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Research Statement

In the early twentieth century, American cities underwent a durable shift in governing strategy. This shift contributed to the development of novel municipal institutions, including zoning and planning boards. These changes renegotiated politically recognized boundaries among groups, revised the organization of power, and reimagined the components of racial order. In Space and Race in Municipal Institutional Development: Baltimore, 1913-1940, I argue space is the underlying mechanism through which these changes occurred. I assert that the language of both the built environment and the natural environment (rivers, hills, and the like) contribute to what I call spatial formation. Building on Desmond King and Rogers Smith’s racial orders thesis and the literature on residential segregation, I demonstrate that spatial concepts are constitutive of both the state and the polity. Too often, political scientists assume space without exploring its origins, boundaries, features, and meaning. Keeping space in mind exposes the role it plays in organizing politics, racial formation, state action, and the geography of city life.

Political scientists have explored the timing and sequence of American municipal institutions. However, they have not sufficiently explained how space contributes to changes in the location and focus of control that results in a novel distribution of authority among members of the polity. I argue that the context of an institution's formation is not just about historical events and policy entrepreneurs, it is also about how these elements fit into existing and imagined space. Here my work not only contributes to the literature on institutions, my work also contributes to understanding urban politics. Further, while I am a political scientist, my interdisciplinary approach engages with history, geography, and urban studies and planning.

In the current stage of this project, I use government documents, historical newspapers, correspondence, demographics, and GIS to track changes to physical space, the dissemination of new ideas and technologies of space, and negotiations among political actors during the period between 1913 and 1940 in Baltimore, MD. I chose this time period because the first legal foundations of zoning and planning were laid by Edward Bassett in 1913 before achieving constitutional legitimacy in the landmark Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Supreme Court decision in 1926. The 1930s saw cities solidify the institutions of these spatial negotiations. I use the Baltimore Municipal Journal and the Afro-American and Baltimore Sun newspapers to map urban planning projects and zoning decisions. This mapping demonstrates how race factors into these decisions because the racial makeup of Baltimore neighborhoods has remained relatively static since this time-period. Moreover, most zoning decisions of the period identify the race of the property owner when they are African American. These same sources plus additional government documents and personal correspondence identify the key players, ideas, and negotiations that contributed to zoning and planning institutions.

My dissertation has five chapters, one of which I have already transformed into an article length publication. I am currently revising my introductory chapter to target submission to Studies in American Political Development.  In my first chapter, I present my puzzle, asking how space contributes to municipal institutional development. In it, I explore how American Political Development and urban politics, while not ignorant of space, underplay spatial arrangements in the construction of race and place. Borrowing from the literature on critical geography, I define space as a location created by actors and constituted by intricate and complex relationships at every scale. I then present the concept of spatial orders by building on Smith and King’s racial orders thesis. I identify spatial orders using the following three characteristics: First, when a state authority seeks to form a discreet geographical arrangement; second, when political actors adapt spatial definitions that organize both individuals and the built environment according to a political logic; and third, when the spatial order contributes to competing and complimentary orders. Thus, spatial orders consist of coalitions that seek to sustain economic and political power through consensus about preferences for geographical arrangements that predictably distribute that power.

In chapter two, I take up the question of space through the power of maps. I argue that maps standardize, segment, and control space in ways that contribute to, change, and reinforce hierarchies. By locating discreet elements in a representation of space, maps give policy makers the ability to both move people across space and to limit their movement. In the next chapter, I trace how the idea of blight set into motion the formation of new municipal institutions, including zoning boards. The term gathered such power because it evokes a public health crisis and comes to be a stand-in for African American housing. Moreover, the term “blight” collapses issues of health and fair economy to a single indicator. In so doing, so-called blight obscures the needs and desires of lived reality, particularly for Baltimore blacks. Finally, blight unpacks how ideas function not just as justifications for political action, such as the establishment of new institutions, but also as tools by which interests and institutions transform space from above in ways that sometimes contrast with the lived experience of those on the ground. A modified version of this chapter appears as “The Idea of Blight in Baltimore,” in the book How Ideas Shape Urban Political Development from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

In the penultimate chapter, I argue that zoning is a tool of the progressive spatial order that gives the idea of blight expression. Governments adopted zoning and other policies that inscribed ideas like blight on the landscape in service to elites and white, property-owning constituents who were demanding protection of property values and colorblind alternatives to racial zoning. I create a novel data set from zoning board appeals decisions made between 1921, when Baltimore first adopted zoning by height and use, and 1940. By tracking where exceptions to zoning are more likely to occur, I demonstrate how zoning boards allow coalitions of interests to reinforce and renegotiate spatially bound hierarchies. I will present this chapter at the annual meeting of the Political Science Association, after which I will revise it for journal submission. In the conclusion to my dissertation, I consider how spatial orders created in the early twentieth century present opportunities and challenges to cities and reformers responding to climate change and the movement for Black lives.


I plan to revise my dissertation as a book project, adding an analysis of regional planning associations and extending the timeline to 1954, when Congress passed the Housing Act of that eponymous year. I plan to add the cities of Philadelphia, Trenton, and New York City, all of which make up the mid-Atlantic corridor. Understanding that there are multiple small towns adjacent to these larger populations, I will also track how these cities formed (or failed to form) relationships with their cousin municipalities. I have identified the key archives in Philadelphia, Trenton, and New York City; additionally, I have already collected documents from the National Association of Realtors and the archive of the Library of Congress. The addition of these cities will allow a comparative analysis of the development and practice of zoning boards. The extended timeline will allow me to identify key revisions in the spatial regime.

By revising my dissertation, I will be able to produce a book-length project, write several article submissions, and sufficiently conduct a comparative analysis to identify the key differences and similarities in city planning, regional planning, and zoning legislation between 1913 and 1954. Tracing the development of zoning, planning, and regional planning boards will identify the formation of the contemporary spatial regime, explain how interpretations of due process designed to support these institutions reverberated across the legal landscape, and trace the boundaries of race and ethnicity in American cities. Attending to the Mid-Atlantic region will also create a more complete understanding of both the region and how regions adopt policy regimes.