Metropolitan Fragmentation and the Difference that Countries Make

I have just read an article, published last year, that raises useful questions about jurisdictional fragmentation in urban areas and its inegalitarian effects.[1] It appeared in Politics and Society. It was originally presented at a Political Geography Workshop organized by political scientists, which, as far as I can tell, did not involve any, sensu stricto, political geographers. That said, the article is still of interest and raises some important points, if inadvertently.

What the authors aim to understand are the comparative implications for urban inequality of jurisdictional fragmentation, drawing on evidence from cities in three countries – Boston and San Francisco, Toronto, London and Paris. Toronto turns out to be an odd choice in that there is little in the way of fragmentation, so it is not that significant from the standpoint of the points I wish to make here. The process central to inequality across jurisdictions is said to be ‘resource hoarding.’ This turns out to be the common practice in Boston and San Francisco and much less in London and Paris. The focus is then on those ‘features  of local governance that support (the) resource-hoarding dynamics.’ It sounds politicist, and it is. Accordingly, the authors believe that mitigating policies are possible, even while they admit the difficulty of change. The central point that I want to make is that it is going to be very difficult. There are structural reasons for this that have to do in the first place with logics of capitalist development; and second, the way in which those logics get refracted by country-specific social relations of a deeply embedded nature. In short, don’t be optimistic.

All four cases exhibit a multiplicity of local governments. In the case of London and Paris, this was set a long time ago. In the US, as the metropolitan area expands, new ones are being created all the time, or old ones are taken over by the advancing development frontier. This is not going to happen in London and Paris: there will be no new municipalities in Greater London and no new communes in Le Grand Paris. But given a shared multiplicity of local governments across the four cases, why is resource hoarding so common in the Boston and San Francisco cases? Three mechanisms are highlighted – ‘exclusion, municipal parochialism, and fiscal competition’, though in practice they complement one another and are not ‘independent’ variables in the sense conveyed by the term ‘mechanisms.’

What makes ‘resource hoarding’ possible, aside from the fundamental premise of numerous local governments, is the exclusive right, sans any supervision by higher order branches of the state, to plan land use; the incentive for exclusion is then the fact that local governments have to rely to a heightened degree on their own tax base (‘municipal parochialism.’) It is this fiscal home rule that generates a drive to attract in taxables, which is the fiscal competition bit. The authors do not refer to it, but what American local governments are most interested in are the taxables that generate little in public expenditure. So, at least until recently, shopping centers that bring in the sales taxes and don’t involve much spending, aside from the occasional police run to keep the shop lifters in line; and a quaint desire by school districts to attract in those uses that won’t generate students. ‘Resource hoarding’ then allows generous expenditures on the schools, recreation facilities, and public parks, making it even more attractive to those with the money to gain entry.

London and Paris, while jurisdictionally divided, are different. Land use planning by local governments is regulated from the top, and in ways to combat exclusionism, if not always successfully. As far as ‘municipal parochialism’ is concerned, in the United Kingdom there are strong redistributional mechanisms at the national level to offset inequalities in resources across local governments. In France, aside from the provision of the physical infrastructure, schools are supported entirely by the French state and in an egalitarian manner; something that the authors do not mention. So even if local governments were able to exclude, the motivation is a bit thin.

The article is useful within its limits. Those limits are its strongly empirical nature. ‘Theory’ is inductive, which I suspect accounts for the claim that the authors are interested in developing a ‘conceptual framework.’ Again, within those particular limits, there is a bit of idealization going on. Exclusion in the British case is alive and well, courtesy of the Green Belt; the very wealthy can be at ease in their gentrified villages, knowing that the arrival of the démunis is highly unlikely given the restrictions on new building. There are no green belts in France but the peripheral  communes, once the wealthy are safely gathered in, can be relied on to raise the drawbridges.[2] Moreover, you do not need new local governments to exclude; try buying a property close to a desirable school in London or Paris and you will quickly learn that the market can do the trick.

But bigger questions loom. In both instances we have a particular structure of relations, but with contrasting outcomes. Just why those particular structures of relations is not addressed, aside from the fact that any attempt to dismantle them in the American case would meet fierce resistance, and it does. At a certain level the motivational structures are the same and that has to do with the capitalist nature of the societies we are talking about.

The emphasis on resource hoarding suggests that it is the residents who stand to gain from it. This, though, is to miss the important role that fragmentation plays, under American conditions, in the calculations of the development industry. For them, it is about rent. A reputable school district and an affluent resident population means demand for their housing developments. No surprise, therefore, that where that fragmentation is challenged, they will lead the charge. Such was the case with various attempts to extend busing for racial balance into the independent suburbs. And no surprise that what the developers really like is a township or village, on the urban periphery, complete with its own school district, that they can take over and mold to their own purposes; something that I witnessed in Central Ohio in the case of Dublin and New Albany, both of which I report on in my forthcoming book on development politics in Columbus. The massive scale on which they develop is both condition and effect, allowing, through the artful design of the development, new opportunities for rent appropriation.

The wealthy residents are certainly complicit in this. They like the idea of exclusivity and hoarding tax resources and will applaud developer projects to include a shopping center or office park to reduce their own taxes. They will then rise up in opposition to any attempt at the state level to even out school spending, but they are not alone. More generally, capitalist states are sustained by alliances between capital and the wealthier strata, and this is an important aspect of this particular coalition of forces in the US. France and the United Kingdom are different in what brings the two together.

For all three countries differ in the concrete form of their social formations. They are certainly capitalist. The categories of wages, profits, competition, and accumulation, are central to how we understand them. Yet how in concrete terms capitalist logics unfold is refracted by those particularities. The authors of the article in question recognize the fact that state forms are very different: the US is decentralized and France and the United Kingdom are centralized, and I would add that they are about as far apart on the spectrum of possibilities that it is possible to imagine: from a radical federalism and delegation of responsibilities in the American case to the ultra-centralized states of France and, indeed, the United Kingdom. But curiously this contrast is not taken further.

To emphasize: State form in the United States is radically decentralized. In addition to states with exclusive authority for such crucial areas of provision as education and land use planning and considerable swathes of labor law, is the fact that they then, in their wisdom, have chosen to delegate some of these responsibilities to local governments. Liberal laws allowing the creation of new local governments have facilitated even greater decentralization. This is not all. There is also a radical territorialization of the federal legislature. This works in part through the primary system and so the limited power that the national parties have over who will contest a district or state. It also works through the committee system. Every bill has to pass the gauntlet of a committee before being voted on, and bills may make it no further. Those congresspersons and senators, who, in virtue of the district or state that they represent, have a particular interest in a committee’s business, tend to serve on it; so local interests get over-represented. If the bill makes it to roll call votes, bi-partisan coalitions are enough to shake one’s confidence that this is a state form that is indifferent to local and regional pressures.

This decentralization matters from the standpoint of the implications of metropolitan fragmentation for resource hoarding. The legislation allowing public housing in the US is classic. Public housing was vigorously opposed by landlords and developers. The decentralized character of the US state then allowed multiple points of pressure. The result was a maze of hurdles that its advocates had to jump. To be eligible for federal money, a local government had to establish a public housing authority. States had to agree to their establishment. In some instances, if a local government was planning one, there had to be a referendum. Independent suburbs, of course, chose not to even plan on creating such an authority. As the authors point out, in France you have no choice, and that was the case in the United Kingdom until the building of new council housing ground to a halt.

We cannot, however, stop at particular state forms. This is because in the way they are structured and the way they function, they reflect the particularities of social formations as a whole: national belief systems and the balance of class forces, above all. The decentralized form of the American state is ideally suited to a country where large numbers believe in the virtues of a weak state, the priority of market forces, and of the sovereignty of individual choice. State legislation that facilitated the multiplication of local governments, allowing Tiebout’s (in)famous ‘choice’ to come into play in the urban sphere, was one expression. The radical division of powers and responsibilities mean that the states and local governments can, through their competition, mimic the market and so hold at bay the dreaded monopoly powers of what would otherwise be a strong local or state government.

The peculiar nature of class tensions in the United States then expresses and reinforces this world view. The labor movement has always been relatively weak compared with West European cousins, and lacking in that strong ideological sense that gives it, through an alternative understanding of the world, a confidence to confront the establishment. The balance between promoting individual versus collective uplift has always been different. Labor unions in the US are more like pressure groups, and so easier to pick off: a matter of union gains to protect, and regardless of the interests of other unions or indeed, the masses at large. The dream of a house in the suburbs, an appreciating home value, has been a more shared one, and when you get there, you do indeed keep others out. More ideologically driven programs, like public housing have, therefore, had a hard row to plough. What our authors have to say about ‘resource hoarding’ and its relative presence is absolutely correct, but only as far as it goes.


[1] Freemark Y, Stein J and Thelen K (2020) Varieties of urbanism: a comparative view of inequality and the dual dimensions of metropolitan fragmentation. Politics and Society 48, 235-274.

[2] Charmes E (2007) Le Malthusianisme foncier. Etudes foncières, Compagnie d’édition foncière,

pp.12-16. Available here:

2 thoughts on “Metropolitan Fragmentation and the Difference that Countries Make

  1. Hi, Kevin
    Are you aware of the community wealth building project in Cleveland? What your thought on it. Would like to see an article here if you get time.


  2. I was unaware. Let me know more. Oddly there was an article in yesterday’s (May 18) Guardian on the Preston case in England and some similar efforts in the US, though Cleveland was not mentioned.


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