Uncovering JAPA

Confronting Spatial Inequalities

For much of the 20th century, the gap between poor and wealthy regions in the United States declined. But over the past four decades, this trend has reversed.

A handful of metropolitan regions, mostly along the coasts, have accumulated more and more wealth, even as a large part of the country suffered from economic decline amid deindustrialization.

Interregional inequality has recently received increasing attention in national policy conversations under the Biden administration. Many recent proposals under the administration took the form of "place-based policies" that direct government investment or subsidies to economically struggling regions, in contrast to "place-neutral" policy approaches that target certain demographic groups regardless of where they live (Kraybill & Kilkenny 2003). Yet in the policy dialogue on regional divergence, perspectives from planning are sidelined or even absent.

Planning’s Role in Confronting Regional Inequality

How can urban planning scholars and practitioners shape the national conversation around addressing interregional inequality? In their article "Planning in the Era of Regional Divergence: Place, Scale, and Development in Confronting Spatial Inequalities" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 2), authors Gregory F. Randolph and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett suggest three ways that planning can, and should, shape this conversation:

  • Applying a truly place-based approach
  • Advocating for a multiscalar lens in addressing spatial inequality, and
  • Advancing holistic models of development

The truly place-based approach means harnessing critical attributes of place — social relations, cultural meanings, informal practices, and norms — to devise solutions to improve economic outputs. Though these factors are often overlooked even in policies with "spatialized" interventions and consequences, these are immensely important in shaping local economies and can drive geographic inequality.

Planners Advocate Multiscalar Lens for Regional Divergence

Planners can also advocate for a multiscalar lens in addressing regional divergence through planning's more granular spatial perspective. As Chetty et al. (2018) revealed, economic mobility within U.S. regions is only weakly correlated with traditional measures for regional economies such as job growth. Lack of attention to smaller scales of spatial inequality could easily fail to promote greater opportunity for a region's most marginalized residents.

In addition, the multiscalar lens becomes more critical in addressing spatial inequality within regions — even within "leading regions." In this regard, the authors suggest that planners can intervene in both policy design and implementation by informing the appropriate scale of interventions and helping to plan for variegated, subregional outcomes of policies targeting larger scales.

Lastly, place-based policy strategies will benefit from planning's holistic approach to promote development as the challenges facing economically distressed areas are not purely economic but also shaped by broader feelings of loss and decline. Planners consider how economic policies can incorporate equity into their design and implementation, for example, through developing alternative models of economic development such as worker and community-owned enterprises and devising meaningful participatory mechanisms.

As an aspiring urban planner, I appreciated this article in terms of how it elaborated the "place-based" approach as a useful lens not only to capture the causes of regional disparities but also to devise concrete solutions to address them. This article is a true "call to arms for the planning field to mobilize its unique resources in research and practice to influence the national and local policy response to regional divergence."

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About the author
Jiwon Park is a master of urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

April 14, 2022

By Jiwon Park, AICP