The Distinction Between People and Place Prosperity in Narratives of Opportunity and Decline

Authors: Robert Habans*, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Sara Sara O'Neill-Kohl, University of Illinois at Chicago
Topics: Urban and Regional Planning, Economic Geography, Urban Geography
Keywords: economic development, urban policy, neighborhoods, place-based policy
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 5:20 PM / 7:00 PM
Room: Studio 5, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The distinction between people and place prosperity, arguably a core concept in urban policy, has shaped debates over policy design and interdisciplinary empirical research on the mechanisms that produce and sustain uneven geographical development. This paper traces the emergence, evolution, and impact of such policy ideas, with a particular focus on their relevance to the distribution of labor market inequality at the neighborhood level. We begin by situating the origin of the people- vs place-based conceptual dichotomy against the backdrop of deindustrialization, concentrated black poverty, and the emerging "spatial mismatch" between people and jobs during the 1960s. Once established, this distinction later transformed into a general, naturalized framework, expanding far beyond its original context and persisting through subsequent episodes of federal and local policy formation. We also examine its role in framing the methodological challenges and policy-resonant implications of specific research subfields, such as "neighborhood effects" studies and the evaluation of place-based economic development policies. By putting the people vs. place dichotomy in historical context, we highlight its malleability both to the evolution of urban policy as a field of expertise and to the expression of market-oriented logic in policy debates. Ultimately, distinguishing people-based from place-based policy has given shape to certain narratives of decline while limiting the practical scope of intervention.

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