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Local political geographies
"Hidden Spatial Inequality" Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities © 2009


Local governments have considerable power to give benefits to residents within and outside of their boundaries, or to withhold them.

Local governments determine which areas are annexed into a municipality and which are excluded, local governments set land-use regulations and zoning, local governments select areas to receive infrastructure, and local governments identify areas to be “redeveloped.”  Through these powers, local governments can diminish or deny minority political standing in local affairs, limit access to public services, and reduce the value of minority property. 

Racially-disparate application of local governments’ power to shape local political geography creates barriers to equality that are difficult to discern on the ground, but which can be made visible though mapping of spatial data.

This ongoing research presents cases where governmental decisions concerning the local political geography have institutionalized racial inequality; the cases are documented with maps created from public GIS data.  The cases cover these five local government processes: the creation of external boundaries, provision of infrastructure, zoning, extraterritorial jurisdiction, and redevelopment.  These activities are all important parts of the administrative apparatus of municipalities to regulate the evolving municipal landscapes. 

These ‘good government’ tools exist because there are large aggregate societal benefits when they are applied correctly, but these powers also can create and institutionalize racial disparities. 

This result may be intentional racism or merely a by-product of economically rational actions; the effect is the same.

Gomillion v. Lightfoot might be the best-known municipal-boundaries case ... in 1960 the Supreme Court threw out Alabama state law that re-drew the boundaries of Tuskegee from the square, on the map below, to the lighter-colored 28-sided figure which excluded all but 4 or 5 Blacks, while retaining all White residents. gomillion