In the old silo system, cities and suburbs often found themselves going head-to-head for the same housing and infrastructure dollars, with little acknowledgment that the decline of one would constitute a loss for the other.

The Ford Foundation is hoping to change that dynamic by pumping $200 million, over a five-year period, into regions committed to working collaboratively to make mutually-beneficial land use, transit, and housing development decisions.

Ford’s focus on megaregions isn’t new--the Obama Administration has mapped out a similar agenda with its Sustainable Communities initiative--but it is timely in an age when major metro areas have begun to bleed together both geographically and economically. 

The funding announcement, made before some 300 local, state, and federal leaders during a summit on how to revitalize communities decimated by the collapse of the U.S. auto industry, also marks a significant private sector foray into a planning world that has always relied heavily on government funding. 

“Economic growth requires that cities and suburbs work together,” said Ford Foundation president Luis A. Ubinas, noting that this next generation of grants will encourage contiguous municipalities to work together to address issues of affordable housing, infrastructure investment, education, and job creation.

“The notion that suburbs can thrive while city centers atrophy has proved damaging to our nation,” he said. “We now know that metropolitan areas share a common economic destiny. Metropolitan areas that manage to interweave urban and suburban development, everything from transportation to arts and culture, attract more people, and more investment.”

Ford officials expressed hopes that the new influx of cash will spark innovative pilot programs that can be replicated in other cities. Grants will also facilitate the expansion of existing Ford-funded programs that have blossomed and proven successful, including:

  • Public transit projects that connect residents to jobs and other opportunities, including the M1 rail in Detroit, the redevelopment of the Claiborne corridor in New Orleans, and the construction of 25 transit villages along BART in San Francisco's Bay Area.

  • Innovative affordable housing programs, such as “shared equity ownership” in New Orleans and Bay Area neighborhoods offering access to employment, good schools, and public transit. In this model, families receiving a public subsidy to buy a home agree to share the equity they earn with government, which then makes those funds available to another family.

  • The creation of regional land bank authorities in places such as Detroit; Flint, Mich.; and New Orleans, designed to revitalize blighted areas and increase quality housing opportunities. This effort includes funding for the Center for Community Progress, which provides training and technical assistance to municipal leaders on how to set up land banks.

Ford is also supporting the Living Cities collaborative, which unites financial and philanthropic institutions in building systemic capacity in cities.

"When we look at metro regions and see pockets of serious unemployment, but also pockets of employment opportunity, and disjointed transit systems that fail to connect people to the services they need and the jobs they seek, it's clear that a different approach is needed," said Pablo J. Farías, vice president of Ford's Economic Opportunity and Assets program.

"We can reduce poverty and unemployment and raise the quality of life for city and suburb-dwellers alike while making cities more competitive and sustainable. To achieve this, we need metropolitan regions to embrace a shared economic destiny. That's what this initiative is all about."

Jenny Sullivan is a senior editor for BUILDER covering architecture, design, and community planning.