The Politics of Spatial Policies

50 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2021 Last revised: 5 Oct 2021

See all articles by David Foster

David Foster

Kenyon College Department of Political Science

Joseph Warren

University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Date Written: October 4, 2021


A wide variety of policies have spatially concentrated costs and diffuse benefits. In many cases, such policies exhibit severe governance failures. We present a formal model to investigate how these policy failures relate to institutions for resident participation. In the model, residents of two districts compete to oppose a locally costly (but socially beneficial) proposal. Participatory institutions allow residents to send a costly signal of their preferences to an official. But this signal produces inefficiencies in the regulatory process. The official only establishes participatory institutions when they are moderately biased toward one district. When extremely biased, the official unilaterally benefits one district at the other’s expense; when sufficiently egalitarian, the official allows each district to approve or veto projects themselves. We connect the establishment of participatory institutions to the changing structure of urban politics in the wake of the Great Society, reflecting both increased equality across neighborhoods and persistent inequality.

Keywords: local politics, nimbyism, formal model, land use policy, Great Society

JEL Classification: H11, H77, R31, R52

Suggested Citation

Foster, David and Warren, Joseph, The Politics of Spatial Policies (October 4, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

David Foster (Contact Author)

Kenyon College Department of Political Science ( email )

Gambier, OH 43022
United States
202-656-2541 (Phone)

Joseph Warren

University of Alaska, Fairbanks ( email )

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