Mapped Out of Local Democracy

75 Pages Posted: 6 Jan 2010 Last revised: 1 Sep 2011

Date Written: April 2010


In the novel Sula, Toni Morrison describes a neighborhood known locally as the Bottom, where the black community lived. It was “the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter.” We know such Bottoms. We have seen neighborhoods forsaken in the levees’ breach, public housing blocks gaptoothed with boarded windows, and floodplain shantytowns for farmworkers. We know of homes on land scarred by contamination or dogged by natural adversity. But across the country are Bottoms of another, less familiar type. On the outskirts of cities and incorporated suburbs across the country, hundreds of high-poverty neighborhoods of color lack rudimentary services like sewage systems, drainage, and streetlights. Integrated economically with city populations but excluded from participatory rights in city government, these unincorporated urban areas bear disproportionate numbers of landfills, municipal utility plants, and freeways that benefit urban populations but threaten local health and depress land values.

What to do with today’s lost neighborhoods? It is the late dawn of the twenty-first century, when integration is stronger and civil rights laws are weaker, when local government budgets are dwarfed by demands. Suing local governments or lobbying them, two of the most important strategies of twentieth century advocacy for social justice, have been weakened by judicial and political hostility to redistributive claims. Yet state and local government law retains malleability and promise. Laws governing the allocation of power among local agencies exert significant influence over unincorporated urban areas specifically and spatial polarization by race and class more generally.

In part a prescription for unincorporated urban areas in particular, in part an exploration of solutions for any problem of metropolitan inequality, Mapped Out of Local Democracy takes stock of today’s tools. It argues for a new priority in metropolitan law and policy: State legislative reforms to empower and reshape county governments to represent regional interests and regional logic in intergovernmental negotiations. Strengthening counties to bargain with other local agencies over matters with redistributive consequences, like annexation, can bring an interlocal perspective to critical local decisionmaking and create a promising corridor for addressing contemporary issues of urban inequality. By bringing counties - our most neglected, under-theorized layer of urban government - into sharper relief, this Article offers a new direction in state and local government law to seek progress on economic and racial polarization in America’s cities.

Suggested Citation

Anderson, Michelle Wilde, Mapped Out of Local Democracy (April 2010). Stanford Law Review, Vol. 62, No. 4, pp. 931-1004, 2010, UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 1531888, Available at SSRN:

Michelle Wilde Anderson (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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