American University
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Discretion, Incentives, and Converging Priorities: Urban Sustainability in Massachusetts

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posted on 2023-09-07, 05:09 authored by Riordan Frost

Urban sustainability is a relatively new concept, and the innovative ways it is pursued contain many lessons for the study of public administration and policy. This dissertation takes a three-pronged approach to analyzing urban sustainability in the United States, and throughout this approach it looks specifically at cities in Massachusetts. It first grapples with the definition debate over sustainability – whether it should be defined as exclusively environmental or as consisting of three spheres: economy, environment, and equity – and makes the argument for adopting the three spheres definition. It examines which definition is used by cities pursuing sustainability in Massachusetts and then notes an emerging pattern of convergence on the three spheres definition among these cities, regardless of which definition they formally use. The second of the three prongs of this approach investigates the efficacy and design of Massachusetts’s smart growth policy, the Smart Growth Zoning Overlay District Act. It finds that the law has several design shortcomings and that its overlay districts have not had much effect on housing and transportation metrics, except for a notable decrease in affordability. This last finding is connected to the ongoing discussion of whether smart growth and equity are compatible. The final part of this dissertation analyzes the ever-shifting landscape of American federalism and what it means for cities pursuing sustainability. It pays special attention to how relationships between the local, state, and federal governments are changing from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, and looks at recent conflicts between the federal government and cities and how threats over sanctuary city status, for instance, may undermine the ability of cities to pursue urban sustainability. This analysis also finds that cities are prepared to use discretion and take advantage of information asymmetry in their principal-agent relationships with higher levels of government to continue pursuing urban sustainability. This dissertation ends by highlighting the contributions it has made to the sustainability literature as well as the public administration and policy literature, and then lists several possible next steps for a continuing research agenda.





Hyra, Derek; Fiorino, Daniel; Johnston, Jocelyn; Carruthers, John




Degree Awarded: Ph.D. Public Administration and Policy. American University


Degree grantor

American University. School of Public Policy

Degree level

  • Doctoral

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