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Governing Suburbia

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Hannah Lebovits
August 31, 2018

Standing in the hallway of the Hyatt Regency in Denver, I must have looked overwhelmed by the panel choices at the 2018 ASPA conference. A senior academic came over and asked me which sessions I was interested in attending. When I responded that I was interested in several topics that all seemed to fall under the heading of “governance,” the scholar responded with a chuckle, “Oh yes, that’s a preoccupation of ours.”

Governance, as a practice and a theory, is an oft-visited topic in public administration scholarship. Even beyond the questions related to efficient, effective and equitable governance practices, we often ask, Who Governs? How? In what state? To what end? How can we measure the success or the degree to which agencies and actors have achieved “good governance?” These questions and others like them are of critical importance to the field, and as public administration has grown as a discipline, we’ve moved from an ambiguous definition of governance as, “We know it when we see it” and towards defining and outlining governance as something measurable and critically evaluated. Yet, while governance is everywhere in PA research, the lack of a place-based focus in institutional governance research can leave us with a view from nowhere — especially in the case of American suburbs.

Why study suburbs? Today, the largest percentage of Americans live in “suburbs,” a categorization that doesn’t quite capture the variability of these places. Suburbs vary in institutional structure, legal status, regional location and local capacity. Some suburbs are cities deeply entrenched in the regional economy, some are unincorporated census designated places, while others are townships, developments or even cities that have grown large and prosperous enough to be central cities to other suburbs. Suburbs are too numerous, too variable and too interesting to overlook.

The history of the suburban revolution in the United States is well-documented and public administration research gave a nod towards the topic in the mid-20th century. With the rise of so many new municipalities, came discussions of political systems and governing structures. This body of research continued into the 21st century as public administration scholars linked the central city to its outer areas within the field of Metropolitan Governance. However, PA scholarship gave little attention to the historical inequities and bad governance deeply embedded in the history of the suburbanization of the United States. And today, even while American suburbs and their governance systems face predominantly urban challenges, current local governance literature continues to overlook the unique nature of these places and their local administrators and city officials.

The rise of suburban living in the United States was largely a post-World War II governance phenomenon. Suburbanization itself was a governing process that lead to the goal of a suburban way of life, one that segregated not only uses but populations, as well. Richard Rothstein, in his book, The Color of Law, notes that policy actors and governmental institutions at every level, governed towards suburbanization and de jure segregation. Unlike the “good governance” campaigns in the US and abroad that encourage social sustainability and equity, many suburban cities and suburbanized states used their governing power to disenfranchise others. Ordinances that required large-lot zoning, restricted two-family homes or attached single family units, limited the number and location of multi-family units and narrowly defined the term “family” had the effect of making many suburban areas out of reach for large, low-income families. Additionally, Rothstein notes that the creation of suburban police departments spurred a long history of contentious police relations.

Nevertheless, today’s suburbs are not your parents’ suburbs. Scott Allard, in his recent book, Places in Need: The Shifting Geography of Poverty, notes that American suburbs, as a collective group, are facing increasing rates of poverty, unemployment and housing instability- with few resources to tackle or alleviate these wicked problems. In the Midwest and Northeast, many suburbs have older housing stock and are predominantly residential with few opportunities to increase local employment and economic development. Other suburbs are facing rapid shifts in demographics and household economics while political representation and administrative practices may not match the new community. It’s no coincidence that the incredibly heart-wrenching events of Ferguson, MO occurred in a struggling suburb. On top of the history of police tensions in suburban places, the city administration in Ferguson was so financially strapped because of the heavy reliance on local household economics that the city was increasing its internal revenue through fines and fees disproportionately levied on communities of color. Without significant local governance research, it’s difficult to not only measure governance in these places but to recognized and recommend “good governance” practices.

Governance is more than a preoccupation. Arthur Sementelli and Charles Abel, in their book Evolutionary Critical Theory and its Role in Public Affairs, argue that the “intersubjective experience of good governance,” is THE critical theory framework of our discipline. Institutions, especially public agencies, give meaning to space. They create place. As we continue to dig into the overlooked areas of research in the public administration field, I suggest that we consider the uniqueness of places, especially suburbs, and the implications for local officials and administrators.

Author: Hannah Lebovits is a doctoral student in Urban Affairs and Public Administration at Cleveland State University and a 2018 Founders’ Fellow.

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