Ballot Measures for Open Space Conservation: Economic and Institutional Processes in Cities

By Agustin León-Moreta (University of New Mexico)

Conservation is a defining policy challenge of our time. With growing urbanization, the conservation of open spaces takes center stage in global debates on livability in cities. Multiple public goods result from the conservation of natural resources in metropolitan areas. They include, for example, improved environments for public health, recreation, and sustainable food systems. For these and related reasons, cities are pursuing more and more alternative approaches for the conservation of land and open spaces.

We examine municipal ballot measures for open space conservation. Cities increasingly rely on the ballot box to obtain approval for conservation programs. The use of ballot measures for conservation is crucial in cities where open spaces are declining, particularly in the context of rapid urbanization. The need for open space is prompting governments, civic organizations, and communities to employ ballot measures for the conservation of existing land and open spaces.

Some cities have relied on referendums for many decades, but other cities rely little or not at all on this democratic mechanism. Yet, in a growing number of cities, referendums are becoming a crucial mechanism for enabling conservation projects. The most ambitious projects of land conservation in fact require a large investment of public resources. American voters have approved over $79,590 million in conservation funds since 1988.

My paper advances the discussion by considering economic and institutional explanations of conservation referendums. It links to the political market framework to analyze the role of those factors in the likelihood of conservation referendums. The general proposition is that conservation referendums are determined by the economic and institutional contexts of cities, so both contexts should be considered to understand the role of referendums in conservation efforts. I examine whether differences in the likelihood of referendums reflect distinct economic or institutional conditions affecting the support for conservation in cities.

A data set of conservation referendums is reported for a period of fifteen years, based on the Trust for Public Land’s LandVote database. Additional data for independent and control variables are compiled from multiple sources. These data are pooled for testing whether economic and policy factors shape differences in the likelihood of referendums and their passage. The units of analysis are cities from metropolitan areas. Given that unit of analysis, I analyze municipal-level referendums for land conservation. The empirical strategy is a pooled time-series analysis that allow us to model the probability of passage (or failure) of conservation referendums. After a pooled time-series model is specified, the outcome of interest—passage of conservation referendums—are tested for alternative factors of influence. I rely on pooled quasi-maximum likelihood estimation to focus on a consistent estimation of the dependent variable’s conditional mean, and I include alternative tests that check for robustness.

The findings show that the frequency of conservation referendums varies sharply across cities. Specific findings are that economic and institutional characteristics of cities affect the likelihood of conservation referendums. Implications are discussed for land conservation policy and politics, focusing on the role of referendums to protect open spaces. The public debate on urban land policy emphasizes the imperative of conservation in an increasingly urbanized society. This study contributes to that growing debate by highlighting the instrumental role of municipal referendums in conservation policies.

Analytical implications are suggested from this research. While crucial for explaining the likelihood of conservation referendums, a political market perspective could be adopted for the study of direct democracy more generally. Like conservation ones, other local referendums are similarly influenced by the economic and institutional contexts of cities. Consider ballot measures for economic development, a related but distinct purpose of city governments. A city’s economic foundation can be as influential for economic development referendums as it is for conservation ones, and institutional mechanisms similarly matter (Gordon 2004; Sbragia 1996). Some cities are in fact relying on the ballot box to resolve conflicting tradeoffs in economic development. The political market for local public goods, as a conceptual perspective, gives useful elements for analyzing the option of direct democracy for development, conservation, and related functions of municipal government in urban areas.

Practical implications are also considered. The findings suggest that economic and institutional contexts of cities shape conservation referendums. One implication is that those contexts should be part of policy analysis if referendums are proposed to obtain the public support for open space programs. If their feasibility is of concern, an effective assessment should include both economic and institutional conditions into the analysis of cities targeted as candidates for conservation measures. If conservation is to be pursued via the ballot box, an appreciation of those conditions should guide policy strategies toward prospective conservation measures. Proper economic-institutional conditions will be decisive for the eventual success, or demise, of those measures.

Open space conservation ultimately brings about a range of public goods. For example, open spaces can enhance livability and public health because of the improved accessibility of those spaces and their related ecological benefits. More broadly, conservation contains the footprint of urban development by preserving natural resources, ecological habitats, and the cultural heritage attached to the land. Conservation through the ballot box plays a fundamental role in protecting those resources in an environment of rapid urbanization. For these reasons, cities will continue to rely on referendums to resolve conflicting priorities in the alternative uses of land.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Gigin Krishnan on Unsplash

Author Biography

Agustin León-Moreta is assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Public Administration. He received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Policy from the Askew School at Florida State University. His research is published or forthcoming in Urban Affairs Review, Public Administration Review, the American Review of Public Administration, Urban Studies, State and Local Government Review, Public Administration Quarterly, and data sets from his research are shared on the ICPSR open-data website.