Disabling Sprawl? Urban Form, Union Elections, and Sustainable Labor Urbanism

Authors: Stephen McFarland*, California State University- Dominguez Hills
Topics: Urban Geography, Urban and Regional Planning, Geographic Information Science and Systems
Keywords: Labor Geography, Sustainable Cities, Smart Growth, Sprawl
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper examines reciprocal influences between urban form, union growth, and labor’s spatial agency in United States metropolitan statistical areas, 2010-2019. Suburbanization and sprawl contribute to unsustainable pressures on green space, habitat, and atmospheric greenhouse gas levels. Opponents of sprawl”, have advocated for “smart growth” policies to mitigate carbon emissions; reduce housing costs, segregation, and exclusion; and improve quality of life. Labor studies literature has identified sprawl as a culprit in undermining union density and strength. It has been understood to disperse working class networks, fragment workers residentially along lines of race, ethnicity, and income, and put physical and psychological distance between home and workplace concerns and struggles. But unions have not consistently prioritized political interventions in land use, zoning, and planning; such interventions have been intermittent and variegated. This paper draws on National Labor Relations Board union election records and a national metropolitan areas data set of sprawl indices to quantify the correlation of sprawl with union election outcomes. Then, based on archival research and interviews with union officials, it examines labor involvement in coalitions making recent interventions in land use and housing policy on the West Coast. Different labor groups have stated a range of justifications for positions on smart growth interventions. These justifications have included employment, affordable housing, stopping climate change and its disproportionate effects on workers, combating exclusion/segregation, and resisting gentrification. The paper concludes with reflections on the prospects for greater concerted effort by labor in pursuit of more sustainable, just, convivial, and organizing-conducive urban forms.

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