Chapter 1: Introduction and Themes

1.A – Introduction

      State and local government are the most visible levels of government in the United States.  As you leave your family house, apartment, or school dormitory you encounter state and local government services, programs and infrastructure.  From traffic lights, streets and highways, water and sewer services, K-12 education, higher education, parks, mass transit, law enforcement, utilities, communications and mass media, and many other activities, state and local governments are either directly involved in offering these services or in regulating organizations hired to provide such services.  From the 50 states to the 3,031 county, 19,519 municipal, 16,360 town or township, and 51,146 special purpose governments (which could include school, hospital districts, rural fire districts, soil conservation districts, irrigation districts, regional transportation districts, and many more), the typical citizen encounters state and local government services and programs on a daily basis.

      While state and local governments are the most visible and potentially most important on a daily basis for most citizens when compared to the federal government, the generally low levels of interest in and knowledge concerning these governments and the often high levels of cynicism regarding their leaders among citizens is of great concern to many political scientists.1 Given the importance of civic knowledge to effective participation and democratic institutions, how many states require students to take civics and government education?  As of 2007, only 29 states require a government or civics course in high school.  However limited this coverage may seem, this is a much higher proportion than is present at the university level; only 9 U.S. states require some study of American government, with 5 of these also requiring study of their respective state governments as well.2 Of course, universities and political science departments may require such courses on their own, but courses on state and local government tend to be optional in most colleges and universities.  The purpose of this book is to provide an accessible overview and guide to state and local government for students with little to no exposure – and possibly limited interest – in order to encourage lifelong democratic participation and what Russell Dalton calls “engaged citizenship.”3 In an attempt to achieve this purpose, we will present state and local government in a contemporary context by examining the many forces that either promote or threaten social, economic, institutional and environmental sustainability.  In using the term sustainability, we make use of the 1987 Brundtland Report definition (also known as Our Common Future): development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  The book will make note of where students can go to find additional information on state and local governments, and how citizens can follow the developments of – and even become actively involved in – the unfolding of state and local governance issues that affect their own daily lives.

      Each chapter in this book incorporates some of the most important recent research available, and identifies key concepts, which are important to deepen our understanding of state and local government and sustainability.  These concepts are highlighted in boldface in the text and are included in the glossary at the end of the book.

Learning Objectives

The major topics to be discussed in this introductory chapter include:

  • Changing socioeconomic, demographic and technological forces and how they affect state and local governments.
  • How many states and communities have responded successfully to these forces to promote sustainability.
  • A final summary of the book’s themes, and how the book’s chapters are organized.



1.B – Forces facing State and Local Governments

      State and local governments currently face many ongoing and numerous new challenges that complicate their task of sustaining current public services and programs.  How public officials adapt or do not adapt to these changes will affect the long-term viability of virtually each and every state and local government in the country.  As the United States has developed from a rural and agricultural-based economy in the 1700s into an industrial powerhouse in the 1800s, and now as it becomes increasingly a postindustrial society with a knowledge-based economy and the majority of citizens employed in service sector jobs instead of the agricultural and industrial sectors, state and local governments have had to cope with a wide array of socioeconomic and political changes (see figure 1).  Needless to say, the dramatic events of the nation’s first major experience with foreign terrorism on September 11, 2001, have added to concerns for homeland security that were scarcely considered prior to that horrific historic event.

Socio-economic and Political Characteristics of the United States
Figure 1.1 Socio-economic and Political Characteristics of the United States


      A substantial literature has developed examining the social, economic, and political implications of postindustrialism.4 While some degree of definitional disagreement is present among scholars writing in this area, a few commonly agreed upon central features of this new type of society can be identified which help us understand the dynamics of state and local government today.  Postindustrial societies – such as the United States, Canada, and the nations of the European Union, Australia, and Japan – are characterized by the following traits:

  • economic dominance of the service sector over those of manufacturing and agriculture; complex nationwide communication networks;
  • a high degree of economic activity based upon an educated workforce employing scientific knowledge and technology in their work;
  • a high level of public mobilization in society (including the rise of historically new social causes such as the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-globalization movement, the environmental movement);
  • population and employment growth in urban areas (and subsequent decline in rural areas); and historically unprecedented societal affluence.5

      As the United States developed from a small pre-industrial nation of a few small settlements and many farmers and artisans into a modern, continent-spanning postindustrial economy connected to a knowledge-based global economy, different sets of concerns and issues have assumed priority in our collective consideration of public affairs.  In the early years of the young country’s history, the principal issues of concern were such matters as basic nutrition, shelter, assess to water, safe routes of travel, safety of person and property, etc.  Because of such immediate survival and infrastructure concerns, American state and local governments – which were generally small in scale and limited in capacity – accorded little attention to such contemporary issues as environmental protection or other “higher-order needs” such as gender equity and global economic justice.

      As the United States moved into extensive mining and natural resource extraction and the large-scale fabrication and manufacturing of durable goods, many issues relating to industrialization became important for American state and local governments.  Highly troublesome issues such as unsafe workplaces, unrestrained child labor exploitation, uncontrolled urbanization, inadequate local transportation systems, poor public health services, toxic waste disposal, and inadequate public education systems arose as the industrialization process proceeded.  All of these issues were addressed by state and local government regulation in due course, with federal government action coming only after state and local governments took the initiative to address these adverse consequences of industrialization.  With the ultimate development of a more affluent post-industrial economy and more adequate systems of public regulation, new issues have emerged which reflect a profound concern for global sustainability.  Such a historically unprecedented concern for our collective global future translates into particular issues of great importance for the contemporary state and local governments in the United States.  Issues regarding water resource protection and conservation, “smart growth” and environmental stewardship-oriented land-use practices, the enforcement of energy-efficient building standards, the implementation of air quality protection measures, the reduction of the impact of carbon emissions on global climate change are all directly involved in promoting sustainable economic development in state and local governments in the United States today.

      State and local governments in many areas of the nation face additional challenges in the areas of dramatic demographic shifts (aging populations, racial and ethnic diversification and the influx of large numbers of immigrants), continued urbanization, economic globalization, ongoing technological change, changing social norms, and growing environmental awareness.  Thoughtful observers taking note of these changes, such as Roger Kemp, have argued that state and local governments will be affected directly in a number of ways in the twenty-first century.  He has observed the following in this regard: “Evolving societal conditions and public perceptions have created trends that require communities to change in order to meet the public’s expectation for effective and equitable governance” [emphasis added] (2001: 1).6 These historic changes, closely associated with the advent of postindustrial society, are discussed below to provide a suitable backdrop to our exploration of state and local government in contemporary America.


1.B.I – Demographic changes:

      People are living longer than ever before, a fact which affects a host of government services, including: (1) increasing costs associated with retirement pensions, healthcare and other social services such as independent, assisted and dependent living arrangements for the aged; (2) increasing demand for senior citizen recreational and leisure activities, including parks, libraries, exercise opportunities; and (3) higher rates of political participation in state and local affairs by senior citizens.  Seniors exhibit high rates of political participation when compared to younger cohorts, which means the public policy preferences of seniors may disproportionately affect state and local community decisions (e.g., preference for lower taxes because of fixed retirement incomes, preference for robust spending on public safety and meager spending on education, etc.).

      Another important demographic change taking place in much of the country is large-scale immigration from Mexico, Central America, and South America.  Such immigration creates new public issues for many communities, including the need for bilingual government services in education, justice and social spheres, new cultural diversity programs, new approaches to housing and transportation services, new types of law enforcement issues arising from claims of biased policing, etc.  Hispanics or Latinos are now the largest minority group in the United States and their proportion of the population continues to grow at a rapid rate, and in Florida, New York, Illinois, California and most southwestern states powerful new political voices and advocacy groups articulating Latino demands for state and local government programs and services are adding to the challenges of those governments.

      Another demographic trend, which has been in stark evidence is the increasing presence of women in the workforce and in state and local government leadership roles.  This enhanced presence of women in the workforce and in leadership roles has led to increased emphasis on such issues as family leave policies, daycare provisions, equal employment opportunities, comparable worth compensation policies, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.  Due to a variety of factors, including rising educational levels as well as higher percentages of women working outside the household, average family size is declining, potentially leading to more high-density residential areas (townhouses, condominiums, etc.) being created in urban areas.  This type of residential settlement pattern places different demands on existing state and local service infrastructure than is associated with the traditional suburban “sprawl” pattern of housing settlement.


1.B.II – Urbanization:

      The United States has been transformed from a rural nation of 3.92 million people in 1790 (our first census of the population) to an urban society of 325.7 million people as of 2010.  After a relatively slow rate of urban growth in the eighteenth century, the pace of urbanization picked up dramatically during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see Table 1.1).  During the twentieth century, the urban population continued to increase and suburban areas started to develop and grow as well. During the 1980s and 1990s, a substantial number of rural counties in the United States lost population, while urban and suburban counties grew at a rapid rate.  The migration of people from rural to urban/suburban counties was driven by the most highly educated and/or skilled younger cohorts leaving rural areas to seek jobs or further education in urban core areas.7 These migration patterns have led to the acquisition of increased economic and political power on the part of urban and suburban centers vis-à-vis rural areas and contributed to the political and economic decline of communities whose local economies are based in the rural periphery.8

Urban and Rural Population Change in the United States
Table 1.1  Urban and Rural Population Change in the United States

Urbanization has had a pronounced social, economic and environmental impact on communities throughout the country.  A visitor to a major city in the United States will likely experience traffic congestion arising from our love of automobiles, be greeted by smoggy air and haze in the summertime, witness municipal sewage being dumped into rivers, and be shocked by the enormous amounts of trash produced by our mass consumption society.9 Viewed from a regional perspective, that same visitor to a major metropolitan population center might be saddened by a sense of loss of once prime agricultural lands, forests, and woodlands, wildlife habitat, and wetlands due to urban sprawl.10 In fact, some of the most divisive political issues in U.S state politics result from urban areas encroaching on rural communities and their land-based economies.11 
Source:  U.S. Department of the Census web site [URL:].

      The phenomenon of suburban sprawl has led to the growth of geographically vast metropolitan areas where cities have literally grown into each other, often swallowing up prime agricultural areas and natural landscapes in the process.  For example, there are huge continuous urban areas between San Diego and Los Angeles in California, and “the eastern seaboard of the USA, where one-quarter of the national population resides on less than 2% of the nation’s land.”12 These vast metropolitan areas universally succumb to serious traffic congestion and harmful air quality problems, not to mention the dependence they breed for the consumption of great amounts of petroleum products.13

      Continuing growth and geographical dispersion of urban and suburban areas in the United States, along with the decline in natural resource and agricultural sectors of the economy, has led to the service sector employment accounting for over 70 percent of the U.S. economy.  Employment in the agricultural and natural resource extraction sectors has declined to less than 2 percent of the contemporary labor force.14 In addition, unemployment and poverty rates are typically higher and wages lower in the rural periphery when compared to the metropolitan areas.15 Substantial economic decline in rural communities can contribute to a felt imperative among its residents to increase natural resource extraction in order to sustain community viability, while continued growth in the urban service industry creates a contrary imperative toward nonmaterial uses of natural environments such as recreation and provision of wildlife habitat.16

      Other issues often confronting communities arising from urbanization include: escalating land prices due to the gentrification of neighborhoods (i.e., the displacement of low income residents living in inexpensive housing with high income residents living in high cost housing); traffic congestion leading to demands for more freeways, parking lots and possibly mass transportation such as buses and light-rail systems; more expensive construction costs due to the development in densely populated areas; more demands for inner-city services which could include social, educational, public health, public safety, recreation and open space, and economic security issues.


1.B.III – Globalization and Economic Change:

      Globalization is a concept used to describe, among other things, the current worldwide expansion of economic markets in a very broad range of goods and services.  The creation of the current global free-market economy was facilitated by a variety of “international regimes” (i.e., treaties and multi-lateral agreements) such as the GATT (General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade) and institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.  Globalization is based on the economic theory of neo-liberalism, a worldview perspective which promotes free trade, continuous economic growth, free domestic markets, maximal individual choice in consumption, reduced government regulation of the economy, and “the advocacy of an evolutionary model of social development anchored in the Western experience and applicable to the entire world.”17

      In general, neo-liberalism and globalization view economic growth as the primary expression of human progress and believe that the expansion of free trade and the promotion of Western consumerism are the proper public policy goals for nations and local communities alike.  Critics of globalization, however, point to the phenomenon of international homogenization in culture, lifestyles, and technology that accompanies globalization.  This phenomenon is referred to by some opponents of globalization as the “McDonaldization effect.”18 An example of this phenomenon would be the increasingly similar types of suburban shopping areas emerging across communities in the United States, each featuring similar restaurants, clothing stores, c shops, superstores, and the like.  Critics point to diminishing local control and loss of cultural diversity, while the advocates of “mall development” point to the sales tax revenue and employment benefits to local communities which are associated with such commonplace contemporary commercial land use development.19

      The globalization of the economy creates special problems with states and local communities as they seek to attract and retain businesses and generate employment in an international and national context.  Many states and local communities find themselves in a situation where, in order to attract potential employers, they must offer tax concessions and economic development subsidies such as infrastructure and targeted worker training programs.  The influx of new numerous chain stores and nationally (or even internationally) franchised businesses causes locally-owned businesses to struggle to survive, often bringing adverse effects on local community culture and resulting in less local influence over-investment in local, community-based enterprises.

      Compounding these global changes are generally constrained state and local government budgets.  Unlike the federal government, the ability of the state and local governments to engage in deficit spending is extremely limited – and “balanced budgets” with respect to anticipated revenues and budgeted expenditures are very much the norm across the country.  State and local government fiscal capacity is generally highly constrained due to the following factors:  widespread use of economic incentives (tax concessions and targeted expenditures) for the promotion of economic development; widespread public hostility to raising taxes to support public services and programs;20 the increasing cost of many essential services and entitlements such as healthcare facilities and services, fire protection, police protection, corrections facilities, transportation infrastructure (e.g., streets, roads and bridges), and education; and the increasing demand and cost for new amenities and services characteristic of postindustrial societies such as cultural (visual and performing arts) programs, access to broadband Internet services, public libraries, park and recreation programs, walking and bike trails, museums, etc.  To provide these services states and communities have come to rely heavily on a variety of user fees and charges and other non-property, non-sales and non-income tax revenues.  Steger reminds us in this regard:21

Citizens don’t mind paying for those services they use, but they will increasingly demand that other taxpayers pay their fair-share of taxes for the cost of providing those “other” services that “they” do not use.  This will pose a political problem, since everyone uses selected services but no one uses every public service.


1.B.IV – Technological Change:

      The growing role of a ceaselessly changing information technology is particularly important to understanding some new issues facing state and local government in our contemporary post-industrial, highly knowledge-based society.  The technological infrastructure of communities plays an important role in attracting the knowledge-based businesses characteristic of postindustrial countries, and this modern information technology (IT) infrastructure is becoming an important component of state and local government governance as citizens grow increasingly comfortable in the use of the Internet to access government information, to file required forms, to renew their drivers’ licenses, to register to vote, to reserve summer campgrounds, to pay taxes, and to communicate with their elected and career service public officials.

      Most state and local governments are heavily reliant on computers and electronic communication – both large servers and desktop computers – to conduct their work.  This development has been referred to in a number of ways, including “e-government,” “on-line government,” and “transformational government.”  State and local governments are increasingly exchanging information and providing services to businesses and citizens alike in an effort to promote efficiency and increased accountability.  A 2002 survey of local governments conducted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) found that over 85 percent of municipalities had active websites providing a large variety of services and information for citizens.22 For example, citizens in many states can now acquire their fishing and hunting licenses by using the Internet, they can pay local property and state income taxes online, they can get transportation updates concerning weather, road, and bridge construction projects, or traffic congestion from state and local government websites on their personal computers or web-enabled cell phones.  Many local governments are even now monitoring their high crime areas and mass transportation corridors by the use of digital video cameras to provide greater protection for citizens – in some areas even monitoring traffic intersections and roads for traffic violations (e.g., speeding or running a red light) in order to issue electronic citations to violators and notices of violations to prosecutors and courts.

      Many state and local governments across the country are also using the Internet to engage citizens in the policy-making process, and some are even implementing electronic voting technologies as part of this process.  This innovation has been called “e-democracy.”  Most state governments have established websites that include extensive information concerning all branches of government, various departments and agencies, and information on how and where citizens may contact their elected and career service officials.23 Similarly, new electronic voting technologies are being implemented to speed the counting of ballots as well as providing more user-friendly access for disabled voters.  However, e-democracy has also generated considerable controversy because its critics argue that election fraud can occur through difficult to detect software malfunctions or even the electronic manipulation of vote counts.

      While e-government and e-democracy are important new technologies consistent with the advent of postindustrial society, important social justice concerns can arise about selectivity in access.  For example, recent research has found that the young, the highly educated, the urban, the middle and upper-middle class, and the nation’s white citizens are the most likely use the Internet.24 In addition, in a recent study of municipal websites research found that “…city size and scale matter in achieving overall web site quality.”25 Smaller and more rural local governments have far fewer resources and more limited expertise to develop and maintain websites and Internet services, thus resulting in another type of access gap.  Thus, the ability of e-government and e-democracy to deliver on the promise of enhanced service efficiencies and enhanced democracy and social equity remains somewhat in question.

      Another related concern that arises from rapid technological innovation in the United States has been referred to by some scholars as the “democracy versus technocracy quandary.”26 As postindustrial governments, state and local governments face many policy problems that are highly technical in nature and require scientific knowledge to manage effectively.  As Frank Fischer in Citizens, Experts, and the Environment aptly observes:  “The tension between professional expertise and democratic governance is an important political dimension of our time.  Democracy’s emphasis on equality of citizenship, public opinion, and freedom of choice exists in an uneasy relationship with the scientific expert’s rational, calculating spirit.”27

      While there are considerable geographical, cultural and economic differences among state and local governments, they all feature democratic systems of governance that have experienced a noteworthy decline in public trust of government (both elected representatives and governmental bureaucracies).28 Along with this diminished trust have come forceful demands for increasing citizen involvement in governance (Inglehart, 1997).  The concern that arises in this context is that the demand for the enhancement of direct citizen participation (democracy) and the need for scientific expertise (technocracy) to frame issues and develop appropriate policy options in complex areas of public policy may well come into direct conflict.29 On the one hand, placing too much emphasis on science and technical expertise as the ultimate determinants of policy outcomes risks the erosion of democracy and the progressive diminishment of active engagement of the citizenry.30 On the other hand, excessive democracy in the form of the direct involvement of ill-informed citizens in policymaking and program implementation may relegate technical and scientific information to such a peripheral role that complex problems will be inadequately addressed by the adoption of “political” solutions reflecting the relative power of a narrow set of intensely interested parties.31


1.B.V – Value Change:

      As discussed above, in the decades following World War II a number of fundamental changes transpired in the United States that have fundamentally changed politics from what had existed in previous years. The shift from an agricultural to an industrial society and then a postindustrial society has led to substantial value change (fundamental cultural realignment) in the United States, and this value change has direct implications for state and local governments. Personal value structures among citizens (particularly younger cohorts) are developing in ways that involve what the widely read psychologist Abraham Maslow termed “higher-order” needs (e.g., social affiliation, quality of life concerns, connection to transcendent values) supplanting more fundamental subsistence needs (e.g., health and safety concerns, material acquisition) as the motivation for much individual and societal behavior.32 Value changes entailing greater attention to post-materialist needs are thought to have brought about changes in many types of personal attitudes and public policy preferences, including those related to environmental protection, to gender equity, and to global justice and other similar philosophical or worldview issues.33  Some careful observers of societal change in postindustrial societies suggest that the development of social movements in the United States relating to consumer protection, women’s rights, gay rights, and environmental protection are a clear reflection of societal value change.34

      The development of new values and social movements among citizens has resulted in the questioning of many traditional state and local government institutions and long-established policies.35 Many scholars believe this is most pronounced among what has been labeled the “millennial generation” (born after 1982). When compared to older cohorts, Millennials have been found to be: (1) very optimistic about their own lives and the role of government in their lives; (2) believe that special interest groups currently have too much influence; (3) are more involved in local community based civic activities; (4) more tolerant of gays, race and ethnic diversity; and, (5) very supportive of non-traditional roles for women.  Millennials also have been heavily influenced by new communications technologies (e.g., smartphones) and are very comfortable and adept users of social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.


1.B.VI – Environmental Change and Concern:

      As with the other factors affecting state and local governments, new environmental issues and concerns also reflect the nation’s transformation from a pre-industrial agricultural nation in 1776, to the coming of the industrial revolution in the late 1800s, and then to the development of a postindustrial society in the latter half of the twentieth century.36 From colonial times to the beginning of the twentieth century, environmental policy was primarily framed by anthropocentric concerns such as the impact of pollution on human health and the need for the careful conservation of natural areas for future extraction of economically desirable products.  The natural environment was seen primarily as something to either conserve or conquer depending on the uses to be made of it to improve the quality of human life; apart from the needs of human beings, the environment per se had no particular value.

      The start of the twentieth century witnessed rapid growth in the number of citizens and organized groups interested in the conservation of natural resources.  Interest in conservation often arose in reaction to the highly visible widespread abuse and even destruction of public forests and waterways.  A new approach to the stewardship of natural resources was adopted in the United States over time based largely on the writings of the visionary Gifford Pinchot.  He was a highly respected figure who argued for the development of scientific expertise leading to the intelligent use and development of natural resources and the protection of natural resources for the benefit of future generations.  This approach to the natural environment was based on a premise of anthropocentrism – that is, a human-oriented view of nature where human needs, wants, and desires are given preeminent priority in the managing of natural resources.  Moreover, it assumes that the nonhuman part of the environment is to be seen as little more than a fund of raw materials for humans to make use of as they see fit.  It follows from this premise that providing for human uses and benefits becomes the primary aim of any environmental policy, whether those uses are for commodity benefits (e.g., lumber, food or energy) or for aesthetic or spiritual benefits (e.g., wilderness preservation and outdoor recreation).

      By the late 1960s, however, a new environmental policy orientation emerged in some U.S. states and many communities, one which is more “bio-centered” or “eco-centered” in its premises37 and in its philosophical character.38 The biocentric approach elevates the requirements and value of all-natural organisms, species, and ecosystems to center stage and, in some versions, makes the earth or nature as a whole the focus of “moral considerability.”  Advocates of this orientation do not ignore human needs, but rather they place such needs in a larger, natural, or ecological context.  In addition, adherents to this view of the natural world tend to assume that environmental assets such as mountain ranges, free-running streams, pristine ecosystems, wilderness areas, wildlife, and non-edible animals and plants all have value in and of themselves as bio-diversity assets.  This perspective has become an important component of the new social movement advocating the adoption of sustainability-promoting policies and programs in American communities, a topic which we take up next.



1.C – Sustainable and Resilient States and Communities

      The advocacy for sustainable states and communities in postindustrial America has become one of the major social movements of our time.39 Widespread concern with the long-term carrying capacity of our conventional economic, social, ecological processes and with the institutions required to manage them has led many state and local government officials and civic-engaged citizens to conceive and implement a wide range of innovative policies in pursuit of sustainability.  The concept of sustainability refers to the manner in which the social, economic, institutional, and environmental needs of a community are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.40 Early approaches to addressing sustainability have placed rather differing emphases on these various needs,41 but in general, the four core dimensions of sustainable communities include:

  • Social objectives:  systematic investment in human capital featuring lifelong education promoting environmental sensitivity and adaptability to change, and social capital enabling the widespread co-production of public goods through both coordinated individual action and enhancing the capacity for effective collective action in behalf of environmental protection.42
  • Economic objectives:  through public law and policy, and through public-private partnerships, bring about a shift towards “sustainable economics” featuring equitable and competitive arrangements in the marketplace supplying high quality (e.g., non-toxic, organic, non-exploitive), reasonable cost goods and services produced with minimum damage to the environment.43
  • Environmental objectives:  protection of the global ecosystem, enhancement of local biodiversity, protection of endangered species, and systematic preservation of natural areas from harm resulting from unsustainable economic exploitation or unwise uses
  • Institutional objectives:  structural change to promote greater population density as opposed to urban sprawl, promote greater social equity among economic classes and racial/ethnic groups, promote greater attention to inter-generational justice, promote global justice, and enhance mechanisms for civic engagement at the local government level

      Many contemporary sustainability efforts being undertaken by state and local governments are directed at meeting pressing environmental concerns, especially those that entail health-threatening deterioration of water or air resources or that involve the pending depletion of natural resources upon which the quality of public life of local communities depend.44 At the same time, however, the sustainability efforts taking place in some communities address important issues related to population-based conditions, such as public health epidemics,45 social and economic inequities leading to violence,46 and the promotion of greater civic engagement in the process of monitoring quality of life conditions in local communities.47 The principal assumptions underlying the sustainability movement are that the preservation of a quality environment, the use of renewable or highly efficient energy resources, the maintenance of a healthy population with ready access to preventative care and emergency health services, the presence of economic and social equity, and the maintenance of an engaged citizenry will lead to urban areas having sustainable futures in a world wherein global climate change, environmental degradation and natural resource scarcities serve as warning signs that we must change our way of life in many ways to ensure a sustainable future for the next generation.48 As noted by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:49

      …we have learned that successful development strategies must integrate a number of key elements: they require a sound and stable policy framework; an emphasis on social development; enhanced public participation by the local population, and notably by women; good governance, in the widest sense; policies and practices that are environmentally sustainable; and better means of preventing and resolving conflict and fostering reconciliation.

      The proper balance among what is often referred to as the “three Es” – environment, economy and equity – is widely seen as being central to the achievement of a sustainable future.50 There are, of course, inevitable tradeoffs associated with seeking to achieve these goals simultaneously.51 The tension between promoting economic growth and the equitable sharing of opportunities that arises from the claims on the use of property as both a private resource and public good creates property conflict.  The tension that arises from the competitive claims on the use of natural resources creates a resource conflict.  And the challenge of improving the situation of the poor through economic growth while protecting the environment creates a development conflict.  Resolving these tensions and conflicts is an ongoing process for virtually all state and local governments in the contemporary United States.

      Understanding state and local government sustainability issues and the ability of state and local governments to adapt to change (i.e., display “adaptive capacity” or “resilience”) means understanding the dynamics of the key socio-cultural, bio-ecological and governance systems within which American states and their respective communities operate (see Figure 1).  A growing body of literature now exists which identifies some of the specific aspects of community affecting adaptive capacity.  Infrastructure, diversity of economic activity, dedicated community leadership, access to physical and knowledge resources, levels of social trust and interaction, broad distribution of informal power, and linkages to outside centers of political power all emerge as important factors in promoting sustainability.52 Community size, degree of geographic isolation, attractiveness of natural features, and past experiences in responding to change further affect a community’s vulnerability and/or adaptive capacity.53 When a community faced with change displays a greater level of adaptive capacity, outcomes can include: greater economic well-being (including reductions in poverty and wealth inequality among groups), more effective decision-making processes through improved institutional capacity and efficiency, and more active participation by concerned parties to ensure that actions match local needs and resources.54

      For example, rural communities are particularly vulnerable to developments such as climate change because their internal capacity and infrastructure available to deal with large-scale change is generally quite limited.  As the participants in the U.S. Global Change Research Program concluded in a recent study: “Because rural populations and their communities are highly dependent on the area’s natural resources…they are at risk from climate change and from potential increases in climate variability.  Rural economies…are economically vulnerable due to lower profits and tax bases, fewer resources, and their reliance on livestock and cropping systems that are often stressed.”55 It follows, as a consequence of these several considerations, that our nation’s rural communities may need to approach adaptation to global climate change much differently than do more well resourced and expertise-rich urban jurisdictions.

      General determinants of adaptive capacity and sustainable communities can also include the following considerations:56

  • Improved access to resources
  • Reduction of poverty
  • Lowering of inequities in resources and wealth among groups
  • Improved education and information
  • Improved infrastructure
  • Diminished intergenerational inequities
  • Respect for accumulated local experience
  • Assurance that responses are comprehensive and integrative, not just technical
  • Active participation by concerned parties, especially to ensure that actions match local needs and resources
  • Improved institutional capacity and efficiency
Indicators of Community Vitality and Sustainability
Figure 1.2 Indicators of Community Vitality and Sustainability

Institutional resiliency,” or the ability for local governmental and community-based institutions to withstand or react to major stressors, is affected by institutional “legitimacy, how well they maintain [institutional] capital, and whether their agenda is in line with risks.”57 The presence of established and effective governmental and community-based institutions increases adaptive capacity as these institutions facilitate management and help community stakeholders deal with various potential risks to sustainability (e.g., economic transformation and climate change).  Also, such institutions increase the adaptive capacity of a community to the extent they are participatory, proactive and representative of the population.58 Proactive institutions increase adaptive capacity by planning ahead through such measures as mitigation of the problem, strategic planning, and the formulation of emergency management plans.59  Therefore, as we proceed through this book, we will identify those factors that promote and those that inhibit economic, social, environmental and institutional sustainability in states and in local governments across the United States.

1.D – Summary and Book Outline

      State and local governments in postindustrial America are facing many long-term and numerous newly emergent demographic, social, technological, and environmental changes that challenge their long-run social, economic, ecological and institutional sustainability.  In addition to these macro forces, the recent near-total collapse of the U.S. financial system and the poor performance of the general economy in 2009 pose a serious challenge to sustainable state and local governance – perhaps the greatest challenge since the Great Depression of the late 1930s.  This introductory chapter has discussed some of these long term changes and more recent challenges which have arisen briefly, as well as noted some things that American state and local governments can do to meet their respective sustainability challenges.  As we discuss different aspects of state and local government in this book, we will identify both potential barriers to and opportunities for the promotion of sustainability and the achievement of resilience through the development of adaptive management capacity.  This particular discussion will typically appear toward the end of each of the following chapters.

      The first section of this book focuses on the diversity of state and local governments in our federal system (Chapter 2), the rapid proliferation and diversity of sustainability-promoting practices and policies in state and local governments (Chapter 3), followed by a discussion of the various actors affecting state and local policy processes set forth in Chapter 4.

      The second section of the book (Chapters 5 through 9) focuses on the framework and principal institutions of state and local government — what we call “Linkage Mechanisms.”  A central theme in each of these chapters is how these institutions and their associated governmental processes affect all of our lives in many ways, only some of which we are typically aware.  In addition, we will identify where students can access these processes and/or learn more about topics at hand.  The final section of the book (Chapters 10 through 12) will focus on important policy developments in state and local government – including the expansion of social programs, changes in education policy, developments in criminal justice (courts, police, and corrections), and trends in taxes and government expenditures.

      While the general level of knowledge citizens and students have about state and local government can be somewhat limited, our hope here is to engage readers and promote thoughtful lifelong engaged citizenship with state and local governance.   Dalton has defined this type of citizenship as emphasizing “…a more assertive role for the citizen and a broader definition of the elements of citizenship to include social concerns and the welfare of others” (2008: 5).60 The growing literature on sustainability suggests strongly that this engagement is among the most important components of resilient and sustainable communities (Walker and Salt, 2006).  With American youth volunteering for near-unprecedented levels of community service in America, and now a historic level of engagement by youth in the 2008 general election, the time for learning about and engaging actively with state and local governments has never been better.



Adaptive Capacity
Anthropocentric Concerns
Brundtland Report
Democracy Versus Technocracy Quandary
Engaged Citizenship
Higher-Order Needs
Institutional Resiliency
Linkage Mechanisms
McDonaldization Effect
Postindustrial Society
Post-Materialist Needs
Smart Growth


Discussion Questions

1. Based on your reading, list and discuss four characteristics of postindustrial society commonly found in the US, Canada, Australia and many nations in the European Union.


2. Based on your reading, list and discuss three particular issues of great importance for contemporary state and local governments in the U.S. in terms of promoting sustainable economic development.


3. According to the chapter, list and discuss four core dimensions (objectives) of sustainable communities.



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S. Maced, Democracy at Risk (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005).

S. Mann, “What the Survey of American College Students Tells Us About Their Interest in Politics and Political Science,” PS: Political Science and Politics 32 (1999): 263-268.

2. Kedrowski, K., “Civic Education by Mandate: A State-by-State Analysis,” PS: Political Science and Politics 36 (2003): 225-227.

3. R. Dalton, The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008).

4. D. Bell, The Coming of Postindustrial Society (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

R. Bellah, R. Madsen, W.M. Sullivan, A. Swidler, and S.M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985).

Huntington, S., “Postindustrial Society: How Benign Will it Be?” Comparative Politics 6 (1974):  163-191.

5. W. Galston, “Rural America in the 1990s: Trends and Choices,” Policy Studies Journal 20 (1992): 202–11.

R. Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

6. R.L. Kemp, “Cities in the 21st Century: The Forces of Change,” Local Focus (Salem, OR: League of Oregon Cities, February and April, 2001), p. 1.

7. K. Deavers, “Rural Development in the 1990s: Data and Research.” Paper presented at the Rural Social Science Symposium, American Agricultural Economics Association, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1989.

8. C. Beale and G. V. Fuguitt. “Decade of Pessimistic Non-metro Population Trends Ends on Optimistic Note,” Rural Development Perspectives 6 (1990): 14-18.

9. L. Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Knopf, 2003).

10. R. Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2006).

11. D. Rusk, Cities Without Suburbs – Third Edition: A Census 2000 Update (Washington, DC:  Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2003).

12. A.J. McMichael, “Urbanisation and Urbanism in Industrialized Nations, 1850 Present: Implications for Health.” In L.M. Schell and Ulijaszek (eds.), Urbanism, Health and Human Biology in Industrialized Countries (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 25.

13. M. Carley and I. Christie, Managing Sustainable Development (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

J.A. Dunn, Driving Forces: The Automobile – Its Enemies and the Politics of Mobility (Washington, DC:  Brookings Institution Press, 1998).

14. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD Environmental Data: Compendium – 1999  (Paris, France: OECD Publications, 1999).

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16. P.O. Stern, O. Young, and D. Druckman (eds.), Global Environmental Change: Understanding the Human Dimensions (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1992).

17. M. Steger, Globalism: The New Market Ideology (Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002), p. 9.

18. G. Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society: An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1999).

19. W. Greider, One World, Ready or Not (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

20. A. O’Sullivan, T.A. Sexton and S.M. Sheffrin, Property Taxes and Tax Revolts: The Legacy of Proposition 13 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

21. M. Steger, 2002, op. cit. (see reference 17), p. 4.

22. M.J. Moon, “The Evolution of e-Government Among Municipalities: Rhetoric or Reality?” Public Administration Review 62 (2002): 4-24.

23. C.D. Slaton and T.L. Becker, “Increasing the Quality and Quantity of Citizen Participation: New Technologies and New Techniques.” In T.J. Johnson, C.E. Hays and S.P. Hays (eds.), Engaging the Public: How Government and the Media Can Reinvigorate American Government (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998).

24. Pew Internet and American Life Project. 2004. Reports: E-Gov and E-Policy. URL:

25. J. Scott, “Assessing the Quality of Municipal Government Web Sites,” State and Local Government Review 37 (2005): 151-165, p. 161.

26. J.C. Pierce, M.A. Steger, B.S. Steel, and N.P. Lovrich, Citizens, Political Communication and Interest Groups: A Study of Environmental Organizations in Canada and the United States (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1992).

27. F. Fischer, Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), p. ix.

28. J.S. Nye, P.D. Zelikow and D.C. King (eds.), Why People Don’t Trust Government (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

29. G. McAvoy, Controlling Technocracy: Citizen Rationality and the NIMBY Syndrome (Washington, DC: Georgetown Press, 1999).

30. P. DeLeon, Democracy and the Policy Sciences (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997).

31. R.P. Nathan, Social Science in Government: The Role of Policy Researchers (Albany, NY: The Rockefeller Institute Press, 2000).

32. A. Maslow, New Knowledge in Human Values (New York: Harper and Row, 1959).

33. R. Inglehart, op. cit. (see reference 5).

34. Ibid.

35. C. Offe, “New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institutional Politics,” Social Research 52 (1985): 817-868.

36. W. Kempton, W., Boster and J.A. Hartley, Environmental Values in American Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).

B.S. Steel and N.P. Lovrich.  “An Introduction to Natural Resource Policy and the Environment:  Changing Paradigms and Values.”  In B.S. Steel (ed.) Public Lands Management in the West:  Citizens, Interest Groups, and Values (Westport, CN:  Praeger Publishers, 1997).

37. R.E. Dunlap and A.G. Mertig, “The Evolution of the U.S. Environmental Movement from 1970 to 1990: An Overview.” In R.E. Dunlap and A.G. Mertig (eds.), American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement 1970-1990 (Philadelphia, PA: Taylor and Francis Publishers, 1992).

38. L.W. Milbrath, Learning to Think Environmentally While There is Still Time (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996).

R. Nash, Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).

39. R.W. Kates, P.M. Thomas, and A.A. Leiserowitz, “What is Sustainable Development? Goals, Indicators, Values, and Practice,” Environment 47 (2005): 9-21.

40. World Commission on the Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

41. K. Pezzoli, “Sustainable Development: A Trans-disciplinary Review of the Literature,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 40 (1997): 549-574.

W. Rees, W. “Consuming the Earth: The Biophysics of Sustainability,” Ecological Economics.  29 (1999): 23-27.

W. Sachs, Planet Dialectics: Explorations in Environment and Development (London: Zed Books, 1999).

42. D. Halpern, Social Capital (Cambridge, UK: Policy Press, 2005).

43. H. Daly and J. Cobb, 1989. For the Common Good (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).

44. W. Rees, 1999, op. cit. (see reference 41)

45. R. Prescott-Allen, The Wellbeing of Nations: A Country-by-Country Index of Quality of Life and the Environment (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2001).

46. W. Sachs, 1999, op. cit. (see reference 41)

47. Boston Indicator Project, The Wisdom of Our Choices: Boston Indicators of Progress, Change and Sustainability 2000 (Boston, MA: Boston Foundation, 2000).

48. T.M. Parris and R.W. Kates. “Characterizing and Measuring Sustainable Development,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 28 (2003): 559-586.

49. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Shaping the 21st Century: The Contribution of Development Cooperation (Paris: OECD, 1996), p. 4.

50. M. Sagoff, “Can Environmentalists Keep Two Ideas in Mind and Still Function?” Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly 27 (2007): 2-7.

51. S. Campbell, “Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development,” Journal of the American Planning Association 62 (1996): 296-312.

52. C.M. Duncan, Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

S. Mendis, S. Mills and J. Yantz, Building Community Capacity to Adapt to Climate Change in Resource-Based Communities. Prepared for the Prince Albert Model Forest, Universtiy of Saskatchewand (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 2003).

53. C.C. Harris, G. Brown, G. and W.J. McLaughlin. 1998. “How Resilient are Rural Communities in the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem?” Journal of Forestry 96 (1998): 11-15.

54. E. Wall and K. Marzall, “Adaptive Capacity for Climate Change in Canadian Rural Communities,” Local Environment 11 (2006): 373-397.

55. U.S. Global Change Research Program, “U.S/ National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change Educational Resources. Regional Paper: Great Plains” (2007). Document retrieved from the Internet at URL:

56. E. Wall and K. Marzall, 2006, op. cit. (see reference 54).

57. S. Mendis, S. Mills and J. Yantz, 2003, op. cit. (see reference 52), p. 39.

58. R.D. Putnam, R.D. 1995. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6 (1995): 65-78.

E. Wall and K. Marzall, 2006, op. cit. (see reference 54).

59. R.D. Brunner, T.A. Steelman, L. Coe-Juell, C.M. Cromley, C.M. Edwards and D.W. Tucker, Adaptive Governance: Integrating Science, Policy and Decision Making (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2005).

60. R. Dalton, 2008, op. cit. (see reference 3).


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State and Local Government and Politics: Prospects for Sustainability (2nd Ed.) by Christopher A. Simon, Brent S. Steel & Nicholas P. Lovrich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.