OVER THE last decade,

"regionalism" has been a mantra for many business and political leaders. Housing and policy consultant Karen Black has a smart analogy for why this mantra has not exactly led to nirvana - and, in the process, suggests a way we should align our expectations.

"When I think of regionalism, I think of moving in with my sister." Black loves her sister, but her analogy resonates with any adult considering sharing a roof with a sibling: shared DNA doesn't necessarily make sharing resources - or power - palatable.

As executive director of the now-defunct Metropolitan Philadelphia Policy Center, Black authored a 2001 study called "Flight (or) Fight" that documented the region's failings - low job growth, poverty, vacant housing and sprawl.

Conducting hundreds of interviews throughout the region, she was struck by the reactions to the term. "People in the suburubs heard 'regionalism,' and they thought of it in terms of having to give everything to the city. Some people in the city associated it with suburban people coming into Center City for concerts or dinner but not really caring about the city."

"Flight (or) Fight" pointed out that the five-county region has 238 municipal governments. Consider that many elected officials have two-year term limits, and the idea of creating a stable group of leaders to work on long-term solutions gets difficult.

Yet Black sees that this moment may be different, not because things are going well, but because they're going so badly. Severe budget problems could lead to new expectations and solutions for problem-solving across county lines.

Recently, Tom Brokaw opined about it in the New York Times, saying it's time to change inefficient practices and systems of small-town governments across the country:

"Every state and every region in the country is stuck with some form of anachronistic and expensive local government structure that dates to horse-drawn wagons, family farms and small-town convenience . . . it's time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today's realties rather than cling to the sensibilities of the 20th century."

- Sandra Shea