Urban scholars have been focusing on local government sustainability policies and activities for more than a decade. But by and large, we have only just started to understand why government actors are engaging in the wide range of activities which fall under this definition. The literature itself can be somewhat unwieldy, attempting to either explain a broad swath of policy adoptions or isolated areas like land-use, energy, or climate-change mitigation or adaptation. In an Urban Studies article I wrote with co-author William Swann at the University of Colorado Denver, we attempt to advance our understanding of urban sustainability by synthesising extant empirical findings to gauge progress made towards developing theoretical insight, and then testing a nonparametric predictive model that helps overcome methodological challenges in this literature.
We find that although organisational capacity appears to be the most important predictor, the broad range of activities grouped under the banner of ‘urban sustainability’ rely on distinct causal mechanisms, and use of composite models and measures of sustainability may hinder theoretical advancement.
In essence, the causal mechanisms which explain investment in community development or social inclusion do not necessary explain other areas of urban sustainability activity, such as efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. This calls for a deeper, and more nuanced examination of these policies -- which, we should add, is already underway by a number of researchers, and could help us to better understand whether local governance can hope to avert many of the greatest sustainability challenges we face in the decades ahead.
CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- I came to Cape Town anticipating a water shortage three years in the making. Here a week, it’s seldom stopped raining.
The story of the world’s first modern metropolis to nearly run out of drinking water is an illustrative case study for cities everywhere confronted by the normalization of climate change impacts and the intransigence of its politics. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already familiar with the situation here. Hugging a corner of the south Atlantic coast expected to see less and less rainfall in the future, the 4.3 million people who live here were told last fall that water levels in its reservoirs were falling critically low. Absent a dramatic conservation or natural intervention, “Day Zero” would hit in April 2018, and the taps would be shut off. Citizens would be limited to 50 liters of water per day, and collect their rations at 200 distribution points.
To the credit of the people, the businesses and the government, the conservation campaign – combined with the arrival of a rainy season – appear to have pushed back Day Zero to at least 2019.
What impresses me the most about Cape Town’s example is the commonality of the causes and consequences of the crisis. There is a tendency in developed countries to view crises in the global South as a product of higher levels of poverty, a lack of development, income inequality and government corruption. Cape Town has some of the world's worst income equality, easily evident when you transition from the palatial estates of the winelands where the water reservoirs are located (and where locals are quietly excited the drought could produce more complex vintages) to the tin shacks of the suburban townships. But Cape Town's crisis could easily have been replicated in Los Angeles, São Paulo or Beijing.
Even before the historic three-year drought which created the current crisis, Cape Town’s water supply system had been forecasting water shortages as a result of climate change and rapid development since the end of apartheid. Like many governments which are aware of their own long-term climate threats, even the best government planning is largely ignored until it becomes an existential threat.
As Anna Taylor, a research fellow at the University of Cape Town noted, government planning alone is not enough when collaborative leadership between government officials and the public are necessary. Governments cannot simply regulate their way out of long-term resource challenges prompted by climate change, but need to enlist the co-productive power of their citizens and civic infrastructure.
That criticism could be leveled at virtually any metropolitan region. What is required is fundamental institutional change, and that does not happen smoothly.
Cities from Los Angeles and Miami to Melbourne have encountered urban water stress which is likely to accelerate as a result of hydrological change and spiked demand. These threats require policy changes as well as infrastructure development as cities transition to more sustainable water management. This means combining new sources, water-transfer infrastructure, policies and technologies to encourage wastewater reuse, stormwater infiltration and efficiencies. People and governments have to change their own behavioral norms and expectations of each other.
One observation from recent research into such transitions is that they often require a focusing event. Cape Town has such a window. But climate adaptation requires creating a new normal, which is why cases like these can provide lessons for finding a new political equilibrium. While the immediate crisis may be over, I have heard locals complain in my week here about the refusal of the local government to back off plans to raise water rates and continue conservation efforts. For sure, the threats, tariffs on water use, and unbridled urbanization are likely to continue unabated as Capetonians adjust to the new normal of their more arid conditions.
There are a number of research groups doing an excellent job examining the dynamics of Cape Town’s water crisis. It would be a mistake to think this work isn’t relevant to rest of the rapidly urbanizing world.
Land use and development pose fundamental urban governance challenges around the world.
As a reporter, I covered subsequent waves of growth management reforms from 2004-2011 in Florida, policy shifts which alternatively tightened and repealed planning requirements for local governments while lessening public-infrastructure finance obligations of developers. Florida’s growth management experience reflects seemingly incompatible impulses to maintain its image as a low-tax destination for retirees and businesses, power its economic engine via population gains and low-density development, while periodically acknowledging the central role that environmental resources play in its desirability to new residents and employers.
Exploring this seemingly bipolar policy dilemma, I wrote a chapter for The Palgrave Handbook of Sustainability to trace the recent history of reforms in Florida’s growth management regime. The story of Florida's growth management experience often overlooks the role of local government policymakers who have experimented with a range of urban containment strategies. Utilizing surveys of local government planners from three time periods (2002, 2007, 2015), the chapter examines land use choices before and after the Great Recession and a state-level deregulatory reform of Florida’s once-heralded growth-management system in 2011 to examine variation in land-use regulations at the local level. The patterns have implications for future research and practice and suggest that the durability of land-management tools intended to stave off development and preserve open space may need to be carefully examined apart from smart growth approaches which assume development is inevitable.
Local Nonprofit Economic Development Corporations and their Implications for Sustainable Development
Local governments have been turning to Local Development Corporations for years to help streamline their job recruitment and development efforts. A criticism of these efforts is that turning over economic development to a third-party organization decreases transparency and runs the risk of institutionalizing private development interests over the well-being of the overall community. In this study published in Public Performance & Management Review, myself and co-authors Alicia Schatteman and Eric Stokan use surveys of U.S. cities at multiple time periods to examine the comparative use of nonprofit economic development corporations and their performance on smart-growth and social equity policy activities. We look at the two most common types of local nonprofit organizations — nonprofit Local Development Corporations (LDCs) and Community-Based Development Organizations (CBDOs) — and how they impact local government use of performance information and accountability mechanisms. In turning to policy outcomes, the use of LDCs is negatively associated with land use policies intended to advance social inclusion.
NIU is taking over the ASPA Chicago chapter meeting next week. I'll be discussing mixed-methods research on entrepreneurial local government managers at the ASPA Chicago Chapter's Brown Bag research panel on Feb. 16 at DePaul University. This is some work I have done with William Swann at University of Colorado, Denver using SEM and qualitative interview data to examine the environmental conditions, internal organizational characteristics, and strategies which foster improved sustainability performance.
Urban sustainability is a burgeoning focus for urban scholarship but rarely examined within the larger context of local government economic activities. But why should cities focusing on cutback management and competition for tax revenues be expected to devote all but the fleetest of attention to carbon footprints or metropolitan-wide environmental or social problems? In an Urban Affairs Review article, my colleague Eric Stokan and I use a resource dependence (RD) theoretical framework to conceptualize sustainable development as a pattern of contractual arrangements between governments and firms shaped by resource constraints. Utilizing survey data of U.S. cities and a Bayesian methodological approach, we present evidence that municipal job-recruitment efforts reduce the probability of observing an overall sustainability policy commitment. Cities which placed greater emphasis on retaining and developing existing businesses are also more committed to sustainability.
Urban sustainability has become a booming subject of local government and business interest, particularly with the United States moving away from playing a leadership role in major issues like climate change.
Cities have been quick to pounce on the decision by President Trump's administration to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Dozens of cities and states have announced their intent to sign onto the Paris accord in order to help the U.S. meet its pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26% below 2005 levels by 2025.
So, can cities pick up the slack? One problem with this post-Paris notion is that cities are just as able and willing (if not more so) to make symbolic policy commitments as a state or national government. In a new study I published with William Swann, we examined managerial activities in the ‘nexus’ of policy and management to help explain the tactics local governments use to pursue policy commitments to sustainability.
Sustainable development is an ideal context to study the linkages between policy and management. With the accelerating expansion of urban boundaries in recent decades, the societal response to urban sprawl, deforestation, natural resource depletion, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is a pressing concern for public administration and local governance.
Cities are detailing ‘smart growth’ and ‘new urbanism’ comprehensive planning goals to combat urban sprawl. But beyond the buzz, how do these land use policy actions set by elected officials influence managerial strategies?
Drawing data from a 2015 survey of Florida local governments’ sustainable land use and smart growth experiences, we employ a novel Bayesian item response theory (IRT) approach to test how internal and external organizational capacities, municipal leadership turnover, and regulatory and environmental complexity affect cities’ strategic activities for pursuing smart growth.
We find evidence that political capacity and the organizational task environment influence strategies, but not in the monolithic fashion often depicted in the literature; land use policy comprehensiveness influences some smart growth strategies; and leadership turnover presents both challenges and opportunities for the strategic management of smart growth.
Metropolitan fragmentation and inequality are two intertwined, complex urban conditions. While segregation and the Industrial Revolution began the process of population sorting in cities, a range of transportation, housing and 'urban renewal' policies from the 1930s and 1940s have also played a part in fueling the phenomenon.
This sets up an interesting dilemma for urban scholars. Has fragmentation -- the proliferation of special-districts and general-purpose governments -- exacerbated population sorting? Or has population sorting along race/ethnicity, income and ideological lines created more fragmentation?
This question holds normative importance because policymakers often view some fragmentation as a necessary condition to spur more efficient provision of public services. When cities have to compete for mobile citizens, they theoretically have incentives to keep taxes low and provide service-levels preferred by citizens. But this is probably more a utopian vision of polycentric governance. Fragmentation also creates environmental and fiscal "spill-overs" for urban governance, and has led to a landscape of gated-off enclaves of wealth, alongside overbuilt box-store dystopias and suburban slums.
Local fragmentation and inequality can seem hopelessly endogenous when institutional rules permit the easy creation of new towns or community development districts, such as in Florida. But in places like Illinois, fragmentation was driven by distrust of the machine politics of Chicago and Springfield long before post-World War II federal policies fueled white flight to the suburbs.
Understanding the causal mechanisms behind many urban policy innovations -- sustainable development or social inclusionary policies -- requires stronger theory on fragmentation, inequality, and how they condition or influence policy diffusion.
In a recent article with co-authors Rick Feiock and Kate Wassel published in Review of Policy Research, we explore how these often conflated regional factors influence the commitment of local governments to sustainability.
Sustainable service delivery is a burgeoning area of local government practice and research activity, yet the barriers posed by these capacity and complexity conditions remain poorly understood. Investigating how environmental conditions both within and across cities might inhibit adoption of sustainable development innovations brings new evidence to bear on this important question and presents practical implications for local sustainability efforts.
Using a Bayesian item response theory (IRT) approach, we explore how the organizational task environment—both within municipal borders and beyond them—influences the willingness of local governments to innovate through sustainable development policies. We find evidence that complex service-delivery needs, income inequality, and governmental fragmentation distinctively influence commitment to green building and social inclusion policies.
I work as an Assistant Professor at the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. There, I direct the MGMT Lab.