Re-assessing ‘City Limits’ in Urban Public Policy

Aaron Deslatte
Florida State University
adeslatte@fsu.edu


Abstract


Urban public policy continues to explore the problems of urban growth and decline in a multi-disciplinary fashion, focusing multiple theoretical lenses on questions of governance and division of authority as well as the practical applications for areas of policy specialization. This paper reviews recent articles on income, housing, and racial/ethnic stratification, which share a common link of mobility-based prescriptions. It also reviews the role sustainability, equity and cultural norms play in scholarship. The field is moving in a direction that integrates classical rational choice and sociological explanations for policies addressing sustainability and equity, the role of cultural identity in urban renewal efforts, and long-standing problems of citizen participation in government decision-making.

Key Words

urban public policy, urban politics, sustainability, regime theory, pluralism, gender issues, equity


Introduction


Urban affairs scholars have been battling for relevance on the periphery of the social sciences for most of the field’s existence. This article reviews the recent progress of urban public policy researchers in turning the criticism of “balkanization” of research specialization into prescriptive applications for governance. It also examines theoretical advancements in exploring the lifespan of cities, or what Bowen and others call “the changing realities of evolving human settlements” (Bowen, Dunn, & KasDan, 2010). The aim is to assess progress toward developing both policy recommendations and general theory for the patterns of growth and decline within cities. The review covers research published during the previous five years (2010-2014), although some seminal work predates that timeframe. Four inter-related themes emerge from the literature: empirical analysis of the philosophy of mobility in delivering urban goods and services to disparate community groups; increased focus on sustainability and equity; the influence of cultural identity on urban renewal efforts; and problems associated with garnering citizen participation in government decision-making and community support for policy goals. The next section outlines theoretical criticisms and advancements within the field along with research into policy prescriptions of mobility. The second section details future directions for the field of urban studies.


CITIES IN GRIDLOCK


The Border Wars of Urban Studies

Do city limits still matter for the study of public policy? Cities still charge taxes and pave over potholes. Local governments remain visible in the daily experiences of the citizenry. Yet, central cities were long ago classified as a vestige of the urban system, as the ills of racial/ethnic stratification, job flight to edge cities, exclusionary housing patterns and income inequality metastasized into regional problems. Extant research on urban disinvestment and public participation demonstrate the scope of the problems. Elite civic participation is declining as community ties to center cities strain (Hanson, Wolman, Connolly, Pearson, & McManmon, 2010), and modes of citizen participation often fail to overcome the complex challenges of daily urban life (Carr & Tavares, 2014). At the same time, the field of urban studies has a history of difficulty maintaining more than peripheral attention within the social sciences. “Mainstream” political scientists began to abandon the field in the 1980s. Urbanists who stayed became devotees to rival “schools” clinging to particular urban forms. Members of the “Los Angeles School” of urban studies argued the dominant form of human settlement was an ungovernable, gated-off, calcified pocketing of wealthy and poor communities, an “antidemocratic residential apartheid” (Dear & Dahmann, 2011). Meanwhile, followers of the “Chicago” and “New York” schools focused on the concentric circles and political eccentricities of their own metropolitan regions, while urban scholars sandwiched in all places in-between were seemingly relegated to specialized border skirmishes over the “contested terrain” of urban studies (Judd D. R., 2011). Cities have remained a focus of fascination for scholars, yet urban outcomes appeared mired in mystery. Urban decline has motivated policy entrepreneurs and researchers alike to prescribe mobility as a remedy to educational failures, income and racial stratification and blight. As globalization of production, manufacturing, distribution and employment coupled with transportation, technology and housing changes have all fueled regional migration (Moos & Skaburskis, 2010), some argue the city limits have become an outdated concept, surpassed by an idealized global metropolis in the practice and study of urban service delivery (Martinez-Fernandez, Audirac, Fol, & Cunningham-Sabot, 2012).

Conversely, does urban public policy research matter much to cities? It has been 33 years since Paul Peterson famously lamented that urban studies had retreated from asking big questions relevant to democracy, into a policy-specific “multiplicity of feudal barons” left to “till fields of little concern to the larger world” (1981). Scholars later lamented that urbanists have become “end time profits” (Judd D. , 2005) and because the field had failed to advance beyond Clarence Stone’s “Regime Theory,” urban scholars were trapped in a “black hole” where "[n]o ideas escape the event horizon surrounding urban politics; furthermore, ideas from outside rarely penetrate the subfield’s borders" (Sapotichne, Jones, & Wolfe, 2007). Noting that the orthodox pluralism of Dahl (1961) has receded and been supplanted by economic explanations of urban political decision making (Peterson, 1981), regime theoretic views of capturing governing capacity (Stone, 1993), and polycentric regulation of common-pool resources (Ostrom, 1990), they argue for more attention to forming consensus on broader questions and theories applicable to mainstream political science. In the years since, urban researchers have done a fair amount of introspection on the lost status. Orr and Johnson argue the decline in interest is attributable to the flight of urbanists to other research areas, a decline in funding for federal urban programs and policy research under the Reagan Administration, and the “social danger” of reinforcing stereotypes through research on racial inequalities and prejudice (Orr & Johnson, 2008).

But it seems the city has not fallen. More than half the world’s population lives within cities. Urban land cover is projected to triple by 2050 (Angel, Parent, Civco, Blei, & Potere, 2011). The rapid urbanization of the planet presents a multitude of ecological and societal dilemmas over issues such as housing, transportation, energy use, pollution emissions, and income inequality. On many fronts, researchers over the last five years have made inroads in re-energizing research agendas focused on problems of inequalities between groups which are context-rich and externally valid. These emerging trends focus theoretically on blending the economic and social explanations for policy output, in the context of the re-conceptualization of urban revitalization, sustainable development, and social equity. While researchers are still interested in democratic questions about the amalgamation of power and who holds it, researchers are incrementally building and testing theories of urban policy processes through the field’s unique multidisciplinary lens. Perhaps for lack of paradigmatic consensus, the broader arena of urban studies – a multidisciplinary field incorporating geography, economics, urban planning, public administration, political science, and sociology – has continued in recent years to buttress itself as a problem-oriented field organized around “urban settlement systems” and the political, economic and regulatory social processes influencing them (Bowen, Dunn, & KasDan, 2010).

Decayed Urban Cores and Mobility as Prescription

Since the federal government began de-emphasizing urban policy interventions in the 1980s, the field has come under greater influence from “a liberal philosophy of mobility,” which holds that increasing mobility could be a panacea for addressing urban problems of poverty, unemployment, housing, education and racial imbalance (Bickers, Salucci, & Stein 2006; Imbroscio 2011). This view focuses on the perceived failures of local governments to address the multitudes of service demands from constituents. It is motivated by an expanded public choice envisioning of the Tiebout model which expects that policies encouraging competition between local governments for public goods will lead their more efficient and effective allocation (Howell-Moroney, 2008). Beyond individual benefits, an emerging research agenda focused on “smart decline” is challenging the idea that population decreases are always negative for cities themselves. Driven by the Great Recession, some urbanists have coined the term “shrinkage” to describe policy adaptations to “right size” service-delivery in cities losing population (Oswalt & Rienients, 2006). For instance, Hollander finds through an exploratory analysis some evidence that resident perceptions of quality vary widely among cities shedding population, but that perceptions of high-quality are not the sole purview of growing urban areas (Hollander, 2011).

Educational Choice

Research in recent years has focused on the drivers of social fragmentation and NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard), and relationships between population sorting and innovations in the delivery of services, most notably education. School voucher programs have continued to proliferate across the country utilizing mobility to engender incentives for public schools to make learning gains or risk losing funding, although it remains an open question as to whether they affect degrees of socio-economic and racial stratification within communities. Utilizing Monte Carlo simulations and data from Colorado schools, Carlson finds evidence that the state’s inter-district school choice program slightly increases socio-economic stratification but has the opposite effect on racial stratification (Carlson, 2014). The results suggest differences between the participants themselves, rather than heterogeneity of options for schools they can choose, explain more of the educational stratification. The simulation trials suggest stratification may be more related to initial conditions of income, racial and education segregation within communities, but that policy design matters: choice programs targeting lower-performing students, or an equal proportion of low- and high-performing students, may reduce stratification witnessed in Colorado’s school system. The majority of the scholarship devoted to educational mobility policies have utilized the student as their level of analysis, which a smaller subset look at the impacts on the public school systems. At the same time, an analysis of policy feedback by Fleming suggests that parents in the Milwaukee school system whose children receive school vouchers are more aware of government activities, more politically active, yet less supportive of public schools (Fleming, 2014). While not conclusive, some progress has been made in recent years to help incrementally demystify urban education policies at the center of discourse over the future of the urban poor. In future years, educational segregation should continue to be a focus of work, similar to the effort by McVeigh, et al., to study linkages between education levels, segregation and the prevelance of Tea Party organizations in U.S. counties (McVeigh, Beyerlein, Vann, & Trivedi, 2014). Their work found higher education levels and educational segregation were positively associated with the number of Tea Party organizations active within communities.

Racial/ethnic stratification

Racial and ethnic divides remain a strain on service delivery in modern American cities. Methods for remediating racial inequalities in income, housing and education have been animated by the notion of mobility. U.S. metropolitan areas are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse and integrated. Even though whites continue to live predominately in racially homogenous neighborhoods, they have experienced higher rates of diversification in recent decades (Wagmiller Jr, 2013).

Yet scholarship from multiple perspectives has advanced our understanding of the dynamics of stratification in urban neighborhoods, and how federal, regional and local policies may ameliorate these conditions. In particular, work at the neighborhood level examining the multi-level effects of economic and demographic conditions hold some potential for more precisely depicting the mechanisms contributing to stratification. Jun, for instance, finds municipal-level factors such as racial/ethnic homogeneity in mid-sized cities are positively associated with better neighborhood economic conditions, although the causal implications of the findings are just as disturbing as they are unclear (Jun H.-J., 2013).

Anderson and Sternberg analyze the racial contours of redevelopment policies in Chicago, and find “urban redevelopment governances,” or collections of city officials, developers and financial institutions, respond differently to neighborhoods based on their heterogeneous and interactive “racial economies” (Anderson & Sternberg, 2013). Comparing predominantly African-American and Mexican/Latino neighborhoods in Chicago targeted for redevelopment, the authors compare how different racial conceptualizations between the neighborhoods influences their development trajectories. The idea behind racial economies is that the actors and institutions involved in redistributing benefits in a political economy are shaped by racial representations, but also interactively change these perceptions. In both neighborhoods, the authors find the redevelopment interests sensitive to the unique “traditions” of idealized Mexican and African-American heritages which influence development patterns.

Racial and ethnic identification have also been shown to play a role in assessments of the economic future of cities experiencing ethnic turnover in their mayoralty (Filindra & Orr, 2013). Research into the “strength in numbers” thinking about racial politics has also grown more nuanced. For example, Rocha and Matsubayashi find evidence that in Latino communities, the relative presence of Latino noncitizens in negatively associated with equitable policy outcomes, while the number of Latino citizens is positive correlated (Rocha & Matsubayashi, Latino Immigration and Representation in Local Politics, 2013). In an institutional context, this negative relationship between noncitizens and policy outcomes for all Latinos is mediated by the presence of Latino representatives and citizens.

Housing policies

Efforts to combat urban poverty have for decades promoted homeownership as a method for wealth accumulation among the urban poor. Policy prescriptions have often resulted in incentives to move inner-city families into more homogenous suburban neighborhoods as well as redeveloping poverty-laden public housing into mixed-income units. In a special issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs on the present and future directions of urban research, editor Laura Reese conducts a keyword search of article submissions to the journal and finds housing and neighborhood inequality to be among the most frequent over the prior four years (Reese, 2014). Clearly, urban migration is driving research questions into quality-of-life and the social equity implications of mobility. Yet, the evidence is mixed as to whether such policies have been successful.

Mobility plays a role in the organizing logic of programs like Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing Demonstration, a federal program in the 1990s intended to help extremely poor families with children escape dangerous living environments. The program targeted mostly African-American and Latino families living in the nation’s worst neighborhoods, assisting them in re-locating to safer locales with access to better schools. While the program produced no evident reduction in adolescent mental health and delinquency problems (drug use, smoking and violent and property crimes) among boys, it showed strong improvements with adolescent girls. While the findings have been controversial, Popkin, et al., argue the noticeable improvement in outcomes for girls could be attributable to reduction in the “female fear” of sexual harassment, coercion and rape (Popkin, Leventhal, & Weismann, 2010).

Racial and ethnic sorting has long been understood to play a clear but non-linear role in the deterioration of central cities, evidenced by deteriorating urban housing stocks and rising vacancy levels in many cities. Black and minority populations initially stepped in to fill vacancies as populations migrated to the suburbs, but were unable to completely fill the gap from out-migration. Older urban centers with disproportionate population and job losses suffer from unique vacancy and abandoned “zombie” property mixes that stymie neighborhood rejuvenation (Silverman, Yin, & Patterson, 2013).

Research on urban homeownership policies has focused on two rationales: that they foster distributive justice for low-income minority communities, and that they produce positive externalities such as Putnam’s concept of social capital (2000). Social capital is an umbrella term for the community cohesion from shared relationships and social networks build on trust and reciprocity. Such studies have often found mixed housing efforts have failed to develop social networks (Curley, 2010). Some housing policies subsidize lower-income minority migration to higher-quality housing in the suburbs, although recent research suggests over-emphasis on asset accumulation through property ownership can lock in inequalities among racial and ethnic underrepresented groups when home values fail to appreciate more at the same rate as in predominately white neighborhoods (Anacker, 2010). However, homeownership efforts have also been shown to improve the caliber of post-move neighborhoods encountered by homeownership program beneficiaries, suggesting the programs produce some selective benefits for participants even if they do not by themselves level the social playing field for underrepresented groups (Santiago, et al., 2010).

Conversely, Allen (2013) finds evidence that involuntary mobility following home foreclosures has a disruptive effect on households with children in public schools in Minneapolis, MN. Allen’s study found those households staying within the public school district were more likely to move to areas with higher poverty and segregation post-foreclosure. However, the study’s inability to control for many potential confounding factors such as household size, employment status, and housing vacancy rates makes it impossible to draw conclusions about the broader policy prescription of homeownership for solving urban inequalities, let alone the effectiveness of policy interventions such as adjustable-rate mortgages and relaxed consumer credit score requirements for loans.

Another study by Fraser, et al., of the federal House Opportunities for People Everywhere Program (HOPEVI) found that efforts at inducing replacing public housing with mixed-income units to induce socioeconomic mixing can produce marginalization of public housing residents by their higher-income neighbors. The positive effects advocates of mixed-income housing espouse – social networking that can lead to better jobs and increased wealth – may remain more illusory than expected (Fraser, Burns, Bazuin, & Oakley, 2013). Analysis in this area finds residents in such HOPEVI neighborhoods are still more likely to associate with those in which they have commonalities (Chaskin & Joseph 2010; 2011; Kleit 2011). Another research effort studying the experiences of residents of Toronto’s first mixed-income redevelopment project suggests that problems still persist, particularly power imbalances between low- and middle-income neighbors, as well as conflict over defining public space, and modes of surveillance and exclusion (August, 2014).

Transportation

Research into the hollowing out of cities also continues to develop along spatial and urban design dimensions. Cities most impacted by loss of population density and white flight – particularly Detroit – have drawn more academic attention. In one study of six neighborhoods within Metro Detroit – four more affluent and two lower income inner-city neighborhoods – Vojnovic et al., capture the relationship between the decline of neighborhood, modes of travel and access to amenities such as grocery stores, coffee shops and restaurants. The research identifies predictable patterns between neighborhoods with greater population density, mixed land-use and connectivity, with shorter distances to amenities and higher travel frequencies (Vojnovic, et al., 2014). Urban disinvestment in Detroit is particularly acute in access to grocery outlets, and Detroit’s lack of public transit options plays a role in limiting the ease of access of lower-income neighborhoods to cultural amenities.

The failure of Metro Detroit to collectively resolve its regional transportation problems in the 1960s has given rise to a critique of regionalism which holds that state and federal grants may not be a sufficient condition to foster successful regional governance. Nelles chronicles the 40-year failure of the Detroit metro area to develop a regional transportation system (Nelles, 2013). Despite numerous pledges of funding for metropolitan public transit, the federal government has had to renege in the face of the inability of Detroit city and suburban officials to forge a workable regional plan. Nelles argues collaboration between local governments in order to draw federal funding was insufficient to produce success. Following in the work of Weir, Rongerude and Ansell (2009), Nelles concludes stronger “horizontal” and “vertical” governance capacity is required for Detroit to overcome its past failures, and points to indicators such as federal mentorship and a more activist civic class offering to pay local matching funds as potential factors which could change the city’s mass transit course.

While this bundle of “classic” urban problems revolving around location and mobility remain a locus of attention for urban scholars, the failure of federal policies to address national and global problems has widened the spectrum of activities in which localities may engage. This is posing new avenues for research and rekindling interesting in urban studies.

Developments in Institutional Analysis of Urban Affairs

While the federal government’s urban interventionist era may have ended, the age of government gridlock at the national level has not. Responsibilities for myriad functions have devolved to local governments sue to the failure of national policies. As local and state governments have filled this void, urban research has been invigorated. For multiple reasons captured by the Bowen et al content analysis, the urban studies research agenda has become more varied in methodologies and policy reach due to the specific interests of the subfields of its scholars (2010). This epistemological retrenchment coincides with greater recognition of the multi-government and multi-sector reforms in urban service delivery (Brown, Potoski, & Van Slyke 2010) and the challenges to traditional public choice and regime theory explanations for how institutional actors coordinate to supply public goods (Frasure & Jones-Correa, 2010).

An example of the increased attention paid to the evolution in local governmental service delivery is the Institutional Collective Action (ICA) framework (Feiock 2013). ICA focuses on the overlapping nature of governmental units and why they may choose to collaborate to provide some public goods and not others. It borrows from the collective action to frame the choice to collaborate by local actors in the face of fragmentation and externalities. The framework provides a typology for matching the “scale and coerciveness” of intervention with the shape of the policy problems, while accounting for the ICA dilemmas of “larger-than-local” problems for fragmented jurisdictions as well as overlapping or redundant hierarchies focused on the same problems. In one empirical treatment of the framework, Gerber, Henry and Lubell find evidence that California localities are more likely to collaborate in regional planning when their constituents share similar political preferences, and thus one way for overcoming such ICA problems may hinge on “political homophily,” (2013).

Classic rational assumptions have also been challenged by other institutional approaches. In a study of how localities deal with NIMBY problems associated with day laborers, Frasure and Jones-Correa argue that the partnerships developed between elected officials, bureaucrats and nonprofits to confront immigrant newcomers overcomes traditional rational-choice and regime coalition expectations for decision-making. This “logic of institutional interdependency” challenges traditional rational assumptions that governmental actors will pursue unitary economic development and growth policies. They argue these varied actors in some contexts band together to provide redistributive policies benefiting the under-privileged when costs are divided and credit-claiming opportunities shared.

Scholars in this sense are focusing more attention to the values and principles of policymakers, drawing attention to a wider range of social justice, ethical and moral concerns articulated by decision-makers. Schumaker and Kelly find evidence that city council members establish “floors” for welfare spending and seek to maintain such funding levels even in periods of economic stress, seemingly at odds with the rational-economic arguments about policymaker behavior in cities (Schumaker & Kelly, 2013).

Social Network Analysis in the City

One methodological advance in recent years is the analysis of network structures. Network analysis is rooted in sociological institutionalism, and is finding wider application in urban governance situations. One way network analysis has been employed in urban studies is to differentiate between policy networks in which actors sharing norms and beliefs attempt to influence policy design, and the study of implementation networks made up of organizations delivering public services.

Network analysis also has the potential application for the rational choice underpinnings of classic regime theory. Regime theory has a rich tradition exploring relationships between individuals, and the division of labor between governmental and private sectors which over time allows the development governing capacity (Stone, 1993). Network-based research is the study of structure of relationships, and holds promise for the illumination of patterns of urban decision-making processes (Robins, Lewis, & Wang, 2012). For instance, Henry tests whether ideological similarity or resource dependencies and power relations better explain collaboration between individuals in California transportation and land use planning regions (Henry, 2011). Henry finds stronger evidence that ideological similarity explains collaboration, although resource dependencies may also exist within those networks. Page advances a theoretical differentiation between rational choice and sociological institutionalism explanations for governance with a study of Seattle’s Light Rail system (Page, 2013). Within the context a mass transit project, he examines whether public choice and principal-agent theories – which assume actors have divergent interests and information bases – are a better fit for explaining major project developments than the sociological institutions stream, which emphasizes interactions based on shared beliefs and norms. Page’s process tracing via interviews, public records and media accounts suggests the theoretical perspectives work better in tandem to explain rational and social variables in policy design and implementation. Each theoretical tradition explained some, but not all, of the major turning points in the project development, he noted.

Re-constructing Pluralism

Whether through areas of non-profit implementation or the advocacy role single-issue agents, the Peterson notion of “groupless” policymaking in local governments has come under broader assault by a wide range of research endeavors examining the role of group-based organizations in city politics, particularly in areas of environmental sustainability and development (Berry and Portney 2013; Connolly, et al. 2013; Fisher, Campbell and Svendsen 2012).

How urban policymakers define their clientele is also shifting, concentrated around distinct and dispersed racial or ethnic enclaves, neighborhood associations, community organizations, and employment hubs that cross municipal jurisdictions. There are more decision-points, potential political vetoes, opportunities for agency, and institutional friction in policy outputs thanks to efforts at engaging citizens in decision-making and the “flattening” of hierarchical governmental agencies through outsourcing backroom functions and front-line services and competition. Malatesta and Smith test the extent to which competition in cable franchise agreements with local governments lead to more concessions of in contract terms in New Jersey following a state-level policy change, or exogenous shock. They find evidence that the perception of increased market competition for cable services in influenced by state-level policy (Malatesta & Smith, 2011).

Scholars have continued to coalesce around alternative methods for service delivery that cross municipal borders in the face of urban “shrinkage” where populations are increasingly sorted by race, ethnicity, income, employment and education. They argue development and growth, while still central motivations for actors within cities, are no longer a singular “regime” because cities are also directing more focus to the classical externalities of energy waste and pollution. Pluralism can be re-constituted by emphasizing the greater role that “diverse ethical and political principles in community politics” play rather than an over-simplistic treatment of group power which may be less reflective of the modern metropolis. In many instances, these motivations of policymakers may be considered “groupless issues” where classic pluralistic explanations of “who gets what” have relatively less leverage (Schumaker P. , 2013).

As the focus on intergovernmental collaboration, networks and regionalism has grown in importance to researchers and practitioners (Feiock 2007), urban policy research has increasingly become dichotomized according to the problems faced by rising and falling cities. One common denominator is an increased attention to sustainability initiatives – how well or poorly declining cities utilize new technologies to redevelop deteriorated areas, foster community buy-in, rejuvenate their tax bases and attract new residents, along with whether burgeoning metropolitan areas are compromising their economic growth to confront the environmental and ecological impacts (Bulkeley & Kern 2006; Kousky & Schneider 2003).


NEW DIRECTIONS FOR URBAN PUBLIC POLICY



Sustainability and Equity in Urban Studies

Sustainable urban development has come to occupy a bridging position between camps of scholars concerned with issues of equity and service delivery, land use and planning, environmental protection, and economic development (Fiorino, 2010). The term sustainability is usually defined as a measure of the capacity for society to maintain a quality standard of living without degrading the natural systems that support human settlement (Mazmanian & Kraft, 2009). However, that definition is not without its problems. Some scholars have identified a lack of conceptual clarity behind the term as city officials pursue “sustainable polices” which may places greater emphases on questions of urban design, economic development or social equity (Zeemering, 2009). Sustainability presents unique contextual challenges for cities, but also shared dilemmas in meeting the growing demands for water, housing, expanded and improved transportation infrastructure, education, food supply and energy. As such, sustainability is usually conceptualized along three dimensions of social equity, environmental protection, and economic advancement (Paehlke, 2013). These often-conflicting aims can lead to policy trade-offs between public officials, businesses, and environmental groups. The inability to adequately preserve natural spaces and resources poses classical distributional fairness questions of who gets what, as well as problems of inter-generational equity as urban infrastructure degrades and green spaces disappear (Portney, 2013). At the same time, all three dimensions can also present opportunities for more equitable distribution of public goods, from green-jobs incentives to urban infill and “greening” efforts, walkable access to parks and recreation resources, and reduced pollution and solid waste. Improvement of manufactured spaces is an economic objective with implications for redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods. Water quality and supply demands are also a “wicked problem” drawing collaborative partnerships with non-governmental agents in order to address non-point sources of pollution which can impact communities disproportionately across the social spectrum (Morris, Gibson, Leavitt, & Jones, 2014).

Evidence of the Three “E’s” in Sustainability

Research examining social equity has suggested American cities often neglect or ignore this dimension of sustainability in favor of environmental and economic pursuits. Yet, for the last decade, increased attention has been paid to social injustices and environmental inequities across racial/ethnic, income and temporal dimensions (Vig & Kraft, 2013). Using International City/County Manager Association survey data, Opp and Saunders conduct correlation analysis with indices they develop to capture environmental, economic development, and equity policies (Opp & Saunders, 2013). Their findings suggest local governments with more diversity, particularly higher Hispanic populations, score higher on their sustainability index. Cities located in the West also score higher. But the study does not directly test hypotheses of why cities engaged in serious climate action are also accounting for equity and economic considerations, or not.

Efforts such as Philadelphia’s “Greenworks” initiative to lower energy use, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, improve air quality, increase walkable access to healthy food, and add “greened acres” to manage storm-water are examples of governance strategies that combine growth needs, equity, and environmental stewardship (Dews & Wu, 2013). Urban sustainability initiatives are being rapidly developed and deployed globally in the face of population growth, the expected urban migration of 3 billion people by 2050 (United Nations Population Fund, 2011), and the beginning of a new era of resource scarcity leading to greater collaboration between the governmental, non-profit and business sectors (WBCSD, 2014).

Sustainability is also a multi-level governance question with state, federal and international institutions, economic and physical forces at work. Some attention has been paid to differences in incentives for regulatory, voluntary and collaborative approaches to land conservation (Tang & Tang, 2014) as well as decentralized and collaborative service-delivery mechanisms (Feiock 2013; Lubell, Feiock, & Ramirez de la Cruz 2009). But with cities as the primary focal point of climate-change policies, scholars are laboring to understand basic processes and how they relate to environmental outcomes (Ramirez de la Cruz, 2009). Here, there is an emerging consensus that sustainability policy tools such as energy efficiency measures, compact development incentives, and greenhouse gas reduction inventories and reduction-targets are not uniform in their social and political costs, and communities’ actions are not unitarily constrained by financial needs. Political economy explanations for sustainability policy output are also continuing to develop. Hawkins (2011) analyzes why Massachusetts municipalities apply to earn incentives through “smart growth scorecards” identifying the intergovernmental planning tools and policies they have adopted. The study finds support for resource dependency arguments that cities in better financial condition will be less likely to participate in the program, and those with greater business and neighborhood group presence will adopt fewer smart-growth policies (Hawkins C. V., 2011).

Still, the politics of growth is dimly understood in terms of business influence over environmental policy and public officials’ responsiveness to varied community needs (Feiock, Portney, Bae, & Berry 2014; Krause 2011a). The motivators of city sustainability policy action could tilt anywhere between altruism and economic opportunism based on the multi-dimensionality of the types of policy tools considered “sustainable.” Cities are generally more willing to adopt “win-win” policies characterized as the “low hanging fruit” of green governance, unless confronted with greater hazards such as sea-level rise (Wang R. , 2013). Another analysis by Sara Hughes of California urban water agencies that join voluntary environmental programs are no more likely to reduce per capita water use than public utilities which do not join (Hughes, 2012). Hughs concludes voluntary programs may not be useful for resource protection without stringent performance measurement and third-party enforcement. Yet, this often reduces the likelihood of local government commitment to such programs. And as prior research suggests, these findings are not uniform. Still, KoskiKoski and Lee find evidence that when local governments increase their commitments to “green buildings,” private actors are more likely to follow suit (Koski & Lee, 2014). This so-called “policy by doing” influence is stronger for local government actors than state or federal actions, and suggests even climate-protection actions deemed “symbolic” can have positive externalities within a community.

The political, economic and institutional determinants of local government climate actions arethe subject of tremendous activity even if they remain motivationally enigmatic activities. Sharp, Daley and Lynch find that the fiscal stress positively influences the likelihood of joining climate-change networks such as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI). The authors speculate this may be explained by city manager-run governments’ interest in containing energy costs (Sharp, Daley, & Lynch, 2013). However, Krause finds in a survey of climate action in Indiana cities that adopting GHG goals through network membership is a poor predictor of actual implementation of GHG-reduction goals (Krause 2011b). Many of these studies involve unrepresentative samples of cities from one state. However, some scholars are attempting to develop an integrated nationwide database of city sustainability actions which holds the promise of establishing stronger claims of external validity for local government actions (Feiock, Krause, Hawkins, & Curley, 2014). Lastly, the extensive sustainability work focused on climate change mitigation is not complete without mentioning climate adaptation and resiliency, and the voluminous amount of work being engaged in to prepare communities worldwide for the challenges of climate change expected in coming decades (E. Lisa, Ayers, Reid, Huq, & Rahman, 2014). Adaptation will likely become increasingly transparent in urban research in the coming years as cities begin making larger-scale decisions based on change climates and resource depletion. While the worst of climate-change adaptation is expected to occur in developing regions, these are also communities with the least capacity for adaptation. While much of the climate-change adaptation work is being conducted outside the realm of urban politics and policy, urban capacity-building for sustainability has gained some traction in recent years.

Capacity for Sustainability

Little, if any, of the extant sustainability research examines the effectiveness of policies adopted. Another stream of recent analysis has looked beyond the basic question of why local governments commit to sustainable policies, and focused on the extent to which cities are developing the fiscal, political, technical and managerial capacity to implement and maintain sustainable practices (Wang, Hawkins, Lebredo, & Berman, 2012). If sustainability is the capacity to preserve biophysical spaces human civilization depends upon without reducing the quality of life, than identifying and measuring types of organizational capacities to reach this state of natural equilibrium is a critical stage of scientific advancement. Organizational capacity can range from the technical expertise required to implement and enforce GHG-reduction targets to curb greenhouse gas emissions. It can include the managerial capacity to oversee grant-awards and apply inclusionary zoning tools or impact fees to curb sprawl. It also encompasses the political ability to build stakeholder and citizen support for smart growth goals. Those “capacity-building” interests extend beyond traditional universe of urban political players – the mayors, business elites, unions and policy entrepreneurs -- to city administrators, community organizers, neighborhood councils, and virtually every concentric circle of urban governance. Recent literature has honed in on the gap between what scholars have long documented in the determinants of urban decay and fiscal stress, and systemic empirical analyses of such capacity-building.

These research efforts viewed cumulatively raise the possibility that a cogent research agenda built around sustainable growth and equitable distribution of public goods could supplant mobility as a new philosophical grounding for urban studies.

Cultural Identity, Toleration and Urban Revitalization

One sign of the emergence of a more holistic theoretical view of urban systems is the recent competition between economic, political and cultural models for explaining policy output. This has produced some encouraging empirical work examining the role of women in the workforce, religious participation, support for the arts, degree of inclusion of gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual communities in decision-making, and other cultural contextual variables in studying the policy outputs of urban systems (Rosdil 2010; Scott 1997; Sharp 2007). This can be traced to the arguments of Putnam (1995), Florida (2004) and others emphasizing the influences of trust, social capital, and diversity in spurring economic growth. Although Florida’s “creative class” argument has come under attack for lack of empirical support, some studies have nonetheless found cultural variables influence attitudes and urban policy output (Deleon & Naff, 2004).

Urban studies have continued to explore problems through the prism of gender and sexual orientation. Alozie and McNamara find evidence in a survey of Phoenix, AZ, residents of a modest gender gap in willingness to pay for public services, with women slightly more willing to do so along a spectrum of 28 difference services (Alozie & McNamara, 2010). RochaRocha and Wrinkle explore gender and ethnic effects on public policy through an analysis of the democratic representation of disposed subgroups of traditionally disadvantaged electoral groups. Specifically, they test whether the presence of Latina women on Texas school boards is more strongly associated with support for bilingual education policies (Rocha & Wrinkle 2011). They find that contingent support for bilingual policies is stronger when the percentage of Latina board members is higher as opposed to higher percentage of Latino board members, although both subgroups are positively associated with support for the policies.

Economic development justifications have also been extended to urban policies such as child care which also have gender equity and justice benefits (Warner & Prentice, 2013). Rather than narrowing the policy space of social rights, Warner and Prentice argue in an analysis of 90 studies on child-care policies that casting of the programs in terms of beneficial “social infrastructure for economic growth” is an innovative development that broadens opportunities for gender justice.

Urban leaders are also turning to arts-focused strategies for urban development, and predictive models for where cities can focus efforts to foster arts-centered redevelopment policies have emerged from case studies (Ryberg, Salling, & Soltis, 2013). These efforts imply that encouraging artist cohabitation in areas with high vacancy rates could be viable for medium-sized cities often overlooked in the discussion of arts-friendly metropolitan hubs. Evidence is aired showing how internationally, tools for promoting urban cultural spaces or “creative industry clusters” are utilized for both urban growth and governmental revenue generators (Zheng, 2010) . Lastly, Budd, et al., find evidence that both “a moralistic cultural heritage and strong social capital” are correlated with cities’ sustainability efforts, adding cultural dimensions to the previously discussed environmental and economic development incentives to pursue green policies (Budd, Lovrich, Pierce, & Chamberlain, 2008).

This sampling of scholarship represents the potential for richer research agendas accounting for a dynamic and complex policy space that empirically captures the changing landscape of cultural norms and nonconventionalism. One new framework developed from this shift in thinking is a “typology of spaces” in urban settings and their relation to the types of tolerances in given cities (Chiodelli & Moroni, 2014). This adaptation of pluralism recognizes tolerance has not just a phenomenon produced by social sorting, but a product of the types of interactions between individuals within social spaces. In other words, the different degrees of interaction required by different, more shared public spaces may influence the levels of tolerance. As such, the sub-categories of public and private spaces within urban areas can be a fruitful way to operationalize the degree to which forced interactions relate to whether tolerance is morally required out of recognition that people are fundamentally due respect, or prudentially desirable to reduce conflict and smooth over societal rifts. In this sense, tolerance can be conceptualized via a spatial dimension.

These studies raise intriguing questions about the potential for diversity and tolerance to affect re-alignments of coalitions for exercising political power. When economic conditions change, the presence of more varied and autonomous social cleavages could mean policymakers are more likely to respond to ideological or lifestyle preferences than purely political-economic business pressures (Rosdil, 2010). In other words, the de-industrialization of cities means re-thinking the classic growth regimes as policymakers become more responsive to quality-of-life and social issues. To what extent does postindustrialism in cities which have seen manufacturing employment sectors decline render older theories of clientelism obsolete? Does it augment or supplant urban political economy? A key question since the 1990s has been whether this so-called “New Political Culture,” defined by citizen sensitivity to women’s and gay rights, environmentalism, abortion and other issues, is restricted to urban settings that share higher levels of affluence and education (Clark & Hoffmann-Martinot, 1998). Or, can the rise of cultural politics generally augment political-economic explanations for policy decisions in less-affluent cities, too? Some scholars argue the postindustrial trends are leading to the creation of New Political subcultures generally, although the empirical testing of such hypotheses has been limited so far. Others go so far as to consider cultural amenities a new form of development policy which is replacing the “smokestack chasing” economic-development strategies of the 1970s (Horrigmo, 2013). Horrigmo’s analysis of Norwegian cities’ cultural spending finds evidence that cultural variables including secularism, unmarried households, and tolerance have more power to explain spending on cultural amenities such as libraries, cinema, sports infrastructure and museums, than traditional political and economic variables. In the U.S. context, Owens finds evidence in a statewide survey of Georgia that willingness of people to support regional goals and resource-sharing is influenced by their religious affiliations and salience of religiosity. Specifically, adherents to more liberal religious traditions, such as Black Protestants and Catholics, were more supportive of regional goals such as air, water and green-space protection. Collectively, these “culture explaining culture” findings highlight the need for developing more generalized empirical modeling that incorporates cultural influences into political and economic analyses of urban growth.

‘Back to the Basics’ in Urban Governance

Urban studies has found a renewed energy and purpose has scholarship has focused on new service obligations municipalities are confronting. But the future of the field may also be one in which a re-focused effort is placed on the basic functions of successful local governance. Elaine Sharpe argues that areas such as public infrastructure and policing are ripe for a “back to the basics” approach for urban politics (Sharpe, 2014). She makes the case that public infrastructure systems (roads, sewers, bridges, etc. ) remain the vital physical means for delivering public services, they are in subpar condition in the United States due to under-investment, and climate change impacts on cities may require that they be re-engineered in the future. Sharpe continues that urban policing has been ceded to the topically specialized criminal justice field, in which political variables of interest to urban politics scholars may be omitted. From an equity perspective, both topics would benefit from renewed data collection on how infrastructure placement and policing activities relate to communities of racial minorities.

One potential future strategy for tackling this research challenge would be to organize inquiry around the relationship between people and spaces. Scholars are increasingly curious about how diversity and equity may be related to the often limiting or oppressive physical spaces of cities (Frug, 2014). A framework developed by Kim et al., takes into account the sociological influences of “place” and “space” in differentiating the geographical coordinates of neighborhoods from the “people, practices, objects and representations” which become “emplaced” within it (Kim, LaGrange, & Willis, 2013). The Kim et al. framework combines the sociology of place with environmental criminology, improving upon the “broken windows theory” of gang violence and why criminal activities are more likely to remain entrenched in certain neighborhoods. They argue crime committed closer to the offenders’ place of residence is more likely to be “expressive” in defense of home turf or perceived ego challenges, and therefore more violent, than “instrumental” criminal activities aimed at material gain. These types of innovative theoretical applications have obvious public service delivery import for deployment of differential crime prevention strategies, from public lighting and cameras for discouraging the materially motivated space-based crime to increased community policing for place-based crimes. But they may also provide an avenue for examining why some citizens choose to engage in the policymaking process and others do not.

Another classic question is the time-honored question of how to engender public participation in governmental decision-making. Community participation has been long viewed as an important component of overcoming poor urban service delivery by more effectively communicating “street level” conditions to elected officeholders and administrators (Berry, Portney, & Thomson, 1993). Civic engagement is also one of the byproducts advocates of “community building” efforts in inner cities have espoused for decades. Yet, community participation mechanisms have also been criticized for being theoretically and empirically naïve. In a study of three Chicago mixed-income housing developments, Chaskin and Joseph argue that arrangements intended to foster resident participation “seem largely to reinforce rather than break down divisions” between renters and owners, and low- and high-income neighbors (Chaskin & Joseph 2010).

Citizen participation organizations, according to critics, represent a “local trap” due to their propensity to over-represent higher socioeconomic status (SES) classes, thus affording higher-income enclaves more avenues to make their preferences heard (Purcell, 2006). Jun and Musso (2013) present evidence that contradicts Purcell’s “local trap” thesis, which expects local participation organizations will advantage the property interests of middle-class homeowners. By analyzing 4,000 meeting agenda items from neighborhood councils in Los Angeles, the authors find evidence that neighborhood councils in both high- and low-income neighborhoods confronted undesirable land-uses, even though the membership of LA’s neighborhood councils was considerably wealthier, more educated and composed of more Whites than the mean resident of Los Angeles. Although the validity of the findings should be explored in other areas, the insight that disproportionate representation within community organizations by higher socioeconomic classes may not result in diminished agenda-setting ability for lower-SES groups is an important advancement.

Trounstine finds evidence that cities with low-turnout institutions including early voter-registration requirements, different municipal election dates from federal levels of government, and polling-location ambiguity are associated with higher proportions of incumbents running and winning re-election (Trounstine, 2013). These low-turnout environments demonstrate policy outputs that are beneficial to particular community subgroups.

Access to local government information also has an effect on voter turnout. Fila and Johnson study the influence on local news coverage of municipal elections in municipalities within Los Angeles County and find that restrictions in access to news coverage are associated with lower voter turnout (Filla & Johnson, 2010). Specifically, they use a media market filter to examine the dearth of local government news coverage in communities without their own local outlets. Respondents living outside Los Angeles whose communities have daily newspapers are more likely to vote than those who do not. Answering the questions of how to engender public interest and engagement in urban decision-making – as an elector, gadfly, community organizer, protestor or adviser -- will undoubtedly remain a critical yet cumbersome research focus in future years.

Conclusion

Mobility remains a dominant feature of policies aimed at solving the plights of urban settlements. Yet scholarship is moving toward establishing systemic research interests around the concepts of cultural development as urban revitalization, sustainability and equity in service provision. Urban research has found new life as cities have confronted new challenges. It has also returned home to classic questions of who governs and how well cities handle the basics. These research veins are increasingly inter-related as metropolitan regions accelerate collaborative efforts to share services and reduce externalities, steer economic development back toward urban power centers, and as inner cities blend economic growth objectives with the growing demand for sustainable development of energy, food, water and other resources. While urban studies remains “contested terrain” theoretically, research continues to coalesce around prescriptive solutions to problems for both growing and shrinking cities.


Biography

Aaron Deslatte is a doctoral candidate in the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University. He will begin work as an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University in Fall 2015.


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