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The Perils of Rationalism in American Urban Policy



A strong and enduring commitment to liberalism marks much of urban policy discourse in the United States. Although this Liberal Urban Policy compares favorably with its neoliberal and neoconservative rivals, it is nevertheless deeply flawed. One particularly serious problem is its strong commitment to rationalism. I offer a critique of this Rationalist Paradigm at the core of Liberal Urban Policy, which is extensively developed along both normative and empirical dimensions. In light of this critique, I conclude by gesturing toward a possible alternative—an Organic Paradigm—that might conceivably serve as a superior foundation for American urban policy in the twenty-first century.
Urban Affairs Review
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DOI: 10.1177/1078087417690834
The Perils of Rationalism
in American Urban
David Imbroscio1
A strong and enduring commitment to liberalism marks much of urban policy
discourse in the United States. Although this Liberal Urban Policy compares
favorably with its neoliberal and neoconservative rivals, it is nevertheless
deeply flawed. One particularly serious problem is its strong commitment
to rationalism. I offer a critique of this Rationalist Paradigm at the core of
Liberal Urban Policy, which is extensively developed along both normative
and empirical dimensions. In light of this critique, I conclude by gesturing
toward a possible alternative—an Organic Paradigm—that might conceivably
serve as a superior foundation for American urban policy in the twenty-first
urban policy, rationalism, liberalism
Urban policy discourse in the United States, in the academy as well as related
institutions (including many corporate foundations, elite research organiza-
tions, and advocacy groups), is decisively shaped by a political and philo-
sophical commitment to liberalism (in the American sense of the term). The
central thrust of (what might be called) Liberal Urban Policy (see Imbroscio
2013, 2016) involves using the activist state to address urban social problems,
1University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA
Corresponding Author:
David Imbroscio, Department of Political Science, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY
40292, USA.
690834UARXXX10.1177/1078087417690834Urban Affairs ReviewImbroscio
2 Urban Affairs Review
with a marked emphasis on combating the stark inequalities and conditions of
deprivation afflicting American cities and their most disadvantaged popula-
tions. Although this liberal approach compares favorably with its neoliberal
and neoconservative rivals (see, for example, Weaver 2016), it is nevertheless
deeply flawed. One particularly serious problem with Liberal Urban Policy is
its strong commitment to rationalism, as it has a Rationalist Paradigm at its
very core.1
What Is Rationalism?
The idea of rationalism emerged during the Enlightenment (a.k.a. the Age of
Reason) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rooted in the idea that
reason and experience—rather than tradition, religious belief, or emotion—
are the appropriate bases for human action. Locating the idea in the early
(philosophical) liberal thought of this period, the political theorist Jacob Levy
(2015, p. 2) pointed out that a (liberal) rationalist is “committed to intellec-
tual progress, universalism, and equality before a unified law” (meaning that
the same laws/policies apply as broadly as possible), while being “opposed to
[what are perceived by the rationalist to be] arbitrary and irrational distinc-
tions and inequalities.” The rationalist seeks, first and foremost, the rational
use of state power to break down these distinctions and inequalities and is
“determined to disrupt local tyrannies,” which in early modern times were
seen as manifesting in religious and ethnic groups, closed associations, the
family or clan, and the feudal countryside.
Rationalism, as I am employing the term, follows Levy (2015, p. 27) who
noted its usage “is meant to encourage the reader to think of Weber, not
Descartes; processes of bureaucratic rationalization, not theories of knowl-
edge or standards of argumentation” (emphasis in original). Indeed, the
work of Max Weber is key to any understanding of rationalism. Most impor-
tant here is his seminal account of the replacement of tradition, cultural val-
ues, and emotions by the emergence of rational (interest- or utility-based)
calculation as the motivating force behind human actions (and its subse-
quent institutionalization in authority structures—notably bureaucracies—
increasingly operated according to “rational-legal” principles) (Parsons
1969 [1947], p. 57).
But perhaps the best way to understand the idea of rationalism as embod-
ied in Liberal Urban Policy comes from the contemporary political scientist
James Scott’s (1998) conceptualization of High Modernism. In his acclaimed
and illuminating opus, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve
the Human Condition Have Failed, Scott (1998, pp. 89–90) explained that at
the center of this High Modernism lies a
Imbroscio 3
supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of
scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational
design of social order, the growing satisfaction of [material] human needs, and,
not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature)
commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws.
This high modernist vision, Scott (1998, p. 90) added, concerns “how the
benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied—usually
through the state—in every field of human activity.” Toward this end, there is
a strong “aspiration to the [rational] administrative ordering of nature and
society,” as well as a desire to bring about “changes in people’s habits, work,
living patterns, moral conduct, and worldview” that are deemed to be irratio-
nal. The laudable ambition inspiring all of this is the advancement of progres-
sive goals such as enhanced human freedom and material equality (Scott
1998, pp. 88-89). Scott (1998, p. 341), drawing on the mid-twentieth-century
British philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s (1962) famous discussion of ratio-
nalism in politics, explained that the rationalist tends to see people (and soci-
ety in general) as a “tabula-rasa”—a blank slate. As such, they (and it) can be
rewritten to function in more rational ways to liberate people and society
from repressive ideas and institutional practices inherited from a less enlight-
ened past.
Although Liberal Urban Policy is not fully high modernist in Scott’s sense
of the term, we shall see below that it does embody all of the associated ratio-
nalist tendencies. The most straightforward and direct connection derives
from the specific application of high modernist ideas by the American
Progressive movement (see Katz 2013). Key to this (early-twentieth century)
movement was the idea that the state, guided by reason and expertise acquired
from the newly advancing social sciences, can rationally engineer social
progress in ways that relieve the human suffering of the least fortunate while
maximizing utility for society in the aggregate. This aspiration, as made clear
below, remains at the heart of Liberal Urban Policy.
On one level, the Rationalist Paradigm, and rationalism more generally,
appears to embody a pronounced normative attractiveness: It applies the pro-
gressive accumulation of enlightened human knowledge to improve the
human condition via a highly efficient delivery mechanism (the rationalized
state apparatus). Yet, as I shall argue at length below, it confronts substantial
normative problems as well. These problems compel both policy makers and
the democratic citizenry to consider the complicated trade-offs involved with
the pursuit of the liberal approach to urban policy, given its strong rationalist
tendencies. In short, its potential normative benefits must be balanced against
its considerable costs.
4 Urban Affairs Review
The Rationalist Paradigm in Liberal Urban Policy
A Rationalist Paradigm imbues Liberal Urban Policy in three key, and inter-
related, ways. Liberal Urban Policy aspires to rationalize residential settle-
ment patterns, governance structures, and target populations/people (usually
the urban poor).
The Rationalization of Settlement Patterns
The problems. A major focus of concern for Liberal Urban Policy is that, in
most American city-regions, high levels of segregation (by race and by class)
mark the spatial demographics of residential settlement patterns. This segre-
gation manifests in several key ways: Too many of the region’s poor live in
the central city’s low-income neighborhoods (or, increasingly, its struggling
adjacent inner-ring suburbs); not enough of the middle (and upper-middle)
class live in these same central cities (except for the more gentrified sections)
and instead cluster in the so-called favored quarter of wealthy suburbs; very
few of the region’s poor or even its stable working (lower-middle) classes
live in this favored quarter; and too many Blacks live too near one another
rather than in close proximity to Whites (see, for example, Dreier, Mollen-
kopf, and Swanstrom 2014).
With the Rationalist Paradigm at its core, Liberal Urban Policy judges
these segregated settlement patterns to be irrationally imbalanced. This
imbalance is, in turn, seen as a leading cause of numerous urban social prob-
lems. Most notable here is the well-known idea of neighborhood effects, a
near obsession of Liberal Urban Policy since William Julius Wilson’s (1987)
highly influential analysis of the so-called social isolation of the inner-city
poor. Neighborhood effects research purports to show that a concentration of
too many poor in the same residential space itself exacerbates multiple social
ills. Such places are seen to be virtual “breeding places” for an array of dys-
functional social behaviors while also sharply limiting employment prospects
for residents due the absence of productive social networks (Peterson 1991,
p. 6; also see, for example, Ellen and Turner 2003).
Another settlement pattern notably judged as irrational is the high propor-
tion of the urban region’s poor who live in its core (or central) city. Although
this phenomenon is changing some with the great inversion (wealthy moving
to cities, poor to suburbs) and widespread gentrification (Ehrenhalt 2012), for
Liberal Urban Policy this imbalance is still seen to be a significant problem.
Scores of large central cities continue to post poverty rates well exceeding
20%, while inversion processes remain highly uneven. The resulting pattern
is seen as saddling many cities with a problematic combination of depleted
Imbroscio 5
tax bases and high service demands, which according to Liberal Urban Policy
further exacerbates urban poverty and further concentrates and isolates the
urban poor (see Rusk 2013). And where the inversion has taken hold, it has
often reproduced imbalances in metropolitan settlement patterns as the inner-
city poor have tended to simply reconcentrate in poorer, inner-ring suburbs
adjacent to high-poverty areas in central cities (Kneebone and Berube 2013).
The flip side of the concentration of the poor in high-poverty neighbor-
hoods is the concentration of the region’s wealthy in the so-called favored
quarter of suburbs (Orfield 1998). For Liberal Urban Policy, this irrationally
imbalanced pattern of settlement allows privileged residents to engage in a
version of what Charles Tilly (1998) called opportunity hoarding. By not
sharing their abundant financial resource base and social/cultural capital with
the rest of region, such places are seen as curtailing the quality of education
and economic opportunity for others living outside the favored quarter bub-
ble. Those seen as excluded from opportunities by this settlement pattern
include not only the urban poor but also the lower ends of the professional
class—nurses, public safety workers, and teachers—who serve these affluent
communities yet cannot afford to live there.
Finally, overlaying all of these irrational settlement patterns is the residen-
tial concentration of African-Americans (and to some extent Latinos). While,
as John Logan (2013) pointed out, “the degree of segregation has receded
from the near-apartheid that was created in the black ghettos of Northern cit-
ies in the middle decades of the last century,” it remains “quite intense” in
many major metropolitan regions, while the “average level of segregation
[nationally] still represents a sharp separation by race.” For many Liberal
Urban Policy analysts, including Logan himself, these racial imbalances in
settlement are believed to be a key reason why the terrible scourge of racial
inequality in urban America so tenaciously persists a full half-century after
the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
The solutions. Hence, Liberal Urban Policy, with the Rationalist Paradigm at
its core, perceives the source of numerous social ills to be the existence of
irrational spatial settlement patterns lacking proper demographic makeup
(i.e., balanced by class and race). To ameliorate these ills, then, it seeks to
reorder established spatial demographics—usually through the actions of the
positive state—to give them more balance and rationality. As James Scott
(1998, p. 93) identified in his exposition of the rationalism of High Modern-
ism, a key justification for the “redesign” of the “structures of the past” is that
such structures are seen as “products of myth, superstition, and . . . preju-
dice.” In parallel, a similar assessment provides much of the justification for
Liberal Urban Policy’s reordering of past settlement patterns. For liberals,
6 Urban Affairs Review
such patterns are usually viewed as legacies of past discriminatory (or preju-
dicial) actions rooted in almost superstition (or myth)-like stereotyping by
race and class (Massey and Denton 1993).
To bring about the necessary reordering, Liberal Urban Policy pursues
“deliberate” actions to bring “about greater spatial inclusion” (as one of its
leading lights, Xavier Briggs 2008, p. 134, succinctly puts it). Key among
these efforts to produce greater economically and racially integrated spaces
(or places) are ghetto dispersal programs (of which the federal Move to
Opportunity [MTO] experiment was a weak form). In such programs, the
state purposefully moves the urban poor to more affluent and job-rich oppor-
tunity areas, ideally within the favored quarter of a region’s suburbs. Another
key strategy for what Anthony Downs (1973) long ago called opening up the
suburbs involves the creation of more affordable housing in these favored
enclaves. These actions, usually involving the rollback of exclusionary zon-
ing provisions and/or the construction of publicly subsidized housing, allow
the urban poor (and less affluent more generally) to relocate to such areas.
Ideally, they are key components of a comprehensive so-called fair share
housing plan,2 where each locality takes its rationally allocated proportion of
the region’s poor.
Perhaps the most deliberate effort to rationally reorder settlement is to level
(or clear) irrational patterns and replace them with ones more balanced. Here,
the target of Liberal Urban Policy has been those areas where the number of
poor residents has been deemed too high, resulting in a concentration of pov-
erty that needs to be broken up. The most prominent example of such efforts
is the well-known HOPE [Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere] VI
program, which demolished tens of thousands of public housing units and
replaced them with developments explicitly designed to house a socioeco-
nomically diverse group of residents (Goetz 2013a). More ambitious corners
of Liberal Urban Policy seek to “apply the HOPE VI model” to the much
larger stock of “run-down privately owned properties in poor neighborhoods”
because “working just with public housing will not bring the mixed-income
approach to sufficient scale” (Kingsley 2009, p. 286).
The Rationalization of Governance
The problems. Closely related to Liberal Urban Policy’s prescription to ratio-
nalize settlement patterns is its prescription to rationalize the structures of
local governance. Here, the main problem is the marked fragmentation of
these structures across the regional scale. As David Rusk (2013, p. 7) bluntly
put it, “the real city is the total metropolitan area” and yet it is governed by a
multitude of political units (at times numbering in the hundreds) often with
Imbroscio 7
overlapping jurisdictions. Liberal Urban Policy deems this complicated and
complex system of metropolitan governance to be highly irrational. Most
conspicuously, so-called (new) regionalists identify two key interrelated
problems with local government fragmentation: It militates against coordi-
nated and coherent governing actions that embody a metropolitan-wide per-
spective and, on the flip side, it empowers more localized political entities
with the means to make autonomous governing decisions within their sepa-
rate (i.e., fragmented) jurisdictions.
Being devoid of rationality, this fragmented system of regional gover-
nance has, according to prominent new regionalists Peter Dreier, John
Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom (2014, p. 241), “produced [multiple] dys-
functional consequences.” Most important among these have been numerous
inequities within the contemporary American metropolis.
For example, according to regionalists, this fragmentation enables—even
facilitates—the irrationally segregated settlement patterns described above.
Most notably, because they can act autonomously, more affluent localities
often adopt land-use regulations, especially in the form of zoning measures,
which are seen as blocking the less well off from securing entry (something
that, in turn, supposedly leaves the poor and near-poor helplessly trapped in
central cities or declining inner-ring suburbs; see Downs 1993). The weak
nature of region-wide transportation and land-use planning is also implicated,
as fragmentation is seen as resulting in sprawled metropolitan development
that restricts access to distant suburbs (Rusk 2000). Finally, beyond its exac-
erbation of imbalanced settlement patterns, regionalists also see fragmenta-
tion as causing regional inequities in multiple other ways. These include tax/
service disparities (especially among the central city and affluent suburbs), as
well as—supposedly zero-sum—interjurisdictional bidding wars to attract
wealthy residents and economic development (see Kantor 2016).
Although Liberal Urban Policy’s chief concern with irrational local gov-
ernance structures is their contribution to regional inequities, such structures
are also seen as giving rise to other dysfunctional consequences. Notable here
is administrative inefficiency. Fragmented systems with multiple govern-
mental entities are seen as wasteful due to duplications in service delivery
and the inability to fully realize economies of scale (Dreier, Mollenkopf, and
Swanstrom 2014). Environmental degradation is seen to be another dysfunc-
tion. Here, the resultant low-density (sprawled) pattern of urban development
produces high levels of air and water pollution while excessively gobbling up
open spaces (Hamilton 2014). Finally, with governance structures irrationally
fragmented, metropolitan areas are also seen as ill-suited to compete in the
global economy given the difficulties in pursuing a coordinated and compre-
hensive strategy for regional economic growth (Kanter 1995).
8 Urban Affairs Review
The solutions. Liberal Urban Policy with its Rationalist Paradigm seeks to
correct for these multiple dysfunctions by designing a more rational and
orderly system to govern urban areas—pursuing what Dreier, Mollenkopf,
and Swanstrom (2014, p. 241) called a “more intelligent path” as promoted
(as far back as the 1920s) by “administrative experts.” Once again, the ratio-
nalist mind-set sees abundant justification for this redesign. Following, also
once again, the insights of James Scott (1998, p. 93), such (governmental)
“structures of the past” are viewed as resulting from various “myth[s]” (such
as the nostalgia for small republican polities or the mythical ideal of small
town life) and, especially, “prejudice[s]” (with exclusion seen as the raison
d’être for the creation of suburban jurisdictions; see Burns 1994). In addition,
as the political theorist Jacob Levy (2015, p. 2) pointed out, from its seven-
teenth-century beginnings, liberal rationalism has maintained an acute wari-
ness of the parochial, given its universalistic impulses and its goal of
achieving “equality before a unified law” while “disrupt[ing]” what are per-
ceived to be “local tyrannies.” The liberal rationalist, Levy (2015, p. 70)
notes, seeks an “institutional isomorphism” in the organization of political
and social life, and as such “intermediate bodies that are organized differently
[such as small, fragmented local governments] tend to be characterized as
In substantive terms, the thrust of Liberal Urban Policy’s rationalizing
reforms for urban governance is to basically end (or substantially reduce)
metropolitan fragmentation by creating region-wide structures while corre-
spondingly curtailing the powers of localities. The key idea, as David Rusk
(2013) metaphorically put it, is to build a bigger box for urban governance
toward the aim of creating cities without suburbs.
The ideal solution from this big-box perspective would be to create a sin-
gle, general-purpose regional government where all of the political territory
within the metropolitan area would be subsumed by an enlarged central city.
Short of this wide-ranging reform, regionalists seek governance structures
that, while set up for more limited purposes, nonetheless wield significant
powers on a region-wide basis (in areas such as transportation, housing,
social services, education, and fiscal policy). Control over land use is seen as
particularly crucial. Drawing on Rusk (2013), David Hamilton (2014, pp.
389–90) explained that regional control over land use is necessary for “the
orderly development of the region and to be able to integrate low-income
housing throughout the region to diminish racial and economic segregation.”
Such regional land-use plans, he added, “should be comprehensive and the
area-wide governance system should have authority to compel municipalities
to abide by its plans” (emphases added). At a minimum, regionalists see the
need for all programs of higher-level governments to be “carried out on a
Imbroscio 9
metropolitan basis” because this is “the natural unit for domestic social and
economic development policies” (Dreier, Mollenkopf, and Swanstrom 2014,
p. 278, emphasis added).
The Rationalization of People
The problems. People themselves, especially the urban poor, are another key
target of rationalization. Here, the goal of Liberal Urban Policy is to alter
(what are deemed to be) irrational value structures fostering adverse choices
in areas such as educational attainment, labor-force attachment, reproduc-
tion, residential selection, or social relations. What is most important about
these choices, and their resultant behaviors, is that they are seen as greatly
compromising the urban poor’s life chances for realizing upward social
mobility and its attendant material rewards.
The classic example here is the putative undervaluing of education.
According to the analysis running through much of Liberal Urban Policy,
poorer people often fail to maximize educational attainment and do not, in
their roles as parents, prioritize their children’s schooling as much as would
be economically rational (see, for example, Wilson 2009). In a representative
example of the latter, Liberal Urban Policy stalwarts Xavier Briggs, Susan
Popkin, and John Goering (2010, pp. 190, 234) concluded that many poor
families they studied in the MTO program “made choices that belie experts
views about how parents should choose schools, and more to the point, about
what parents should value most” (first emphasis added). Instead of “garner-
ing (broader) academic opportunity,” MTO parents’ choices sought merely to
avoid “ghetto-type risks” and as a result “asked little more of their children’s
schools than somewhat greater safety and more orderly classrooms.”
A second key area of supposed irrational choice behavior involves repro-
duction. Especially crucial is its timing in the life cycle, as the urban poor are
viewed as too often having children they are not yet emotionally or finan-
cially able to (properly) support. Representative here is Isabel Sawhill (2014),
the longtime leading scholar at the Brookings Institution, a key bastion of
Liberal Urban Policy. She makes a sharp distinction between “the planners”
(who are “choosing well”) and “the drifters” (who are not, but instead “floun-
dering”). “Drifting into parenthood is a bad idea,” Sawhill (2014, p. 3)
stressed, as “too many young adults are sliding into relationships and having
babies before they are ready to make the commitments to each other and to
their children that parenthood requires.” What is especially harmed by
“drifter” parents’ bad reproductive choices are the life chances (for upward
social mobility) of these children. Such children, she writes, “are poorly
served by adults who drift into parenthood, rather than planning and
10 Urban Affairs Review
preparing for it”; instead, “they deserve to be born to parents who have made
good decisions, created a stable family environment, and made a commit-
ment to their welfare . . .” (Sawhill, 2014, p. 3).
Finally, given Liberal Urban Policy’s intense concern with irrational set-
tlement patterns, a third key focus of supposedly irrational choice behavior
involves place of residence. Here, the perceived problem is that the urban
poor often irrationally continue to desire to reside in areas (especially central
cities) where their opportunities are seen as meager. According to Liberal
Urban Policy, one significant consequence of these adverse choices is that
housing voucher programs, which in theory offer recipients the possibility of
making the more rational choice to move to more opportunity-rich areas,
remain less effective in enhancing urban poor’s social mobility via geo-
graphic dispersal (Turner 1998).
The solutions. Liberal Urban Policy seeks to alter this (supposedly) irrational
choice behavior in ways that will maximize (or at least significantly improve)
the economic condition of the urban poor. This goal finds its wellspring in the
rationalistic impulse that sees human behavior (and, in fact, human nature
itself) as something that can be increasingly controlled to achieve more posi-
tive outcomes for individuals and society as a whole (Scott 1998). Similarly,
as explicated by the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s (1962) famous
analysis of rationalism, there is a strong tendency for it to see people as some-
thing of a tabula-rasa who can be rewritten in enlightened ways to promote
behavioral modifications leading to enhanced human liberation and material
However, it is important to understand where Liberal Urban Policy locates
the source of this irrational choice behavior to be modified. Specifically, unlike
conservatives, who usually see it as rooted in a dysfunctional culture and/or
individual moral failure, liberals emphasize what Wilson (2009) called social
structure (e.g., the nature of the urban political economy), especially the limited
opportunities available to the urban poor. In addition to limited opportunity
structures, some liberals attribute this irrational choice behavior to the absence
of adequate knowledge (or information) about both the nature of available
options and their likely consequences (see Briggs, Popkin, and Goering 2010).
Others point to the injurious psychological effects of long-term subjugation or,
more basically, to the mere condition of poverty itself (see Katz 2013; Kristof
2015). In general, then, Liberal Urban Policy avoids “blaming the victim” for
this irrational choice behavior and instead attributes it to deleterious social con-
ditions beyond the control of the urban poor themselves.
For Liberal Urban Policy, counteracting the effects of these social condi-
tions to rationalize choices begins with, as noted above, efforts to enhance
Imbroscio 11
urban poor’s ability to obtain material rewards (see, for example, Haskins
and Sawhill 2009). This enhancement usually comes in the form of better
access to well-paid employment, often with improved educational opportuni-
ties as the nexus. The presumption here is that the prospect for such rewards
will help create the kind of incentive structure needed to induce more rational
choices. Yet, for much of Liberal Urban Policy, simply dangling economic
opportunities is understood to be an insufficient mechanism to bring about
the desired modifications in choice behavior, as many such opportunities
might be (rationally) seen by the urban poor as too distant and impalpable.
Therefore, seen to be additionally needed are more direct rationalization
efforts, usually involving a variety of educative and inculcative processes.
Counseling in an array of forms conducted by trained middle-class profes-
sionals looms large among these processes, the aim of which is to correct for
a number of dysfunctional behaviors in multiple facets of everyday life. Much
of this effort involves children and adolescents, often in connection with
improving success at school. Counseling is also to be seen by Liberal Urban
Policy as crucial for rationalizing the urban poor’s residential choices. This
so-called mobility education counseling is utilized to cajole reluctant housing
voucher holders to relocate from areas that, while often in proximity to family
and friends, supposedly do not offer the kinds of opportunities that will maxi-
mize their material well-being (see, for example, Goering 2003). Another
increasingly important counseling effort for Liberal Urban Policy involves
programs like the Nurse Family Partnership (NFP), where nurses or health
educators visit the homes of new poor mothers. In the NFP, home visitors not
only instruct these young mothers on proper infant care and parenting prac-
tices but also seek to rationalize their behavior by “helping them develop a
vision for the future” and make (presumably better) “decisions about staying
in school, finding work, and planning future pregnancies” (Olds 2006, p. 70).
Although more diffuse in nature, role modeling is another important
inculcative strategy for rationalizing the choices of the urban poor. Here, it is
hoped that the urban poor will take their behavioral cues from the middle
class and wealthy. Given Liberal Urban Policy’s strong emphasis on the
sociospatial sources of urban social problems, an important means to actuate
the role-modeling dynamic is by economically mixing neighborhoods. Key
examples here include the effort to replace distressed public housing with
mixed-income communities via the HOPE VI program or the dispersal of
disadvantaged inner-city residents into middle-class suburbs (such as in
Chicago’s Gautreaux program). By living in close proximity to the affluent,
it is hoped that the urban poor will begin to adopt (or model) the norms, atti-
tudes, and values of their wealthier neighbors, leading to more rational
behaviors regarding their choices about work, education, and reproduction.
12 Urban Affairs Review
The Critique of the Rationalist Paradigm:
Normative Concerns
Having urban policy imbued with this strong dose of rationalism is in many
ways quite desirable from a normative standpoint. After all, as set out above,
the Rationalist Paradigm at the core of Liberal Urban Policy leads it to pursue
a host of progressive goals. These include laudable efforts to dismantle segre-
gation, promote metropolitan-wide equity, increase governmental efficiency,
limit ecological damage, and facilitate the upward mobility of the urban poor.
Yet, in other ways, this paradigm is clearly normatively problematic—border-
ing, at times, on dangerous. As James Scott (1998, p. 352) highlighted in his
examination of High Modernism, the fact that rationalist schemes often come
“cloaked in egalitarian, emancipatory ideas” (and goals) does not mean that
their outcomes will necessarily be either egalitarian or emancipatory.
Therefore, when assessing the merits of the liberal approach to urban policy,
policy makers must understand and balance the complicated trade-offs
between its pursuit of progressive goals and its normative shortcomings.
The Rationalist Paradigm’s normative problems manifest in two interre-
lated areas: its deleterious impacts on (1) democracy and community and (2)
individual liberty.
Democracy and Community
Settlement. First, consider the drive to balance the spatial demographics of
neighborhoods by race and class. Although this rationalization seems norma-
tively compelling, given the extreme nature of current patterns of segregation
this effort would require a massive degree of geographic population mobility.
We see this most clearly in the case of race, where the index of dissimilarity
(which measures the degree of racial segregation in a metropolitan area) sug-
gests that, in some regions, approaching 80% of the Black population would
need to relocate residences to achieve an even balance (Goetz 2017). A simi-
lar situation, even if somewhat less acute, exists regarding economic segrega-
tion. Most notably, to achieve a rational balance, many people (including not
only the urban poor but less affluent elements of the working class as well)
would need to be shuffled out of central cities (or inner-ring suburbs) and into
more privileged enclaves in the favored quarter, while some of the original
residents of such enclaves also would need to relocate (ideally to nongentri-
fied areas of central cities or poor suburbs). And once an initial balance was
achieved, further moves would likely be required to maintain it. As recent
history shows, the trends of racial (or class-based) flight and/or displacement
from gentrification remain strong in American suburbs and cities, and thus
Imbroscio 13
can be reasonably expected to continue so in the foreseeable future (see, for
example, Goetz 2015; Jargowsky 2015).
In the presence of this degree of residential (hyper)mobility, the quality of
democracy and community is very likely to suffer (Imbroscio 2012). As is
well documented by political theorists (see, for example, Dagger 1997; Elkin
1987) and empirical analysis (see, for example, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady
1995; Williamson 2010), it becomes difficult for strong forms of democratic
citizenship to emerge under such conditions. Strong engaged citizenship, as
the democratic theorist Richard Dagger (1997, p. 162) noted, “grows out of
attachment to place and its people . . . that only forms over time.” Even those
who remain rooted “are likely to feel abandoned as the faces about them
become less familiar and their neighborhoods less neighborly.” The latter
observation points as well to the corrosive effect that residential instability
has on the vibrancy of community and social capital (see, for example, Jacobs
1961; Sampson 1988).3
Governance. The rationalist drive to eliminate fragmentation by placing most
inhabitants in the same region-wide big box also produces similar deleterious
effects on democracy and community. Here, the key concern is one of scale—
specifically the increased bigness of the box. Large literatures in democratic
theory and communal studies explicate how and why increased scale is the
enemy of both democratic governance and community building (see, for
example, Dahl 1967; Elkin 1987; Putnam 2000). Reflective of this work,
Andrew Kirby (2004, p. 758) noted in his penetrating analysis of (new)
regionalism that “there is good evidence that communal suspicion can only
be heightened” from the increased “scale of governance” it proposes (also see
Barron 2003; Derthick 1999). Indeed, the potential detrimental effect of
increased scale on democracy and community commands broad support
across the ideological spectrum (see, for example, Alperovitz 2011; Bish and
Ostrom 1973).
It is therefore unsurprising that we commonly see empirical manifesta-
tions of this dynamic in American Metropolises. Regionalist schemes to
rationalize local governance by augmenting its scale tend to vitiate demo-
cratic popular control in two key ways. First, they provide institutional mech-
anisms that further empower economic elites by placing the control of
electoral politics beyond the reach of most others; second, and correspond-
ingly, such mechanisms disempower the historically oppressed, especially
urban African-Americans, who see their influence diluted in a larger, subur-
ban-dominated polity (see, for example, Kipfer 2004; Thompson 2002). For
example, this dynamic was clear in the well-known case of the big box cre-
ated by the consolidation of the city of Louisville with its much larger
14 Urban Affairs Review
suburban county. That change made grassroots/populist electoral challenges
to the local corporate regime’s executive control financially prohibitive and
undermined the legislative power of the now vastly outnumbered progres-
sive/minority interests based in older urban neighborhoods (Imbroscio 2010;
Savitch and Vogel 2004). A similar pattern has emerged in other cases of
city–county consolidation as well (Savitch, Vogel, and Ye 2010).
People. Rationalizing the choice behavior of people undoubtedly holds some
promise for enhancing their purely economic well-being. But it also brings
with it some potential downsides for community and democracy. For exam-
ple, the taking hold of greater degrees of rationality (as individuals seek
social mobility and its attendant material rewards) generally degrades their
commitments to established communal (and familial and cultural) bonds
(see, for example, Berger 1974; Lasch 1991). To employ Granovetter’s
(1973) famous formulation, people are advantaged (or strengthened) in these
efforts by having only weak ties, while maintaining strong ties (or bonds)
often serves to hold individuals back (Briggs, Popkin, and Goering 2010). In
addition, the feelings of solidarity so important to stronger forms of political
engagement also can suffer at the hands of this increased rationalization (see,
for example, Schaar 1967).
More specific to Liberal Urban Policy, rationalizing the behavior of the
urban poor so that they make more productive life choices is seen as correct-
ing for the fact that “people often do not behave in ways consistent with their
own self-interest” (Haskins and Sawhill 2009, p. 102; also see Briggs, Popkin,
and Goering 2010). Yet, facilitating the development of this self-interested
behavior also militates against the ability of collectivities (such as communi-
ties and polities) to undertake common projects (see Bowles 2008; Sandel
1996). As Olson (1965) so famously identified, in the face of high degrees of
individual rationality, the logic of collective action makes such projects
extremely difficult to accomplish, as those acting in a rationally self-
interested way are strongly inclined to free ride on the actions of others.
Collectivities—communities and polities—chronically unable to solve the
collective action problem fare poorly on a number of social and individual
outcomes (see Putnam 2000).
The Rationalist Paradigm not only tends to degrade the quality of community
and democracy. As intimated above, it also can repress individual liberty in
normatively troubling ways (especially that of those most vulnerable—the
urban poor). The irony here is that its rationalism leads Liberal Urban Policy
Imbroscio 15
to advocate measures that are decidedly illiberal in nature (cf. Levy 2015). It
is this concern about rationalism that most disturbed James Scott (1998, p.
341) as he documented the “enormous damage” done when high modernist
convictions were “combined with authoritarian state power” (such as the
Soviet collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s). However, given the cur-
rent (at this writing at least) limits on the power of the American state, the
threat posed by today’s Liberal Urban Policy is, perhaps needless to say, con-
siderably less frightful. Nonetheless, as we shall see below, its Rationalist
Paradigm infuses this policy with a profound authoritarian impulse that
represses liberty in manifold—and consequential—ways.
Settlement. Some of the starkest manifestations of this impulse stem from
Liberal Urban Policy’s drive to rationalize residential patterns. Most blatant
here was the HOPE VI program’s effort to eradicate the residential patterns
existing in many public housing developments where poverty levels were
seen as irrationally high. For much of Liberal Urban Policy, the policy
response dictated by social-science research was unmistakably clear: Such
developments needed to be leveled (and most of their inhabitants relocated to
areas of lesser poverty concentration), with a more balanced mixed-income
community built in their place. Yet, this rationalistic scheme resulted in enor-
mous infringements of individual liberties, particularly of those most vulner-
able. In his intensive examination of HOPE VI, housing expert Edward Goetz
astutely captured the essence of this dynamic. As he observed,
the forced removal of a household from its home is one of the most intrusive
exercises of state power. The disruption to families is significant and the sense
of loss, loss of home, of community, of a sense of identity and belonging can
be profound . . .” (Goetz 2013a, pp. 121–22; also see Fullilove 2004)
When we consider that most of the former residents of public housing seem
not to be much, if at all, better off as a result of this disruption (Goetz 2013a),
the loss of liberty is especially egregious. It is here that the misdeeds of Liberal
Urban Policy begin to approach those of High Modernism so well chronicled
by Scott (1998, pp. 340–41) as “authoritarian high-modernist states in the grip
of a self-evident (and usually half-baked) social theory . . . [did] irreparable
damage to human communities and individual livelihoods.”
Most of the efforts by Liberal Urban Policy to reorder irrationalities in
settlement are considerably less brutal. Nonetheless, we still see its authori-
tarian impulses peer out whenever the urban poor’s residential preferences
fail to comport to what is deemed to be a rational pattern. The clearest exam-
ple here involves the housing voucher program, which is seen as irrationally
16 Urban Affairs Review
concentrating recipients in poorer areas due (in part) to recipients’ desire to
continue to live in certain city neighborhoods (see, for example, Turner
1998). Rather than accepting and respecting these preferences not to be dis-
persed (or deconcentrated), some Liberal Urban Policy practitioners advo-
cate restricted-use vouchers (as was the case in both Gautreaux and MTO)
that limit—that is, restrict—the liberty of the poor to live where they choose
by requiring moves to wealthier suburbs (see Goering 2003).
Governance. Given the necessary augmentation of the scale upon which politi-
cal authority is exercised, the drive to rationalize governance by creating a big-
ger box also holds the potential to violate liberties. Of special concern are the
liberties of local self-determination and the freedom of local association. While
many regionalists commonly downplay these concerns, the more perceptive
and discerning among them take such concerns much more seriously. In her
embrace of regionalism, the late great political theorist Iris Marion Young
(2000, p. 230), for example, squarely confronted what she identified as the
“normative dilemma” between the need to “balance local self-determination
with a region-wide acknowledgement of the legitimate interests of others.”
What is required, Young (2000, p. 197) cogently argued, is a kind of “dif-
ferentiated solidarity”—a region-wide solidarity that not only recognizes the
legitimacy of nonlocal interests but “also affirms the freedom of association
that may entail residential clustering [by what she calls affinity groups] and
civic differentiation.” Rather than the rationalist big box—that negates this
civic differentiation by either eliminating subregional civic units altogether
or eviscerating their key powers—liberty (and justice) instead demands
regionalist strategies that preserve meaningful local governance. So, in con-
trast to the dictates of the Rationalist Paradigm (which as noted above seek to
compel municipalities to abide by comprehensive regional schemes), Young
(2000, p. 232) following Frug (1999) saw the “relationship between local
governments and metropolitan . . . institutions” as one “based largely on
intergovernmental negotiation.” This liberty-preserving arrangement, she
pointed out, diverges significantly from the kind of “legal hierarchy” so
important to rationalism (and especially Weberian rationalization) “in which
the regional government subordinates the local.”
People. The drive by Liberal Urban Policy to rationalize people’s choice
behavior is also rife with dangers to individual liberty—conspicuously for
the target of this rationalization, the urban poor. As noted above, the vehicle
for these efforts, especially in their educative or inculcative forms, is often
counseling conducted by middle-class professionals applying social-
scientific knowledge via (what some aptly identify as) the therapeutic state
Imbroscio 17
(see Lasch 1980). This therapeutic state, as political scientist Andrew Polsky
(1991, pp. 3–4) pointed out, comes fraught with copious repressive impulses
(also see Thompson 1998): It “proceeds from the assumption that . . . [mar-
ginal citizens] cannot govern their own lives,” and as a result, it is determined
that they need “expert help.” Thus, “they become the clients of behavioral
specialists, clinicians, and social workers . . .” (1991, p. 4). The goal of the
therapeutic state’s actions, Polsky (1991, p. 4) pointed out, is “to ‘normalize’
[these clients]—an odd term, one that jars the ear,” he noted, “as well it
should when we consider what the effort is all about.” Foucault’s famous
notion of governmentality also looms large here (see Foucault 1980).
Even significantly less intrusive measures to rationalize the choice behav-
ior of the urban poor can repress individual liberty. Take, for example, the
strategy of placing the poor in close residential proximity to middle-class role
models. Careful studies of the mixed-income communities created by HOPE
VI reveal how life for their low-income residents is “a challenging daily
experience.” Specifically, the need for these residents to conform to middle-
class norms, especially regarding the access to and use of public space and
the perception of public order, leaves them feeling “constrained, observed,
and at risk (‘walking on eggshells’ as one described it) of losing their housing
if they fail to toe a particular imposed line defining their behavior . . .”
(Chaskin and Joseph 2013, pp. 497–98; also see Ruiz-Tagle 2016).
More generally, as previously discussed, much of Liberal Urban Policy’s
effort to rationalize people involves simply getting the urban poor to begin
making choices that are in their own best (or self) interest (by impelling them
to pursue higher education, delay reproduction, and relocate to a more afflu-
ent neighborhood, for example). Yet, these interests are—by definition—
delineated for them rather than by them (hence the need for rationalization in
the first place). This process is, of course, inherently violative of their indi-
vidual liberty and autonomy (see, for example, Reed and Steinberg 2006)—
in a rather clear display of the authoritarian impulses of Liberal Urban Policy.
The Critique of the Rationalist Paradigm:
Empirical Concerns
Serious normative drawbacks thus plague the Rationalist Paradigm, as it
tends to impair democracy, community, and liberty in troubling ways. Yet, as
discussed above, it also holds the potential to further a host of progressive
goals, including greater social equity, enhanced economic and governmental
efficiency, and improvements in ecological sustainability. Thus, as noted
above, the Rationalist Paradigm embodies a trade-off: while it yields poten-
tial normative benefits it also comes with significant normative costs. Yet,
18 Urban Affairs Review
this trade-off, while clear and enduring, may not be as stark as it first appears.
Rationalist schemes, as James Scott (1998, p. 343) demonstrated in his exam-
ination of High Modernism, have almost always “failed their intended bene-
ficiaries.” Therefore, the potential normative benefits of rationalism may not
actually be realized empirically in practice. And much of the same can be said
of the rationalist prescriptions of Liberal Urban Policy, where its multiple
misunderstandings of critical empirical phenomena lead to repeated policy
Empirical Misunderstandings and Policy Failure
Settlement. The HOPE VI program’s effort to create of mixed-income com-
munities offers one clear example. The idea behind this aspect of HOPE VI
was that, with proximity to the middle class, the urban poor will benefit in
various ways. They will be, for instance, connected to more productive social
networks and have their behaviors shaped in positive ways by the presence of
constructive role models. Research on these experiments strongly suggests,
however, that the necessary interactions and observations appear to be quite
limited. This finding perhaps explains why, thus far, the degree of poverty
reduction attributed to this attempt to rationalize settlement is also quite lim-
ited (see, for example, Chaskin, Khare, and Joseph 2012; DeFilippis 2013;
Levy, McDade, and Bertumen 2013; Ruiz-Tagle 2016; Tach 2009).
The key empirical misunderstanding of rationalism at the root of this pol-
icy failure is likely its inability to comprehend the complex processes that
build, nurture, and sustain genuine communities. Apropos here is James
Scott’s (1998) reference to the seminal work of Jane Jacobs (1961). In an
exceedingly illuminating passage to which Scott refers, Jacobs quotes with
approval a planner who demurred from the rationalist consensus around the
desirability of slum clearance in the urban renewal era. “We have to admit,”
the planner astutely noted, “it is beyond the scope of anyone’s imagination to
create a community.” Thus, “we must learn to cherish the communities we
have, they are hard to come by.”
Governance. We see similar poor results from efforts to rationalize gover-
nance structures through the creation of bigger governing boxes. Most nota-
bly, while greater metropolitan equity is the main objective of these schemes,
there is little evidence that past increases in the size of the box have produced
much of it. For example, the consolidation of central cities with their counties
over the last half-century seems to have done little to help these struggling
central cities and their populations as “empirical work on the subject shows
no relationship between consolidation and redistribution” (Savitch and Vogel
Imbroscio 19
2004, p. 772; also see Altshuler et al. 1999). Even the heralded regional gov-
ernance structure of Portland, Oregon, has exhibited significant “shortcom-
ings . . . with respect to taking up equity issues” (Provo 2009, p. 379). And
much of the same can be said of the other heralded case of regional gover-
nance in the United States, Minneapolis (see Orfield et al. 2016).
Here, the empirical misunderstanding most likely at the root of policy
failure is the rationalizers’ insufficient grasp of the crucial role played by
politics in shaping local outcomes (such as equity). Specifically, increasing
the size of the box merely reproduces existing metropolitan political biases in
a different form (see Barron 2003; Kirby 2004). As the well-known Louisville
case of city–county consolidation has demonstrated, the more conservative
suburbs and outer-city areas continue to wield dominant political power
(Savitch, Vogel, and Ye 2010). Although the bigger box provides access to a
greater resource base from which equity might potentially be pursued, the
political will to do so is limited in this new larger, but more politically con-
servative, polity (Imbroscio 2006).
People. Efforts to rationalize people themselves, by having them make more
rational decisions in areas such as educational attainment, reproduction, and
residential choice, also seem poised to largely fail. Take the case of higher
education. While the average college graduate does better than the average
high school graduate (the well-known college premium), a substantial pro-
portion actually do worse (Baker 2012). In fact, of those with a college degree
or some college, more than one-third remain poor, while they account for
approaching half of all low-wage workers (Fremstad 2013). And for those
who start in the bottom quintile of the income distribution and obtain a col-
lege degree, almost half remain stuck at or near the bottom (the lower two
quintiles; Urahn et al. 2012). Similarly, getting the urban poor to choose resi-
dences in suburban areas also seems unlikely to improve their economic
prospects, as most research on dispersal programs shows only limited posi-
tive results (see Goetz and Chapple 2010). And much of the same can be said
of getting the poor to make more rational decision to delay reproduction,
given that the key justification to do so is enhanced educational attainment
(which, as noted immediately above, very well may not pay off much).
The empirical misunderstanding here involves the question of what actu-
ally causes urban poverty. Namely, the deprivation Liberal Urban Policy
attributes to irrational individual behavior is, in reality, driven by the broader
underlying structure and dynamics of the American economy (cf. Slater
2013). Take, for example, the pursuit of educational attainment. Under pre-
vailing economic conditions, employer demand for the kinds of cognitive
skills obtained from higher education is too limited to generate a sufficient
20 Urban Affairs Review
level of good jobs for the swelling ranks of highly educated workers (Beaudry,
Green, and Sand 2013). Much of the same can be said of the pursuit of resi-
dence in suburban areas. Where such choices seem to have yielded some
economic payoff for the urban poor, such as for individuals whose families
were dispersed from central cities when they were young, the overall amount
of income earned still averages well below the abysmally low federal mini-
mum wage rate of $7.25 USD per hour (or, put in different terms, only about
two-thirds the poverty threshold for a family of three; Chetty, Hendren, and
Katz 2016). Thus, in the current U.S. economic climate, it appears that poor
people in cities could make all the right, ostensibly rational, choices pre-
scribed by Liberal Urban Policy—move to the suburbs, delay reproduction,
get higher education—and still likely remain poor. And, making matters even
worse, if large numbers of the urban poor all made these same choices, the
returns to higher education and the positional benefits of suburban residence
would likely be depressed further still (see Imbroscio 2016; Schmitt and
Jones 2013).
Ontological Misconceptions: Openings to Other Possible Worlds
As we just saw above, Liberal Urban Policy is plagued by a litany of policy
failures, each rooted in its Rationalist Paradigm’s misunderstandings of key
empirical phenomena. The fact that these misunderstandings are so common-
place strongly points to deeper problems with this paradigm’s (social) onto-
logical standpoint. The classic case here was famously documented by Jacobs
(1961). Modernist urban planners, observing urban neighborhoods from a
distance and with a rationalist mind-set, radically misconceived the social
reality existing in them, seeing only dysfunction and chaos rather than a dif-
ferent kind of functionality and order (see Hirt 2012; Scott 1998). Similarly,
the rationalism of today’s Liberal Urban Policy causes it to misconceive the
ontological realities of current settlement patterns, governance structures,
and the life-worlds of the urban poor. Such misconceptions, as we shall see
below, are strongly suggestive of the existence of other possible worlds (real-
ities) that contrast empirically in crucial ways from the world as it is con-
ceived and understood by Liberal Urban Policy. This alternative, but more
accurate, delineation of the realities in American cities in turn opens the door
to the possibility that an alternative policy agenda based less on rationalism
might well be superior to the liberal approach.
Settlement. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of Liberal Urban Policy analysts
misconceiving the reality of contemporary settlement patterns involves its
understanding of life in public housing developments marked for demolition by
Imbroscio 21
the Hope VI program. The rationalism framing the observations of these ana-
lysts caused them to focus too intently on the heavy concentration of poverty in
such developments. Once such a highly imbalanced, and hence irrational, set-
tlement pattern was identified, it was assumed (often with little direct empirical
evidence) that this housing must, perforce, be a horrible place for poor people
to live (given the—also assumed—impacts of neighborhood—or contagion—
effects spreading pathological behavior and related dysfunctions stemming
from the absence of middle-class social networks). Yet, harkening back to
Jacobs’s (1961) and Gans’s (1962) critique of the modernist planners a half-
century ago, careful ethnographic research demonstrated that, often, the
actual lived reality in public housing targeted for Hope VI demolition was
much different (see, for example, Greenbaum 2015). Goetz (2013b, p. 346),
reporting on the findings of Manzo, Kleit, and Couch (2008) from Seattle,
noted that most displaced families “considered the fact that the project [where
they had lived] had been entirely inhabited by poor families to be the basis of
solidarity and mutual support,” rather than a “source of dysfunction and
decline.” What we see, then, is that even in the extreme case of public hous-
ing, the realities in demographically imbalanced communities often do not
comport to Liberal Urban Policy’s understanding of them (see Cheshire 2012).
This observation opens up the possibility that, contra Liberal Urban Policy,
rationally ordered settlement patterns may not be required to address urban
problems effectively.
Governance. We see a similar ontological misconception when Liberal
Urban Policy examines patterns of metropolitan governance. The rational-
ist mind-set looks at these highly fragmented patterns with their absence of
hierarchy, simplicity, isomorphism, and a readily perceived order, and
deems them, inescapably, irrational. Because order (and rationality) “is pre-
sumed to result from central direction,” it is, as Nobel prize recipient Elinor
Ostrom (2000, p. 33) rather famously remarked, simply taken as a “self-
evident truth” that fragmented metropolitan governance is therefore irratio-
nal and thus badly in need of reform. Yet, this mind-set leaves rationalists
blind to the possibility that decentralized, nonhierarchical, voluntarist, and
flexible networks of self-organizing local governing actors can engage in
the kinds of interlocal metropolitan cooperation that makes this claim con-
siderably less self-evident. As political scientists Keith Dowding and Rich-
ard Feiock (2012, p. 44) pointed out, while “it is too soon to give definitive
views on the efficiency of these processes,” there is “no doubt that in the[se]
‘irrationalist’ forms of complex service delivery both citizen and public
sector organizations respond to [regional governing] inefficiencies by
attempting to coordinate activities.”
22 Urban Affairs Review
People. Liberal Urban Policy’s drive to rationalize poor people’s choice
behavior evinces another key ontological misconception. In this case, the
standpoint of the Rationalist Paradigm perceives any social order lacking
adequate opportunity for individual social mobility (and the resultant
enhanced material well-being) as irrational and, ultimately, pathological.
This perception stems from the liberal rationalist’s worldview that takes both
the increasing satisfaction of material needs and the continual growth (or
development) of the individual as a given in modernity. Hence, any social
order not based on that principle is unintelligible, or at best seen as exotic or
perhaps premodern (see Lasch 1991; Scott 1998). Yet, this social ontology
leaves Liberal Urban Policy less able to accurately comprehend the life-
worlds of the urban poor, where social stability (and even mere survival) is
often more highly valued than social mobility (see, for example, Goetz and
Chapple 2010; Pattillo 2009; Wacquant 1997). Once the life goal is seen as
stability and survival rather than upward mobility, rationalist assumptions
regarding what choices are (and are not) clearly superior in key areas like
reproduction (Edin and Kefalas 2011), educational attainment (Briggs et al.
2008), and place of residence (Chapple and Goetz 2011) can be relaxed. One
result of this relaxation is the opening up of the possibility that an alternative
set of urban policies might be designed to better support the actual felt needs
of urban poor in these areas.
The Organic Paradigm: An Alternative
Thus, as we just have seen, the Rationalist Paradigm of Liberal Urban Policy
is beset with a number of ontological misperceptions of social reality—
misperceptions causing it to misdiagnose the nature of urban problems and,
as a result, misprescribe solutions to them. Correcting for these misconcep-
tions suggests, as alluded to above, the existence of empirical realities (or
other possible worlds) contrasting from what is presumed by Liberal Urban
Policy. Such alternative realities in turn further suggest that an alternative
approach to urban policy might be both more fitting and more efficacious
(and, ironically, actually more not less “rational”). In light of the various
normative and empirical concerns with the Rationalist Paradigm documented
above, the search for an alternative paradigm seems very much in order.
One possibility would be to instead base American urban policy more upon
(what might be called) an Organic Paradigm. Organic reform, as the political
theorist Russell Arben Fox (2010) pointed out, springs from the Burkean
insight that policy efforts should “respect and take into account ‘the actual
historical evolution of particular societies.’”4 What this means, at its core, is
that any effort to address urban problems should evolve out of the highly
Imbroscio 23
specific and particularistic conditions that have marked the development of
American cities and their peoples over the proceeding decades. Key here is the
idea that, while an Organic Paradigm understands and takes seriously the myr-
iad injustices that clearly mark American urban development, such injustices
are understood as an historical starting point for evolutionary change rather
than something to be wiped away in a wholesale (or holistic) fashion.
As such, it is important to note that an Organic Paradigm’s contrasts with
the liberal approach are largely inconsistent with the (more familiar) neolib-
eral critique of Liberal Urban Policy, with its strongly market-oriented,
Hayekian skepticism about the capacities of the modern activist state. In fact,
in contrast to neoliberalism, the ultimate goal of an Alternative Urban Policy
based upon an Organic Paradigm is the same as that of Liberal Urban Policy
with its Rationalist Paradigm. This Alternative Urban Policy, too, seeks to
address urban problems in ways that establish more socially and economi-
cally just conditions in American cities, with a special emphasis on amelio-
rating the stark inequalities and multiple deprivations afflicting their most
vulnerable inhabitants. What this Alternative Urban Policy simply seeks to
do, then, is to realize this eminently desirable goal (or end) via a host of con-
trasting means that eschew the rationalistic measures (of both liberalism and
neoliberalism alike) for those more organic in nature.
What might this entail constructively? Consider, once again, the three key
areas targeted by Liberal Urban Policy for rationalization.
Settlement. As we saw above, the Rationalist Paradigm seeks to rationally
reorder established settlement patterns by inhibiting the ability of select resi-
dents to stay put in current locations while facilitating movement to other
locations. Its key goal is to significantly reduce demographically imbalanced
patterns—that is, segregation by income or race—as this phenomenon is
assumed to be a key cause of myriad urban problems (see, for example,
Dreier, Mollenkopf, and Swanstrom 2014). In sharp contrast, an Organic
Paradigm finds its justification in challenging this key assumption. It, instead,
sees imbalanced (i.e., segregated) patterns as largely an effect or manifesta-
tion (of larger order forces) rather than a cause of these problems (see, for
example, Cheshire 2012; DeFilippis 2017; Slater 2013; Smith 2010).
An Organic Paradigm would recognize and take seriously the role historic
injustices have played in contributing to the emergence of both economic and
racial segregation. But because these imbalanced patterns are understood as
not being a (chief) cause of urban problems, it would treat the resultant (seg-
regated) communities organically (or in urban sociologist Mary Pattillo’s
2009, p. 42, helpful colloquialism “as is”), meaning as they have historically
evolved over the past decades—and attack their deprivation directly. As such,
24 Urban Affairs Review
an Organic Paradigm would eschew the (prior) reordering of settlement pat-
terns via mass mobility. Instead, it would pursue policy strategies designed to
immediately improve these communities’ basic quality of life and increase
their stock of affordable housing (see Goetz 2015), while connecting disad-
vantaged residents with skill-appropriate and spatially accessible employ-
ment options that can begin to build community wealth (see Alperovitz 2011).
An on-the-ground (albeit nascent) example of the latter is the so-called
Cleveland Model. It seeks to direct the procurement expenditures of the city’s
anchor institutions (e.g., universities and hospitals) to create thousands of
jobs via an extensive network of cooperatives based in some of the city’s
most deprived neighborhoods (see Song 2014).
Governance. The Rationalist Paradigm aspires to centralize urban governance
via the creation of metropolitan-wide institutions. Its key goal is to eliminate
(or significantly reduce) local control, that is, political fragmentation,
because, in parallel to the discussion above, the Rationalist Paradigm assumes
such fragmentation to be the cause of myriad urban problems. The Organic
Paradigm stands, once again, in sharp contrast by finding its justification in
challenging this assumption. While not gainsaying the proposition that local-
ism and local control can in fact be problematic, following de Tocqueville it
also sees virtues in localist institutional designs as well (see, for example,
Derthick 1999; Elkin 1987; Frug 1999).
Thus, the Organic Paradigm would recognize and take seriously the (prob-
lematic) exclusionary effects of localism and local control, both historic and
contemporary, that liberal rationalists rightly attribute to it. But it also under-
stands localism in organic terms as fundamental to the American political
tradition (see Derthick 1999) and, as such, seeks to put this traditionalist
impulse in the service of establishing more justice in America’s cities. An
Organic Paradigm thus would eschew centralization in favor of governance
strategies designed to establish justice in cities by enhancing (rather than
restricting) the devolution of political power to them. While it accepts that
local exclusionist impulses can work to impede the establishment of this jus-
tice, it also sees what the legal theorist Gerald Frug (1980) called city power-
lessness as being a corresponding (and equally strong) reason why urban
injustices endure—specifically the severe legal limits placed on localities’
ability to regulate capital flows, directly own and control economic enter-
prises, and raise revenue. Empowering cities with these tools allows them to
better resist the demands of powerful corporate interests now dominating
urban regimes and, as such, offers the potential to alter local policy agendas
in favor of actions that lessen poverty and inequality (see Elkin 2006; Garber
1990; Schragger 2016). Moreover, by decentralizing key powers such as
Imbroscio 25
control over land use even further to citywide networks of neighborhood
associations (or other community-controlled organizations), the organic
efforts of urban inhabitants to address their own problems can be further
enhanced. An on-the-ground illustrative example here is the Dudley Street
Neighborhood Initiative in Boston. This initiative used the eminent domain
powers granted to it by the city to assemble properties for a community land
trust that, of late, has “stopped gentrification in its tracks” (Loh 2015).
People. Recall that the Rationalist Paradigm seeks to alter the value structures
of the urban poor that foster adverse decisions. Its key goal is to have indi-
viduals and families instead make decisions (around, inter alia, education,
reproduction, and residence) that promote their upward social mobility (see,
for example, Briggs, Popkin, and Goering 2010). Here, the challenge justify-
ing the Organic Paradigm is to question the embedded assumption that climb-
ing the economic hierarchy (i.e., upward social mobility) is necessarily
fundamental to human flourishing, when, as pointed out above, other life
projects, such as the achievement of basic social stability rooted in kinship
networks and place attachment, also carry substantial normative import.
An Organic Paradigm would recognize and take seriously the adverse
impacts that clearly can stem from certain problematic life choices (such as
having a child at a young age, de-emphasizing the value of formal education,
or not moving to a more opportunity-rich community). But it also seeks to cre-
ate the social conditions more supportive of such choices as they are seen as
largely organic in nature, having arisen from the extant norms and ways of life
evolving over time within the prevailing social–cultural milieu of contempo-
rary urban life. An Organic Paradigm thus would eschew Liberal Urban
Policy’s effort to enjoin poor people to make hyperrational decisions—where
they must delay reproduction (or perhaps forgo it altogether), go to college, and
move to the suburbs. Instead, it would favor policy strategies that allow indi-
viduals and families to deviate from this prescribed life plan without having to
sacrifice a decent and humane quality of life. To accomplish this goal, many of
the efforts mentioned above would also be useful here. These include the pres-
ervation or construction of affordable housing in poor neighborhoods and the
creation of spatially accessible and skill-appropriate employment options as
well as various other mechanisms for building community wealth (including,
especially, child care cooperatives based on mutual aid; see Nembhard 2014).
Which Way Forward?
A full description and explication of the Organic Paradigm is of course
beyond the scope of the present article. Thus, whether or not this paradigm
26 Urban Affairs Review
(and the Alternative Urban Policy that would flow from it) is superior to the
rationalist one remains a critical question for further analysis. While the
thumbnail sketch presented above suggests its great promise, the Organic
Paradigm also clearly confronts some tough questions.
For example, on a more meta- (and abstract) level, if the United States is
indeed a liberal society organically as political scientist Louis Hartz (1955)
famously argued so long ago (in The Liberal Tradition in America), there is a
clear underlying tension in the project to develop an urban policy that is both
organic in nature and essentially nonliberal.5 Perhaps the way out of this conun-
drum is to look to an enduring (and, in some ways, organic) countertradition in
America, which runs from the Anti-Federalists of the eighteenth century, to the
Populists of the nineteenth, and the Black Nationalists and New Left of the
twentieth. A second tough question comes from the realm of practical applica-
tion. In the face of the staggering levels of injustice and deprivation plaguing
American cities, calls for an organic approach with its profound respect for
what has evolved historically—deeply segregated settlement, excessively frag-
mented governance, and environments leading people toward (what are at
times) tragic life choices—might well ring hollow for many. Apropos here,
Scott (1998, p. 341) fittingly critiqued a conservative like Oakeshott for not
appreciating the “natural appeal” of rationalism for “an intelligentsia . . . who
may have ample reason to hold . . . [an inegalitarian] past in contempt” and,
consequently, wish to “banish [it] forever” by wiping away long-established
practices and social conditions through highly rationalistic means.
This natural appeal notwithstanding, what my analysis has tried to show is
the folly that plagues the rationalist temptation. While the Rational Paradigm
(and Liberal Urban Policy more generally) potentially produces normative
benefits in terms of ameliorating urban problems, these benefits must be bal-
anced (or traded off) against its many normative costs and empirical failures
elucidated above. Perhaps most surprising is how little of the stark lessons
from the twentieth-century experience with liberal rationalism have been
learned by contemporary urban analysts. The social and economic devasta-
tion of urban renewal (settlement), the antidemocratic effects of the munici-
pal reform (governance), and even the barbarism of the eugenics movement
(people) all can be rightly attributed to earlier applications of liberal rational-
ism.6 Revisiting this history, along with taking serious account of the critique
I have developed here, strongly points to the need to consider a more organic
approach to American urban policy.
I am grateful for the suggestions and encouragement offered by APSA panel discus-
sant Lester Spence, and I thank Tim Weaver for organizing the session. I also thank
Imbroscio 27
Amanda LeDuke, Preston Quesenberry, and Nick Conder, as well as journal editor
Peter Burns and two anonymous reviewers, for their assistance, guidance, and critical
Author’s Note
A more expansive version of this article was presented at the 2016 meeting of the
American Political Science Association (APSA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publi-
cation of this article.
1. For an analogous examination of American education policy, see Mehta (2013).
Also note that neoliberalism, too, has a strong (and in some ways similar) com-
mitment to rationalism (albeit one more focused on the market as the rational-
izing agent rather than the activist state).
2. Along these lines, Jargowsky (2015) has recently advocated that “every city and
town in a metropolitan area should be required to ensure that the new housing
built reflects the income distribution of the metropolitan area as a whole.”
3. In practice, of course, Liberal Urban Policy’s efforts here may be more lim-
ited in nature—by, for example, only moving small numbers of poor residents
to wealthier areas (as was the case in well-known dispersal programs like
Gautreaux) or by including a similarly small number in new mixed-income
housing developments (as was the case in HOPE [Housing Opportunities for
People Everywhere] VI). Although this approach makes the threat to democ-
racy and community minimal (considered society-wide at least), it also mini-
mizes the impact on relieving the social ills of segregation (and instead merely
aids a fortunate few).
4. Here Fox is quoting John Quiggin (2010).
5. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.
6. See Schafran (2014), Vogel and Harrigan (2007), and Greenbaum (2015). Other
notable examples include forced school busing, high-rise public housing, and
the various standards and accountability movements in public education (see
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Author Biography
David Imbroscio is professor of political science and urban and public affairs at the
University of Louisville. The author or editor of six books, including Urban America
Reconsidered: Alternatives for Governance and Policy (Cornell University Press), he
is a past recipient of the College of Arts and Sciences Award for Outstanding
Scholarship, Research, and Creative Activity at the University of Louisville. Currently
he is writing a book critiquing American urban policy.
... Instead, mobilized and democratically empowered local communities should employ a full range of public/community-controlled regulatory powers toward the construction of a robust affordable housing and anti-poverty/antiinequality urban policy agenda. A corollary is the admonition to stop seeing entry into affluent suburban communities as vital to this agenda, and instead focus on the spaces that disadvantaged people of color already inhabit (see, for example, Goetz 2018;Imbroscio, 2019;Pattillo 2014). As noted at the outset, this approach does not give affluent White-dominated suburbs a "pass" as much as it points to another, potentially more effective strategy to attack their privilege. ...
... Likewise, in a particularly innovative example of the use of local regulatory powers, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston used the powerful regulatory tool of eminent domain granted by the city to assemble properties into, among other community-oriented uses, a community land trust creating affordable housing in the face of gentrification pressures (Loh 2015). In fact, the DSNI is especially suggestive of what is possible once regulatory powers are fully embraced and decentralized to democratically controlled citywide networks of neighborhood development groups or other community-controlled organizations (see Imbroscio, 2019). Most notably, DSNI was able to exercise effective control over neighborhood land use in accord with its own development plan (King 2004), in essence appropriating urbanized space and affording the community a central role in the production of that space as called for by the RTTC. ...
Full-text available
In this short reply, I attempt to address my critics in the limited space allotted. I show, inter alia, how the Anti–Exclusionary Zoning (Anti-EZ) Project: (1) brutally reproduces White supremacy, rather than subverting it; (2) employs pernicious neoliberal and antidemocratic means to achieve its—at best—inherently modest ends; (3) emanates from and reflects the elitist politics of the liberal professional-managerial class that locks in the neoliberal status quo, instead of building upon the emancipatory potentialities and power of grassroots, street-fighting mobilizations for housing justice and the right to the city; (4) takes massively uneven capitalist development as a given, rather than the object of contestation and resistance; (5) denies lower-income/working-class people of color vital human longings; and (6) embraces the same progrowth mentality fueling the climate crisis. We must stop worrying (so much) about EZ and fight our real enemies: neoliberalism, White supremacy/racial subjugation, elitist skepticism of democracy, and the growth machine.
... Instead, mobilized and democratically empowered local communities should employ a full range of public/community-controlled regulatory powers toward the construction of a robust affordable housing and anti-poverty/antiinequality urban policy agenda. A corollary is the admonition to stop seeing entry into affluent suburban communities as vital to this agenda, and instead focus on the spaces that disadvantaged people of color already inhabit (see, for example, Goetz 2018;Imbroscio, 2019;Pattillo 2014). As noted at the outset, this approach does not give affluent White-dominated suburbs a "pass" as much as it points to another, potentially more effective strategy to attack their privilege. ...
... Likewise, in a particularly innovative example of the use of local regulatory powers, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston used the powerful regulatory tool of eminent domain granted by the city to assemble properties into, among other community-oriented uses, a community land trust creating affordable housing in the face of gentrification pressures (Loh 2015). In fact, the DSNI is especially suggestive of what is possible once regulatory powers are fully embraced and decentralized to democratically controlled citywide networks of neighborhood development groups or other community-controlled organizations (see Imbroscio, 2019). Most notably, DSNI was able to exercise effective control over neighborhood land use in accord with its own development plan (King 2004), in essence appropriating urbanized space and affording the community a central role in the production of that space as called for by the RTTC. ...
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Everybody, in the academic/activist world at least, seems to hate exclusionary zoning (EZ). In this intervention, I question this prevalent sentiment, especially as held by urban/housing scholars dedicated to the pursuit of social (or housing) justice. I find that the effort to curtail EZ—the Anti-Exclusionary Zoning (Anti-EZ) Project—embraces a set of pernicious normative values giving rise to sociopolitical outcomes far more detrimental to social justice than EZ’s actual adverse effects. Most saliently, while the practice of EZ is often a manifestation of the ubiquitous and enduring presence of racism in America, the Anti-EZ Project inflicts an even greater degree of racialized harm upon the disadvantaged. I thus find that, strategically, the Anti-EZ Project stands in polar opposition to what the pursuit of social/racial justice demands, and I briefly sketch the basic contours of this alternative strategy, pointing to, inter alia, some affinities with the Movement for Black Lives platform.
... Fourth, the simplicity of the YIMBYist argument, proffering de-regulation as the singular determinant of economic success, reveals the arrogance of policy expertise that presumes a clean linear progression from cause to effect (see also Imbroscio, 2019). The if--then certainty inherent in YIMBYism--if we eliminate regulation, then economic prosperity will directly ensue--denies the reality of urban complexity, the inevitability of unanticipated outcomes, the inescapability of context, contingency and path-dependency, and the unknowable effects of random mutations, accidental juxtapositions and external shocks. ...
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The upsurge in anti-regulatory rhetoric known as YIMBYism has deep historical roots in laissez-faire liberalism. Contemporary YIMBYism lacks empirical validation; embraces a categorical fallacy; embodies moral failure; exemplifies the arrogance of policy expertise; reveals the maturation of neoliberalism; and provides an object lesson in the dominance of power politics in the production of truth in the contemporary moment.
... What resources do they draw upon to confront the inevitable obstacles they encounter, and how do these shape the scope and ambition of policy makers? Despite continued urban austerity (Peck 2012;Theodore 2020), urban entrepreneurialism (Beswick and Penny 2018;Fuller 2018), and the deep failures of liberal urban policy (Imbroscio 2019), the possibilities of urban government have become the focus of renewed interest in urban studies (Tonkiss 2020;Joy and Vogel 2021). Notions such as "Progressive City" (Clavel 2010), "Radical Cities" (Baiocchi and Gies 2019), "Progressive Localism" (Featherstone et al. 2012), and the "New Municipalism" (Thompson 2021), capture diverse political projects around the world aimed at democratizing local government, contesting inequalities, and promoting citizenship. ...
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The progressive potential of urban politics is the subject of growing interest. However, debates have been largely focused on large cities with strong progressive constituencies of activists and Left-voting residents. We know little about the opportunities and challenges for progressive politics in smaller urban areas. This article addresses these shortcomings through a discussion of "progressive urbanism" in relation to small towns. In doing so, it makes three main contributions. First, it provides a definition of progressive urban-ism as political projects of social justice, citizenship and democracy exploring the contingent potential of "localism", "urban movements" and "municipal government". Second, the article provides empirical insights on small towns in the German state of Brandenburg governed by mayors of the Left Party. Third, the article outlines challenges and opportunities of progressive urbanism in small towns, providing points of reflection for future research.
... Although perhaps radical in an era of neoliberalism, the policies pursued in most cases fit within a more liberal paradigm that did not fundamentally challenge the dominance of the capitalist economic system (Imbroscio 2010(Imbroscio , 2019. In the earlier 1970s phase, progressive cities sought to expand on the liberal policies of the central state. ...
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The urban crisis-poverty and inequality, un-and under-employment, inadequate and unaffordable housing and public transportation, pollution and climate disasters-is the result of the failure of the neoliberal agenda to produce adequate funds and capacities to ensure the provision of services necessary for the city to function and its residents to thrive, especially the most vulnerable, and increasingly, the middle class. In the last few years, there appears to be a potential for a new more radical direction in urban policy. Yet, urban scholars and practitioners have been slow to notice the new possibilities that reopens the question of whether cities may engage in redistributive policies. In reviewing the history and current practice of progressive politics and policy in cities, this paper explores what a policy agenda for a progressive city might entail and identifies themes and questions for a renewed urban politics research agenda.
... Williams, 2020). A classic case in urban studies is Jane Jacobs (1961) critique of the hyper-rationalism of modernist planners (also see Hirt & Zahm, 2012;Scott, 1998), who only saw chaos and dysfunction where, in reality, there was a different kind of order and functionality at work (Imbroscio, 2019). A similar critique applies to Rothstein's (2017) account as well as the broader conventional view, which view the social world, especially Black spaces, from privileged positions of race and/or class, that is, from what is often a distant gaze. ...
As any good American urbanist knows: race matters. But precisely how does it matter? How have the pervasive and enduring modalities of racism (especially anti-Blackness) shaped the American metropolis over the last decades? Several influential attempts to answer these questions have focused heavily on racism’s momentous impacts on housing and related spatial practices. Such accounts have garnered intensified attention with the appearance of Richard Rothstein’s widely heralded The Color of Law. My central contention is that most conventional treatments of how racism impacted mid-century housing and spatial practices (including Rothstein’s) are deeply flawed. While almost obsessively centering racism as determinative, they nevertheless underestimate how fundamental it is to America’s institutions. I focus particularly on market institutions as they shape residential property values. Doing so reveals both a significant historical rereading of mid-century urban America’s highly racialized housing and spatial practices, as well as a more powerful account of ongoing racial dispossessions.
Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush agreed on little, but united behind the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Passed in late 2001, it was hailed as a dramatic new departure in school reform. It would make the states set high standards, measure student progress, and hold failing schools accountable. A decade later, NCLB has been repudiated on both sides of the aisle. According to Jal Mehta, we should have seen it coming. Far from new, it was the same approach to school reform that Americans have tried before. In The Allure of Order, Mehta recounts a century of attempts at revitalizing public education, and puts forward a truly new agenda to reach this elusive goal. Not once, not twice, but three separate times-in the Progressive Era, the 1960s and '70s, and NCLB-reformers have hit upon the same idea for remaking schools. Over and over again, outsiders have been fascinated by the promise of scientific management and have attempted to apply principles of rational administration from above. Each of these movements started with high hopes and ambitious promises, but each gradually discovered that schooling is not easy to "order" from afar: policymakers are too far from schools to know what they need; teachers are resistant to top-down mandates; and the practice of good teaching is too complex for simple external standardization. The larger problem, Mehta argues, is that reformers have it backwards: they are trying to do on the back-end, through external accountability, what they should have done on the front-end: build a strong, skilled and expert profession. Our current pattern is to draw less than our most talented people into teaching, equip them with little relevant knowledge, train them minimally, put them in a weak welfare state, and then hold them accountable when they predictably do not achieve what we seek. What we want, Mehta argues, is the opposite approach which characterizes top-performing educational nations: attract strong candidates into teaching, develop relevant and usable knowledge, train teachers extensively in that knowledge, and support these efforts through a strong welfare state. The Allure of Order boldly challenges conventional wisdom with a sweeping, empirically rich account of the last century of education reform, and offers a new path forward for the century to come.