Regional Planning:
Past, Present, Future

Regional planning commissions in the State of Wisconsin are public agencies formed by executive order of the Governor. Wisconsin state statutes specify that regional planning commissions are to provide intergovernmental planning and coordination for the physical, social, and economic development of the Region.

Regional planning, as we know it today, began in 1959. However, there were earlier programs of State-inspired regional planning with significant accomplishments. For example, in the 1920s and the 1930s, Wisconsin state government included a high-profile regional planning program under the direction of a prestigious State planning board. This program dealt with the ravages of the depression, the industrialization of the urban economy, and the early stages of preparation for World War II. During the war years, the board and the regional planning program were phased out.

In the post-war period, unprecedented population growth and development occurred within the urban communities of the State. However, rural areas, particularly the north, were rapidly drained of population. This drain occurred primarily in the productive age groups, leaving a population base consisting of children to be educated and elderly to be cared for, but few residents in their prime income-earning years to pay the bills. As a result, community institutions began to suffer.

The current form of regional planning grew out of rapid development within metropolitan areas, creating a need for coordination of land use and infrastructure across municipal and county boundaries. At the same time, people with a deep concern for economic development and community facilities in rural Wisconsin saw regional planning as a way of allowing individual communities to team up. By doing so, they could combine their resources through sharing expertise and speak with one voice that would be more powerful than the individual voice of each community.

A single law was devised for regional planning commissions (RPCs). That law was designed to be flexible enough to serve urban metropolitan regions as well as sparsely populated rural regions. Regional planning commissions began to be formed under this law in 1959. Over the course of 15 years, a total of ninemulti-county regional commissions were formed serving 66 Wisconsin counties.

Over the 45-year history of the current regional planning movement in Wisconsin, the commissions have experienced several stages of development. In the early years, Federal funding helped sustain the RPCs, creating in some quarters an impression the RPCs were regional branches of Federal agencies and programs. During the mid-period of RPC existence, the State government once again instituted a State planning office and a department of local affairs and development whose mission included working through the RPCs to strengthen intergovernmental coordination and planning.

Throughout the early years of heavy Federal emphasis, the RPCs established a strong relationship with local governments. This was done in recognition that local governments ultimately are the place where most decisions are made regarding land use, resource management, and infrastructure. The local connection also reflected the fact that most commissioners of RPCs are members of and are appointed by local elected bodies.

By the mid-1970s, Federal and State funding for planning activities done within RPCs had declined. Today, State and Federal funding for planning work with RPCs amounts to less than 40 percent of aggregate RPC expenditures.

The remainder comes from local sources. Local funding primarily occurs in the form of general appropriations to support the ongoing data collection, planning, and coordination functions of RPCs. Local funding also comes from the specific purchase of services from RPCs to support particular local projects.

Over several decades, the RPCs have responded to changing community priorities. Today’s priorities are focused on comprehensive planning at the regional, county, and local levels of government, meeting in particular Wisconsin’s “smart growth” planning requirements that were put in place near the turn of the 21st Century. While not fully reflected in the State’s new comprehensive planning legislation, the RPCs did put forth a proposed system for coordinating planning at all levels of government (See AWRPC Profile Appendix A link).

This website profiles Wisconsin’s nine regional planning commissions. It points out the diversity of work efforts and the common thread of intergovernmental cooperation and teamwork. In some respects, the RPCs are the instrument through which technical expertise can be shared by dozens or even hundreds of local governments who could not afford this expertise individually. In other respects, RPCs are like the public library. They collect, catalog, record and make available maps and data. Hundreds of public and private data users call upon the RPC for basic information annually.

RPCs seldom receive much recognition for this basic function: like the library, we tend to drive by and take it for granted. When we need a book, we are grateful that the library is there, open and fully stocked with books and librarians who can facilitate our entry into the system. In still other respects, the RPCs are like associations of local governments. These associations are organized on the basis of geographic regions. These regions cut across and serve cities, villages, towns, and special districts of all kinds.

Over the decades, specific issues come and go, rising and falling in relative prominence. What remains constant is the need for localities within a region to have a regional voice and to have a locally controlled entity through which the sharing of ideas, information, and resources can be accomplished. The future for regional planning is bright. In virtually all parts of the State, innovative partnerships of public and private interests are working together for sustained, quality economic growth. Many of these partnerships are created by RPCs. Also, in many parts of the State, traditional intergovernmental conflicts are being addressed. Interested parties are coming to the bargaining tables. Often negotiated agreements are reached following regional planning commission facilitation. There is evidence in public proclamations by leading elected officials of a growing public acceptance of the need to act regionally.