Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities

Editor’s Note: Jessica Trounstine has recently published Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities (Cambridge).  A fascinating empirical examination of how local governments have used the distribution of public goods and land use control to increase the wealth of white property owners at the expense of people of color and the poor.  This post by Trounstine discusses the core argument of the book and some potential solutions.  Her post is followed by several reactions to the book from notable scholars of local and urban politics who originally presented their comments at the 2019 meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. 

Jessica Trounstine (University of California, Merced)

Political basis of unequal access to resources

The quality of public goods in the United States is highly variable. Some people have access to good schools, well-paved and plowed roads, sewers that rarely overflow, public parks with playgrounds and restrooms, adequately staffed police and fire forces, and clean water, while other people do not. So, why are some communities so well resourced and some cities not?

The answer, it turns out, is segregation.  Segregation refers to the concentration of poor people and people of color in residential locations apart from wealthy, white residents. I find that it is segregation, shaped by local political processes, that permits unequal access to public goods and services to persist. Despite many demographic and economic transformations, the United States remains a profoundly segregated nation.

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Trounstine’s book features an original comic written by Jessica Trounstine and Darick Ritter and illustrated by Darick Ritter. View the full comic here and see more of Ritter’s work at his website.
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Impact of land use regulation

We can look at any metro area in the United States and ask – why are the schools so bad, the crime rate so high, and the parks so dilapidated in places like Camden, New Jersey while Cherry Hill is like a different world? Is it racism? Economic inequality?

Since the earliest days of U.S. urban development, local governments have influenced property values and strategically allocated city services to the benefit of their core constituents – white property owners. Local politics is, at its core, the politics of land use, dominated by white property owners who seek to enhance their wealth and control the allocation of services like public education.

Since cities became modern service providers in the early 1900s, they have inequitably distributed services in ways that entrench segregation. Over time, cities started to build sewage systems and water treatment plants, began to collect garbage and light their streets, and for the first time, began to manipulate and direct the uses of land. They planned and zoned land within city limits to define where certain types of housing and buildings could be located (or not). They also decided where public amenities and nuisances would be placed. As all of this unfolded, city governments sought to protect white homeowner neighborhoods and business properties from integration, and concentrated the delivery of public goods on politically powerful constituents. These strategies resulted in persistent neighborhood-level residential segregation and inequalities in the delivery of municipal services. Later, when the federal government offered funds for urban renewal and public housing, cities utilized these processes to reinforce earlier patterns.

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Camden and Cherry Hill, NJ 1970
Camden and Cherry Hill, NJ 2010

The maps reveal how segregation between Camden and Cherry Hill changed between 1970 and 2010.  In 1970, Camden was 60% white and still had several exclusively white neighborhoods.  These white neighborhoods had completely disappeared by 2010.   In 2010, a greater share of segregation occurs between Cherry Hill and Camden than within them. 

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Land development is highly regulated

It is important to understand that land development is not a free-market process.  It has become ever more regulated over time.  For more than one hundred years, this process has benefited white property owners and their allies, and disadvantaged people of color and those at the economic margins. After entrenching this subdivided landscape, white property owners became free to claim that segregation was simply the result of differences in individual preferences. They decried governmental attempts to desegregate neighborhoods and spread public good as infringements upon their rights.

Where and when people of color had political voice, segregation and inequality were reduced. In the decades following World War II, the political voices of the marginalized grew louder. As people of color contested municipal elections, demanded an end to Jim Crow, and the federal government took action against segregation, the control of white property owners became increasingly uncertain. White property owners often moved to the suburbs where they could maintain political power and police the borders of their communities more easily. As a result, metropolitan segregation only changed form and scale, shifting from block to neighborhood, then from neighborhood to cities versus suburbs. During every attempt city, state, and the federal governments have made to desegregate residential areas and public goods, white homeowners have found new ways to insulate their communities.

Potential Solutions

What solutions lay ahead? State and federal governments can compel desegregation on various fronts.  But, they must be attentive to local institutions that allow cities to avoid integrated outcomes.  Thus, desegregating neighborhoods and schools is likely to require stripping, to some degree, local control. At a minimum, going forward, states could analyze school district and municipality incorporation with an eye toward integration, limiting fragmentation and opportunities for segregation. Importantly, states can also require densification through the building of multifamily housing.  Although, states must be vigilant to ensure that cities do not increase segregation by shoehorning multifamily housing into concentrated neighborhoods.  Alternatively, we might try to address individual choices by giving lower-income residents massive housing subsidies – allowing them access to segregated neighborhoods.

If tackling segregation itself proves politically unworkable, another approach would be to focus on reducing the public goods inequalities that segregation generates.   State governments can compel public goods equalization policies as they have done for schools.  Although this is possible, it is obviously politically contentious.

Garnering state support for desegregation and/or the equalization of public goods will require tremendous political pressure from marginalized groups and their allies – an admittedly daunting task. However, these groups may also find support from both businesses and residents who have been priced out of unaffordable markets.  Mobilizing and building coalitions are the place to start.

Reactions to Segregation by Design

Sarah Anzia (University of California, Berkeley)

This is an outstanding book, pathbreaking in many regards. It’s notable for what it achieves in helping us understand segregation in the United States and the consequences of segregation, and it’s also important for what it achieves in the study of local politics. I see the book as really pointing the way forward for those of us interested in local politics, and for furthering the study of inequality – the producers and consequences of inequality.

This is a book about local governments and about local policy and outcomes.  Focus on local and focus on public policy – actions taken by local governments – in producing segregation and thereby affecting public goods provision and even polarization.  That is worth underscoring for a few reasons.

First, it puts the spotlight on local government not as another case but as something important and worthy of study.  The book is convincing.

  • People will say: local politics is just about land use, the services local governments provide are distributed pretty evenly, local politics is boring, or local politics is simply not that important compared to national and state politics…All local politics scholars get these types of comments.  The commentators are wrong!
  • In many ways, there is growing recognition that what local governments do is incredibly important, by itself.  On land use:  these decisions have major, nationally consequential effects on the economy, the affordability of housing, on inequality. On public service provision being provided equally:  In the United States we take this for granted.  People studying India don’t take it for granted: they look at things like who gets clean water, where do sewers over flow, when do the police show up when someone calls them. I think we’re starting to see that clean water, police response times and treatment of the accused, the quality of public education –- these are not evenly provided.  This book begins to unpack why that is.
  • This book is connecting what local governments do not just to local outcomes but to what they produce on a grander scale.  As a result of all of this, we have a more segregated country, it has had national impacts for race relations, polarization, all kinds of things.  So that’s different than just saying local government does important stuff – it’s saying local government is a contributor to these national patterns. Local politics IS American politics.

Second contribution here is on the public policy part; Trounstine is focused on public policy.  That local governments made certain policies (and did not make others) and that those policies had these effects and were intended to have these effects. What kinds of policies are we talking about?  Both policy and procedural. For example: local governments used zoning laws, placement of segregated schools, public housing, slum clearance, built federal highways.  Minimum lot sizes, number of multifamily units allowed, require developers to pay infrastructure costs, short versus long review periods for zoning changes and building permits, allow many actors to participation (page 35)

The study of local politics has been growing in recent years and we have seen a change in the kind of work being done.  But a lot of it is entirely policy-neutral.  The things people are trying to explain are like the incumbency advantage and retrospective voting.  No policy in here.  Doesn’t even necessarily have to be local politics, it’s just that it’s another case.  Then there’s the local political economy stuff which usually just looks at spending outcomes.  Trounstine’s book does much more:  she has studies of sewer extensions, sewer overflows, adoption of zoning laws, procedural restrictiveness of the development process.  She also considers spending.  So, she’s really expanding the range of policies we can look at. 

Trounstine is thinking carefully about the differences in the politics across policy areas.  At the national level public opinion on policy is usually measured in surveys that ask questions about spending more or less on certain policies.  Trounstine says, “Sewer overflows are different. No one wants a river of fecal matter running down their street or flooding their basement.” Fewer of these events is always better and Trounstine can use this to her advantage.  Using EPA data on overflows 2001-2003 in 1417 cities., she finds sewer overflows higher in more segregated cities.

Third, the book provides a deep historical perspective on how all of this happened and why.  On the one hand, this is a book that does these really elegant quantitative empirical analyses at different snapshots – points in time.  Okay, so here we’re looking at which cities were early adopters of zoning laws.  Here we’re in the 2000s looking at sewer overflows.  But the book all together is telling a story over time, how it all fits together, how you have to understand how the early 20th century set the stage for everything to follow.  This historical stuff gets baked in.  You can’t just look at a snapshot by itself; you have to understand how we arrived at this point in time.  This is not something that has been a big feature of the growing local politics literature.

This is the future.  It’s where the historical institutionalists overlap with the causal inference revolution.  Scholars can combine historical perspective with descriptive data, narrative, and empirical designs that allow identification of effects.

The book also sets the agenda for what more needs to be done going forward.

We need more data on actual local policies and the variation in them.  So, we know which cities adopted zoning laws when, and we know about the land use regulation process. But what about the variation in the content of those zoning laws across cities? What about how policing is conducted? Which cities are sanctuary cities and what those policies are? Even some spending / fiscal issues we don’t get in the Census of Governments. We don’t have good data on tax rates (only revenue).

We need to know more about the effects of the Great Migration:  This is discussed too briefly in the book.   It wasn’t just movement of blacks and whites but a large influx of blacks during the period of the Great Migration.  So how did this vary across places, and to what effects? 

The main claim in the book is that the outcomes we observe today are intentional.  Indeed, it’s in the title.  By Design.  And the qualitative evidence of the book really helps because some people are out there saying in the old days “we need to protect our property values.”  But more systematically and in current period it’s hard to do that.  You’re never going to get a mayor saying “we’re doing this because we want to protect white property owners and real estate developers.” 

It’s really hard to overstate how much Jessica has accomplished with this book.  In my view, it’s a game changer in the way we think about local political economy and an agenda setting book for how we should study local politics and American politics generally.

Clayton Nall (Stanford University)

I. Major Contributions

I want to begin by highlighting many of the things that make this book an incredibly important addition to scholarship on urban segregation.  In American politics, and particularly in behavior and psychology, there’s been a lot of research on the psychological and contextual effects dimensions of segregation.  And there has been much written about the legal and federal policy histories of the development of exclusionary suburbs.  But there has been far less work on the welfare implications of local policy.  That has been changing in recent years, particularly in our cognate disciplines, and we have only been trending in that direction as political scientists. 

Perhaps because it is so difficult to systematically collect historical data on local institutions, much of the work on racial segregation and its consequences has been of a few varieties: (1) sociological, easily accessed through Census and federal database research (much of the research by sociologists), (2) focused on federal policies and their consequences for segregation, housing discrimination, and suburban growth (Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, American Apartheid) or (3) addressing the legal history of discriminatory housing policy (Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law).  This is the first book to bring the full power of social science research methods to understand how local government–acting at the behest of the typically dominant white middle and upper-class homeowners—has been an important agent in reinforcing segregation.

This book highlights that segregation is important, 1) not just because it results in the geographic segregation of preferences, but because 2) there are major welfare implications associated with the targetability (or lack of targetability) of club goods.  Defensive localism by white homeowners created enclaves within cities.  Later, municipal fragmentation made suburbs an appealing destination for white flight, and their exclusionary zoning policies protected the club goods of the white community in these places.  Local zoning and unequal provision of club goods were actions of local governments, not just imposed from above through federal policy. 

Versions of this story have been told before. But this book goes beyond existing work, doing a better job than any work I can recall at revealing the racial intent and racial targeting underlying such decisions.  Much work on exclusionary policies suggests that we can’t really distinguish racial intent from people’s desire to protect their economic self-interest and quality of life. .  We might consider this the local politics version of “principled conservatism”—just as people oppose affirmative action and welfare as principled conservatives, perhaps they oppose dense rental housing–which just happens to be occupied by more racial minorities and the poor–they believe that low-density housing is better public policy.  

By focusing on distributive politics, Trounstine is able to draw insights about the role of racial discrimination that other scholars are not.  For example, probably my favorite graphs in this book–as close to a smoking gun as I’ve seen–examine the distributive consequences of segregation on the distribution of basic public health infrastructure: municipal sewer hookups, location of combined sewer outflows, and water chlorination.  She shows that white neighborhoods got these essential services first, or in greater numbers.  

What makes these examples particularly devastating examples is that one can’t readily make the claim that exclusion of services from communities reflects “principled conservatism”–as opposed to, say, welfare or education aid.  Even the most pro-market, voluntarist libertarians usually believe that basic public health infrastructure is a function of government.  The fact that cities were already providing such benefits–but only to white neighborhoods–demonstrates that the traditional defenses against racist intent–that it can’t be detached from racism–don’t hold true.   Local choices over public goods provision, where the correct ideology around redistribution is not obvious, reveal that race matters.  Segregation facilitates racial targeting.

II: This Book Departs in Valuable Ways from Existing Scholarly Approaches to Cities

Any scholar working in the area of American political development broadly defined faces a dilemma: whether to use the historical record as a data source for ahistorical research on the link between segregation and public goods provision, or, in the spirit of comparative politics research, to draw much broader conclusions about the development of American politics.  This book exploits spatial and temporal variation in local segregation, and does so effectively.  Contrast this with, say, much of the work that’s been done on the development of the American welfare state, which has entailed a lot more process tracing and appeals to counterfactual historical reasoning.  I consider Crabgrass Frontier one such historical work, which never quite presents counterfactual history, but counterfactual historical reasoning nevertheless underlies the work.  As a result, so much work on the development of cities has walked right up to the line of post hoc fallacy: urban decline followed federal intervention, or some major technological change.  

This work seems to split the difference between quantitative historical revisionism and scientific discovery on the nature of segregation and public goods provision.  The book is at its best when presenting discoveries on the real welfare implications of segregation and targeted public goods provision.  I see the rest of the book, including the historical revisionism, as providing necessary context for these empirical discoveries.  This book will be an important addition to urban scholars’ collections, and I look forward to assigning it and rereading it in the years to come.

Andrea Benjamin (University of Missouri, Columbia)

The book opens with a cartoon, which may look like fun, but it goes straight to the heart of the issues underlying how segregation in our cities exists and persists.  Yet, it also sets the tone of the book:  while extremely rigorous in terms of analysis and well researched, the book is accessible.  This is the greatest feat of this work.  Regular people can read it and understand how things we take for granted are really the culprits for segregation.

We often hear people say, oh city councils don’t do much.  Sidewalks and zoning.  How boring.  I would argue that after reading Segregation by Design, one could never think of zoning and sidewalks as boring.  They are the key mechanism by which we have created these segregated cities. 

The narrative, that individuals are just trying to maximize their property value or interests is compelling.  But it’s false, because it has always been about groups.  To be clearer: How Whites can maintain the benefits on the backs of communities of color. This is directly related to the current conversation on Affordable Housing.  Communities can be committed to the idea in theory and do everything in their power to keep it out of their backyard.  So, while some cities have taken extremely progressive stands (Minneapolis and the proposed ban on single family zoning by 2040) is an example.  But we need models that promote more home ownership for communities that have been kept from home ownership.  Charlotte serves as a good example:  private-public partnerships with $15K for down payments. Why is this? It may help level the playing field. As Trounstine points out, politics alone can’t save Black and Brown people. If there are more Black and Brown homeowners, they too become a group to be mobilized. Even if people don’t own homes, I think this mobilization of more voices is the key to real change.

In this Solutions section of the Conclusion, Trounstine says: “the lesson here is clear: desegregation policies from higher levels of government can be effective–but they must interact with local institutions like school district boundaries and local land-use policy. Thus, desegregating neighborhoods and schools is likely to require stripping, to some degree, local control. At a minimum, going forward, states could analyze school district and municipality incorporation with an eye toward integration, limiting fragmentation and opportunities for segregation.”

There are local organizations that we have seen organize and mobilize to demand change in their local communities.  In Durham, FADE (Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement) requested city police officers to obtain a motorist’s written permission before undertaking a “consent” search of a vehicle during a traffic stop.  The Coalition and Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit has been part of the conversations around affordable housing and density zoning.   Finally, in Queens, NY, a coalition of progressive organizations worked together to help block the Amazon headquarters.  In sum, when groups organize and mobilize, they can also have their preferences met by local governments. 

Elisabeth Gerber (University of Michigan)


  1. Segregation by Design powerfully demonstrates the role of local governments in both explicitly and implicitly producing patterns of residential sorting by race and class, and to consequences of that segregation on social outcomes.
  • Segregation by Design brings political science squarely into the discussion.
    • Part 1 carefully documents changing patterns of segregation.
    • Mechanisms that led first to segregation at the city block level, then at the neighborhood level, and most recently at the regional level.
      • Big takeaway: evidence of the role that local governments have played in creating these patterns.
    • Part 2 asks what these patterns of segregation have meant for policy and political outcomes
      • Public goods provision
      • Political polarization.
    • Together, it provides a fresh, new perspective on racial dynamics and inequality, political/social/economic geography, and local politics in American cities and regions.

Big takeaway points from Segregation by Design:

  • Controlling for race (%black) in our models of politics may severely mis-represent how race is actually affecting politics. What matters is the distribution of where people live and how they interact.
    • Racial dynamics play out differently at different levels. For example, in chapter 7 – political polarization is fueled by segregation at the local/city level but by diversity/integration at the regional/metro level. 
    • Interaction between federal, state and local policies still matter.

Things to think about after reading Segregation by Design:

  • As long as local governments maintain control of land use practices, distributional decisions, and other policies that reinforce segregation, movement towards further polarization is inevitable. Is this true? Are there examples where cities have reversed this trend and have become more integrated/ less segregated in recent years?
    • Role of federal government?
    • Role of private sector?
    • Think about potential counter examples:
      • Detroit
        • Gentrification – how new trends in white migration may affect all of this. What is the role of local government?
        • Privatization of public services
      • How do local political institutions mediate the incentives of local land owners?

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