April 27, 2012

Comprehensive Metropolitan Reform: The Application of Urban Regime Theory

Rick Dornfeld, Advisor: Joseph Peschek

The urban exodus of largely middle-class Americans during the post-war housing boom led to the unprecedented expansion of U.S. metropolitan areas. Rapid development of the suburbs strained traditional urban cores, which were left with the region’s most impoverished residents. Developing suburban areas also faced challenges as they competed with other suburbs and struggled to accommodate an influx of new people. Increasing racial isolation and suburban competition were not the only products of the geographic shifts. This suburban expansion also led to the multiplication of governmental units. Highly dispersed suburban governmental units are an inefficient way to deliver services. Reformers long have called for metropolitan reorganization to improve service delivery and reduce the inequity between urban and suburban residents. Proponents of metropolitan reform often encourage strategies designed to reduce fragmentation, capture suburban growth within the central city and force local governments to consider regional concerns.

By examining the experiences of the Portland, Indianapolis, Houston, Minneapolis-Saint Paul and Saint Louis metropolitan areas via comprehensive histories, first-hand documents and interviews with former and current policymakers, I have identified key factors that impact comprehensive reform. I then compared these factors to urban regime theory. Since its development in the mid-1980s, urban regime theory has become one of the dominant paradigms in urban politics. Its position as one of the primary approaches to urban theory makes it an ideal choice for integrating my findings with urban politics.

I find that urban regime theory is generally able to explain the politics of metropolitan reform. In many cases, reform coalitions develop into regional regimes as described by regime theory. Even in cases where the coalitions deteriorate post-reform, these shorter-term coalitions often mimic patterns found in their long-term cousins. For these reasons I conclude that urban regime theory is an appropriate vehicle for understanding comprehensive metropolitan reform.