Sprawl, justice and citizenship: A philosophical and empirical inquiry

2004 2004

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Abstract (summary)

Is the dominant pattern of metropolitan development in the United States at odds with democratic aspirations? Using data from the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey and the 2000 U.S. Census, this thesis tests the empirical relationship between census tract-level features related to sprawl (including density, commuting patterns, transportation patterns, neighborhood age, and suburban residence) and a range of civic and social outcomes. After controlling for a range of individual and contextual factors, the data show that on balance, residence in a sprawling place is associated with higher quality-of-life and greater social trust but reduced engagement in nonelectoral political participation; sprawl is also correlated with greater political conservatism.

The normative implications of these findings are discussed at length, with particular reference to three competing public philosophies-utilitarianism, liberal egalitarianism, and civic republicanism. Although sprawl appears to satisfy Americans' existing preferences better than dense cities, it is unclear that utilitarians should judge that continued sprawl would be preferable to plausible alternatives: policies which strengthened central cities might alter Americans' spatial preferences and make urban life more attractive than it currently is.

I further argue that there is a tension within Rawlsian liberal egalitarianism between its reluctance to challenge citizens' existing preferences and its aspirations for a society characterized by both substantive equal opportunity and a shared sense of participation in a common enterprise of justice. Sprawl appears to reinforce spatially configured social inequalities and to undermine social solidarity of the type needed to sustain a liberal egalitarian polity. Liberal egalitarians thus must decide whether to prioritize respect for people's existing preferences or their aspirations for an egalitarian society and culture in assessing sprawl.

The evidence explored in this thesis lends weight to the civic republican suspicion that sprawl is both reflection and cause of a way of life which elevates private ends over common goods and shared civic life. Within the context of the contemporary United States, civic republicans have strong reasons to prefer communities marked by political conflict and high levels of civic engagement to tranquil communities with high levels of social trust and trustworthiness but relatively little political engagement.

Indexing (details)

Political science;
Urban planning;
Area planning & development
0615: Political science
0999: Urban planning
0999: Area planning & development
Identifier / keyword
Social sciences; Citizenship; Justice; Political participation; Suburbanization; Urban sprawl
Sprawl, justice and citizenship: A philosophical and empirical inquiry
Williamson, Thaddeus Miller
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 65/10, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
9780496094738, 0496094734
Sandel, Michael J.
Harvard University
University location
United States -- Massachusetts
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
Document URL
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