Place-Based vs Person-Based Community Development Policies

Planning debates over the relative merits and consequences of place-based (e.g., policing, enterprise zones, business improvement districts, neighborhood investment strategies, infrastructure, the gamut of supply-side urban development strategies, downtown redevelopment) versus people-based (e.g., training/education, some housing assistance programs, welfare as we knew it, means-tested transfers generally) are omnipresent, yet so far as I can tell there is no recent account of the overall status of these analyses, or systematic comparative assessments, or what the associated research or policy agendas might be.

This is kind of surprising given the visibility of post-Katrina New Orleans reconstruction/planning issues. Something along those lines, especially if aimed at providing a broad framework for evaluating community development initiatives and for identifying potentially fruitful areas for applied policy research on the topic, might well be handy. It’s possible that I just agreed to produce one over the next couple of months. And you, dear knowledgeable reader, can help.

The Research Literature
First, there are the efficiency and equity arguments. Economists (e.g., Ed Glaeser) have long and strongly preferred person-based programs due to the locational distortions (they can promote the clustering of the poor) and crude targeting (benefits disproportionately go to property owners) associated with place-specific conditions for participation. That is, person-based policies are a first-best strategy for policies aimed at specific persons. Yet circumstances, resources, and obstacles are often spatial in character — they are here, or over there — as are local governments, who then in practice appear to find it much easier to find support for place-based programs. This raises the issue, among many others, of the extent to which we should instead focus, in this policy debate, on the second-best.

Roger Bolton presents just this defense in a deservedly influential 1992 Urban Studies article, that takes Winnick’s even better known 1966 essay, “Place Prosperity vs. People Prosperity,” as its point of departure, together with two additional, related rationales for place-based corrective policies:

It appears one can make a case for place policies only by resorting to one or more of the following lines of argument:

  1. Challenge the conclusion that place policies cause great inefficiency. One must keep in mind second-best arguments here; place policies are not introduced as the sole imperfections in a smoothly-functioning, competitive economy.
  2. Argue that place policies are actually necessary for efficiency, because there are place-specific market imperfections or externalities that make it desirable to intervene with place-specific policies. One might rely substantially on ‘second-best’ arguments here, too.
  3. Challenge the conclusion that place policies are not effective in redistributing income to individuals. If they are effective as redistribution, there is a positive achievement to offset against losses in efficiency. If in addition one can successfully argue (1) or (2) above, then, of course, this third argument has all the more force. (p. 192)

In his subsequent discussion, he emphasizes the importance of place-specific “sense of place.” In a spirited defense of place-based federal economic development programs, Ann Markusen relies on Bolton’s arguments, along with several others and a number of caveats and implementation details, in testimony before Congress just last month.

Second, in addition to textbook principles, there are the raw realities of the political economy of the policy record and agenda, both moving targets. In his comments on Quigley‘s pithy retrospective review of U.S. housing goals and policies in the Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs in 2000, Wheaton points out that while U.S. housing policies have gradually shifted from place- to people-based over the decades, transportation policies have done the reverse, mainly reflecting the dynamics of shifting political constituencies. Sagalyn‘s detailed exposition of the resurrection of New York’s Times Square, Times Square Roulette, includes a litany of pretty good examples of how this works, or doesn’t, at the local scale.

Third, this debate is unexpectedly relevant to that over the promotion of “accessibility” as a transportation policy goal, in place of the more traditional “mobility.” Accessibility is often defined in this instance as getting people where they want to go (or the demand for destinations), where mobility refers more generically to the ease of movement (or the price of travel). If accessibility is more place-specific than mobility, the two debates may have more in common than we generally acknowledge.

Review Questions


Outside of several useful case studies, I can’t find a contemporary review piece. There is the new book, The Geography of American Poverty: Is There a Need for Place-Based Policies?, by Partridge and Rickman, which addresses this issue at some length. The publisher, Upjohn, summarizes their story in this blurb,

Place-based policies have been tried but, as the authors admit, they have been generally unsuccessful. In fact, it is not clear whether local job growth helps the poor since many new jobs often go to commuters and new residents already above the poverty threshold. Therefore, economists and policymakers generally prefer people-based policies that augment the skills of disadvantaged individuals. Still, Partridge and Rickman contend that place-based policies are needed to supplement people-based policies primarily because disadvantaged workers are often less likely to move to locations with vibrant economies; jobs need to be created close enough to poor households that residents can take advantage of those jobs, whether they have received training or not. The authors show that the most economically disadvantaged areas experience the greatest reductions in poverty with the creation of new jobs.

But this is mainly in the context of rural policy, and with respect to labor market and industrial relocation issues. A good start but not as complete as would be useful for contemporary community development planners and analysts.

The efficiency, equity, and political economy of modern place vs. person policy trends, and their implications for urban development, deserve an updated literature and policy review. A clearer statement of what we have learned from the record – especially from comparative work – would be of considerable potential value to modern community development policy.

I’m starting such a review. If you have suggestions or material to share over the next couple of months, I am all ears.

Monday, February 19th, 2007
randall Crane
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