Reimagining metropolitan fragmentation: The Local Autonomy Project
The fragmentation of metropolitan regions into dozens and sometimes hundreds of general-purpose local governments has for decades been at the heart of a debate about optimal metropolitan governance. Scholars have long recognized that fragmentation is a complex concept capable of measurement through multiple dimensions. Early measures focused on raw counts of general-purpose governments within a region, or counts per capita. Recognizing that such measures failed to capture the economic diversity between central cities and among different suburbs, measures began to incorporate political and economic market share through concentration and diffusion. The goal of such measures is to incorporate multiple dimensions of fragmentation to better proxy our expectations for how large and small jurisdictions—in both the economic and political senses—might be expected to behave when resolving tensions between local and regional interests. The general expectation is that higher fragmentation—however it is measured—will lead to a greater likelihood of parochial behaviors in which local interests are prioritized due to the demands of political and fiscal responsiveness on local decision-makers. While these measures have allowed valuable insights into how metropolitan regions function, they do not adequately incorporate the highly heterogeneous autonomy granted by states to local governments. This study proposes a framework and method for objective and subjective measures of local autonomy. The former requires content analysis of constitutional provisions, state legislation, and case law, while the latter relies on large-n survey of local elected and administrative officials, using hypothetical scenarios to determine how these actors perceive the state-local relationship. The primary goals of the research are to use these measures of autonomy as a complement to fragmentation measures, and to explore how local autonomy affects (1) the function and formation of regional governance organizations in metropolitan areas and (2) regional outcomes in policy domains where local and regional tensions can often lead to suboptimal systems, including transportation, land use, and infrastructure.
Thomas Skuzinski is Assistant Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, and is a Faculty Fellow at the Global Forum for Urban and Regional Resilience at Virginia Tech. His research applies a sociological institutionalist lens to understand how variation in rules, norms, and cultural worldviews shape decision-making in local governments and metropolitan areas. He is especially interested in the nexus of land use, infrastructure, and economic development policies in Rust Belt and Appalachia, and is the founder of the Global Forum Research Network in Post-Industrial Resilience, which seeks to further comparative scholarship of de-industrializing geographies. Dr. Skuzinski’s most recent book, The Risk of Regional Governance (Routledge 2018), used original large-n surveys of local elected officials to explore the cultural cognition of interlocal cooperation in suburban communities in Grand Rapids and Detroit, Michigan. His current research projects focus on developing indices to measure transportation governance and local autonomy in metropolitan areas in the U.S., and has been funded by the Department of Transportation and Regional Studies Association. He received doctoral and master degrees in urban and regional planning from University of Michigan, and a Juris Doctor from Michigan State University.