to prepare for the impacts of extreme weather and long term climate change (New Hampshire Coastal Adaptation Workgroup 2021). Its work is sustained by members who collaborate on grants and projects to support regional priorities and several member organizations that include participating in NHCAW as part of their staff members’ job responsibilities. In 2015, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Merit Award recognized NHCAW ​​as a model for how a regional collaboration can provide resources to communities to respond to climate change threats and influence state policy.

MAPC (Metropolitan Area Planning Council [Metro Boston, MA]) is a more formal regional planning agency established by Massachusetts state law to promote smart growth and regional collaboration in the greater Boston region. It is governed by members from 101 cities and towns, as well as representatives from public agencies and gubernatorial appointees. MAPC is not the MPO, but has a seat on the MPO and coordinates with it, particularly around data analysis. MAPC has a dedicated staff and works with local governments on regional issues and translates local needs into state policy advocacy. Even before Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a turning point in terms of recognition of vulnerability to sea level rise and other climate impacts in the Boston region, MAPC had a long history and track record of working as a policy intermediary on land use and environmental issues through partnerships with federal, state, and city agencies, universities, non-profits, and foundations.

Policy Milestones and Incremental Change

While the political discourse about regionalism is often about how to quickly create functional and effective regional organizations, regional policy change happens incrementally; it takes time to move from scientific understanding to democratic planning to adaptation actions. The examples below highlight the importance of sustained partnerships, a track record of small wins and successes, and the interplay between the regional institutions’ efforts, state legislation that provided guidance, authority, and funding, and municipal initiatives to develop locally-tailored solutions within a regional context. In the case of NHCAW, members contributed to discussions leading in 2013 to a bi-partisan bill establishing the NH Coastal Risk and Hazards Commission (NHCRHC), which is becoming a national model for how to approach coastal adaptation outside of large metropolitan areas. Building on recommendations in the Commission’s 2016 report, NHCAW members then led local vulnerability and risk assessments, such as the 2015 Town of Hampton Vulnerability Assessment, which mapped and visualized the exact locations of risk and brought the climate problem out of the theoretical realm into planning reality. Subsequent policy innovations included the 2019 Coastal Resilience and Economic Development Program, which permits municipalities to partner and share tax revenue to fund coastal resilience across jurisdictions and could promote efficiency and equity. Throughout these efforts, NHCAW members provided coordinated and focused hands-on assistance to act and implement important projects.

In the case of the Boston metropolitan region, we see similar policy milestones and the ways in which emerging regionalism is developed through synergies across governance scales. In 2008 Massachusetts passed the MA State Global Warming Act and MAPC announced its 2008 Regional Plan, which included plans to focus more on climate adaptation and hazard preparedness. In 2011, the Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Report was published by the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and the Adaptation Advisory Committee. MAPC was simultaneously working on climate adaptation reports at the subregional scale through a 2011 South Shore Coastal Zones Hazard Adaptation Study for the Towns of Duxbury, Marshfield, and Scituate. The study provides another example of the interplay between a state program that provided funding (the District Local Technical Assistance Program) and MAPC, a regional entity that is a trusted planning resource for local jurisdictions. Through the 2011 study, neighboring communities had the opportunity to think strategically about their shared climate future and the need for future collaboration for hazard adaptation and mitigation. Lessons learned from this experience helped inform MAPC’s future local adaptation planning with other municipalities and strengthened the case for future state funding to support more subregional, regional, and state efforts to consolidate climate adaptation learning.

These examples highlight how NHCAW and MAPC exist and evolve in a space between formal and informal, and are embedded in and responsive to larger political trends and policy signals set at the local, state, and national scale. Importantly, decisions by elected state legislatures and municipal governments protect democratic rights and confer legitimacy on the policy process. Unlike a centralized authority, emergent regional institutions typically add a layer of governance to existing arrangements without significantly challenging boundaries, allocation of resources, or decision-making authority. As a result, they can continue regional climate work even when there is a lack of state and/or federal leadership and funding for climate priorities and when local leadership may be weak and uncoordinated. Unlike voluntary organizations, these institutions are embedded in power through participants’ connections to federal, state, county and local officials. As a result, they can help focus federal and state funding on local projects that also benefit the region.

Facilitative and Convening Roles

Through convening regular, facilitated meetings and events, MAPC and NHCAW establish spaces that permit participants to show up, talk about climate issues, build capacity, coordinate research, policy, and action, and contribute constructively to coming up with practical solutions. In both cases, meeting facilitation is critical to guiding open and productive dialogue in a way that keeps discussions on track. Many NHCAW participants have training in facilitation and NHCAW members do a lot of facilitation at regular meetings and workshops. Since MAPC is the regional planning agency, it has a track record, a network, a history of convening and collaboration, and funds to support professional planners to facilitate meetings, conduct technical analyses, host regional visioning sessions, and disseminate policy findings so they can influence policy-making at the state level. Within both organizations, ongoing interactions over time that persist beyond single project time spans allow for relationship building and learning. Once a need is identified that is relevant across jurisdictions and scales, regional organizations with diverse networks of actors are in a good position to posit regional solutions that meet multiple communities’ needs and leverage participants’ different expertise and technical resources, legal authority, networks, and financial resources.

In fact, if we look back on the progression of these organizations we see how much they have grown over the years and adapted to changing understandings of the challenges we face and best practices to address them, which includes a focus on expanding who participates in order to connect and support the political capabilities of advocates at the intersection of climate and social justice. For MAPC, an expansion of their network to include more diverse stakeholders took place as a result of their application for the HUD-DOT-EPA Sustainable Communities grant that asked existing regional institutions to build multi-scalar networks with non-profits and other stakeholders who had not traditionally been involved in regional planning practices. As a result, MAPC expanded its network to include more activists and local leaders, particularly leaders of color. MAPC was then able to influence policy changes at the state level to support local concerns, such as the need to address “opportunity segregation”, the highly unequal opportunities available to residents of different communities, often on racial lines, for example by promoting state affordable housing policies (Reece et al. 2009). MAPC has increasingly highlighted regional inequity in its reports and documents, expanded the groups of people who participate in planning and outreach programs, and made it clear that there is a need for state-wide policy reforms. In fact, MAPC’s 2015-2020 Strategic Plan made advancing equity a strategic priority. As a result, groups that may have never thought MAPC was relevant to their work started to see connections to their work, the value of collaborating, and how MAPC’s models and technical expertise could be influential in policy-making and infrastructure investment prioritization. Similarly, NHCAW has convened recent events and begun conversations with social justice advocacy organizations to address a growing recognition that climate risks and adaptation and social justice require a regional lens and a more diverse set of regional partners.

Coproduce Knowledge and Shared Problem Frames

Both NHCAW and MAPC focus on education and advancing awareness of climate risk, or what Kingdon and Stano (1984) refer to as the “problem stream”, through dialogue, sharing best practices, and implementation. They then use the increased awareness, combined with past incremental successes, as the basis for building political support for and the legitimacy of proactive climate policy and action at local and regional scales. In both cases, the emergent organizations work with their members and communities to identify regional needs and vulnerabilities, i.e. to frame the problemshed, and facilitate connections between these needs and targeted scientific information, technical assistance, and funding opportunities to define the solutionshed, and share success stories.

Since its inception NHCAW has focused on learning events with coastal municipalities to gain and share information about personal and local experiences related to climate change, interest in making communities more resilient, and new tools and methods to meet needs. Researchers are invited to present and discuss their latest, often place-based research at regular NHCAW meetings, workshops, and its annual Climate Summit and hear practitioners’ and residents’ questions and knowledge needs. At regular meetings, NHCAW members share information and other needs they have heard from communities to see if there is interest from other members who have capacity to apply for research or implementation grants. The focus on sharing information and developing knowledge collaboratively through scientific and technical panels and visualizations, including Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, permits participants to petition policy-makers to focus attention on climate challenges. For example, NHCAW members participated in the NHCRHC Science and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP), which developed a consensus summary on published climate science for coastal NH. The participants first agreed to include only published federal agency reports and peer-reviewed scientific articles in their analysis  (Wake 2018). Other NHCAW members then brought this information back to municipalities to incorporate into design plans or to their networks to inform local business planning for climate adaptation. Five years later, NHCAW members contributed to updating the science about coastal flood risks and guidance for its use (Wake et al., 2019; NH Coastal Flood Risk Science and Technical Advisory Panel, 2020). This process demonstrates how the often contentious politics of talking about climate change can be reframed around shared problems and needs if participants make a commitment to sustained interactions, careful facilitation and strategies such as joint fact-finding. (Susskind and Ozawa 1984; Matsuura and Schenk 2016).


We argue that understanding the opportunities and constraints of emergent regional climate institutions, like MAPC and NHCAW, provides lessons for how to target investments effectively and justly in spite of planning and policy constraints. Based on our exploratory focus on two emergent regional institutions, we identified three interrelated mechanisms that we think should be expanded and replicated (Table 1).

Table 1. Mechanisms of Emergent Climate Regionalism

Mechanisms of emergent climate regionalism identified from the casesHow these approaches promote regionalism and climate justice
Policy milestones and incremental changeConnect and sustain policy action across local, regional, state, and/or federal scales
Link engagement and policy actions, with a focus on providing benefits to climate vulnerable and disadvantaged communities
Facilitative and convening rolesBuild or expand existing organized collaborations between researchers, government, and nongovernmental actors with different expertise, authority, capacity, and financial resources (1) across municipal boundaries and at different scales (local, regional, state, and/or federal) and (2) with diverse partners, especially from disadvantaged communities who are climate vulnerable and social justice advocacy organizations
Iterative collaboration and communication with partners throughout the process that includes support for engagement, for example through dedicated technical or financial resources
Co-produce regional knowledge and shared problem framesEngagement between experts and partners and other potential end users across jurisdictions and/or scales throughout framing of problem and developing knowledge, such as by participating in scientific and technical panels, GIS mapping, or design of data tools
Advance scientific knowledge about fostering legitimacy in regional partnerships, evaluating the impact of regional initiatives on interconnected climate and justice challenges, and effective policies to support regional climate action

First, emergent regional institutions work through sustained, incremental and multi-scalar policy changes over time that provide opportunities for stakeholders to build relationships and learn to work together. In many ways, this is the story of the tortoise and the hare: “slow and steady wins the race.” Second, they facilitate and convene discussions between organizations and people across jurisdictional scales and sectors, leverage different expertise, legal authority, and financial resources, coordinate research and action, build capacity, and expand partnerships to include more diverse stakeholders. Third, they co-produce regional knowledge and shared problem frames through a willingness to learn and think strategically about community needs and priorities and sharing of best practices and relevant scientific information. We are not arguing that these institutions are perfect or hold the one and only key to regional climate governance. But they are valuable institutions that have adjusted to meet new challenges and open new opportunities. And, importantly, in doing so, they are slowly changing the regional planning paradigm in meaningful ways by demonstrating the power of collaborative thinking and action.

We see a renewed interest in emergent climate regionalism opening up promising areas for future research.Given their less formal structure and connection to democratic accountability, an important question is how do emergent regional institutions foster legitimacy, for example through interactions between local, regional, state and federal policy frameworks, and by becoming more diverse, inclusive, and intersectional, for example through partnerships with social justice organizations that have fought for decades to challenge the status quo. Another question is how do we evaluate the impact of initiatives by regional climate institutions, for example through climate equity checklists or observable metrics (Rosan 2016; Woodruff 2018; Hughes, Geist, and Tozer 2020; Malloy 2021). A third promising research area is understanding how policies foster effective implementation of regional approaches, for example by encouraging the sharing of planning, funding, and other resources across jurisdictional boundaries and scales (Rosan 2016; Shi 2019; Woodruff 2018).

With the climate emergency, making U.S. regions climate ready and equitable is an enormous challenge. But time is short. As federal and state governments plan investments in environmental and climate justice, we need to act quickly to recognize, strengthen, and invest in practical, regional solutions that are already working. 


Thank you to Jay Diener, Abigail Lyon, and Roger Stephenson for feedback, to the editors and two reviewers for their comments, to Megan English for research assistance, and to the UNH Carsey Summer Scholars Program for partial funding for this research. Most of all, thank you to the NHCAW and MAPC participants who contributed their time, energy, and insights.


  1. Here we define justice as including how climate opportunities and vulnerabilities are distributed (distributive justice), who is represented in collaboration (procedural justice), recognition of the needs of vulnerable populations and systemic sources of injustice, and agency to shape decisions (capabilities). Justice and equity are frequently used interchangeably, although equity typically focuses on distributive justice. For a review of the literature see Malloy & Ashcraft (2020).


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For more information about how we are using language in this colloquium, see this link:

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