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Research

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Cityscape of São Paulo, Brazil

Dr. Vicino’s research explores the causes and consequences of metropolitan change—for society, for economics, and for politics and public policy. In this section, read about his background, interests, questions, methods, contributions, and current projects.

 

Background

As a scholar of politics and public policy, I am concerned with defining the nature of public problems and developing solutions to them, particularly problems and solutions involving metropolitan areas. I hold a PhD in Public Policy and am trained as an interdisciplinary scholar. Thus, I draw on theory in the urban studies field from political science and public policy as well as from complementary urban subfields in the allied social sciences to address these questions. I hold a commitment to interdisciplinary work, urban engagement, and translational research. As part of a cluster of urban scholars of Northeastern University, my scholarly contributions are defined by their urban dimensions and by the institution’s mission to work in an interdisciplinary environment—for me, in Political Science as well as the social sciences more broadly.

More specifically, my research explores the causes and consequences of metropolitan change. Suburbanization is one of the most important manifestations of that change and can be thought of as the product of urban decentralization in metropolitan America—that is, new housing opportunities and economic growth moving from the traditional urban core to the suburban fringe. The second half of the 20th century witnessed a dramatic decentralization of people, jobs, and culture, and in fact, two-thirds of Americans call the suburbs home. While the causes of this phenomenon are well documented, our understanding of the consequences of these trends continually unfolds. One key consequence is the socioeconomic decline and physical decay of ‘first-tier, or inner-ring suburbs’ in older bedroom communities like Levittown. I began my scholarly career by examining the political and policy responses to this issue, and I was one of the first scholars to demonstrate that the political fragmentation of local government shapes the process and extent of suburban decline.

 

Interests

My scholarly interests in cities and suburbs began early, with an undergraduate honors thesis on the politics of regionalism under Juliet Gainsborough at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. In it, I asked: If the social, economic, and environmental problems of the metropolis were in fact regional in nature (i.e., due to sprawl, concentrated poverty, pollution, etc.), why was it so difficult to achieve regional political or policy responses? I found that the enduring political fragmentation of local government in the United States institutionalized the difficulties to govern regionally. But why? To find out, I pursued graduate study at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County under Donald F. Norris, one of the leading scholars on the politics of regionalism. During my graduate training, I was influenced by the debates on whether the political relationships between cities and suburbs can overcome the institutional barriers to solve problems of suburban sprawl and decline. And so, I began conducting research at the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education, where I explored the socioeconomic problems related to sprawl. In 2005, the Washington Post cited my early work on suburbs as “thoughtful and highly readable.” As my interest in the consequences and policy responses to sprawl evolved, I then turned to the investigation of the process of growth and decline in suburbia—specifically older first-tier suburbs of Baltimore.

 

Questions

Indeed, today we are more aware of the many impacts of urban growth and decentralization, and my research focuses on the consequences of urban change in the metropolis beyond the core. Throughout my work, I have developed four thematic research questions: 1) a question of theory: can we develop a systematic theory of metropolitan change that links the spatial nature of public problems in social, economic, and political terms?; 2) a question of demography: what are the patterns of change and what do they mean for policy and planning?; 3) a question of politics: what explains the political responses by local, state, and federal governments to metropolitan change?; and 4) a question of policy and planning: how do we balance people and place strategies, and why do these strategies vary?

 

Methods

My methodological approaches are similarly grounded in interdisciplinary perspectives. This body of work jointly takes advantage of quantitative and qualitative methods. In terms of quantitative analysis, using Census and HUD data, I employ descriptive and spatial analyses to gain a nuanced understanding of neighborhood, community, city, and regional patterns. In terms of qualitative analysis, I employ field site visits and interviews with experts, key informants, and political actors. Following a tradition of inquiry in Political Science, I employ comparative historical analysis to examine how the politics of the policy process influence the debates about urban and suburban issues. Ultimately, the spatial nature of the unit of analysis (urban, suburban, or metropolitan) is a key dependent variable in my work.

 

Contributions

In this journey, I established myself as one of the first scholars to systematically examine the process of suburban decline and the policy responses. My first book, Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), examined the changing nature of American suburbs, particularly the older suburbs near central cities. Do first-tier suburbs share the same fate as central cities, and what can public policy and planning do to promote reinvestment and sustainable growth? Drawing on the case of metropolitan Baltimore, I explored the socio-spatial, economic, and political dynamics of declining suburbs. I developed an operational definition of first-tier suburbs and then analyzed census data to characterize their social, economic, and political changes from 1970 to 2000. I found that first-tier suburbs experienced dramatic decline as suburban sprawl moved further from the urban core and as suburbs deindustrialized and became more segregated along race and class dimensions. I demonstrated that the lack of local political fragmentation facilitated policymakers’ and planners’ revitalization efforts because public funding and political representation was similarly regional in nature. The study concluded by offering lessons learned and suggesting best practices for promoting economically and socially sustainable communities. The book was well received; a review in a leading scholarly journal, Urban Geography, called it an “excellent addition to the literature and makes for a top-notch addition as a text in the areas of urban development, geography, planning, and public administration.” Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia was also nominated for the 2009 award for Best Book in Urban Affairs from the Urban Affairs Association.

During this time, I then reflected on one of the primary findings and lessons learned from my first book: the diversity of immigrants living in suburbs, particularly those defined as “declining” by various socioeconomic criteria, presented an opportunity for further inquiry. In 2006, I arrived at the School of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington in the Dallas-Fort-Worth Metroplex. Political tensions in the suburbs of Dallas were growing as debates about immigration reached an all-time high. The failure by Congress during the first decade of the 21st century to implement federal immigration reform had spurred a number of local and state governments to pursue immigration policy in their own jurisdictions. These efforts in many instances reflected the profound demographic changes taking place within these suburbs, like Farmers Branch in suburban Dallas. In my third book, Suburban Crossroads: The Fight for Local Control of Immigration Policy (Lexington Books, 2013), I analyzed political debate behind local ordinances such as the controversial local law known as the Illegal Immigration Relief Act and similar local laws. I examined the evolution of the struggle for local control in three cities and suburbs—Carpentersville, Illinois, Farmer’s Branch, Texas, and, most notably, Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Drawing on interviews, census data analysis, and field visits, I explored how the local definitions of neighborhood problems shaped policy outcomes. The research design draws on comparative historical analysis and demographic spatial analysis to investigate how the political and policy debates evolved. As one of the first books to explore the local policy debates on the issue of immigration in suburbs, I explain how and why the definition of local neighborhood problems determined the policy outcomes. Last, policy perspectives on the larger debate over immigration and new reflections on future directions in policy and planning for local communities are synthesized. In 2014, the book was released in paperback format, and recently, renewed public interest in the localization of immigration policy has led to increasing interest in the book—among scholars and broader publics.

In a secondary stream of scholarship, I have investigated questions about the spatial transformation of the metropolis in a post-modern, post-industrial era. Suburbs experienced marked decentralization of population, housing, and economic functions from the urban core to the suburban fringe. To better understand the nature and consequences of this transformation, I began a synergistic scholarly relationship with two collaborators (B. Hanlon and J.R. Short) in which we began to dismantle the longstanding urban-suburban dichotomy and replace it with the recognition that the United States is today a metropolitan society where the line between city and suburb is increasingly blurred. We explored the full implications of this transformation, paying attention to population diversity, immigration, housing, economic functions, built environment, and metropolitan politics and policy. We published the results in a series of papers in leading journals in the field of urban studies, including Urban Studies, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, and Urban Geography. This collaboration culminated with the 2010 publication of Cities and Suburbs: New Metropolitan Realities in the US. For Routledge, the book was on its best-selling list for several years in the field of Urban Studies. In its review, the flagship Journal of Planning Education and Research wrote: “With their superbly researched, provocative, and highly recommended contribution, Hanlon, Short, and Vicino are at the forefront of this approach to urban scholarship.”

The progression of my work now extends my interest in population diversity and immigration in suburbs and adds a global dimension. After a decade of investigating cities and suburbs, I reached a point where I had the opportunity to write an authoritative scholarly book that synthesizes our understanding about the spatial processes that shape the politics and policies of migration to the metropolis. Global Migration (Routledge, 2014), offers a concise but comprehensive introduction to the topic of migration across the globe. In it, co-author B. Hanlon and I examine—from varied interdisciplinary perspectives and across different geographies—the social, economic, historical, and, political issues around the movement of people. Drawing on a case study approach, we put forward the thesis that the study of population migration needs a spatial lens to understand the causes and consequences of the immigration policy debates in cities and suburbs around the world. The book was widely adopted and well received by social scientists in multiple disciplines. A recent reviewer wrote that “it provides an excellent introduction to the field of international migration that will act as a foundation for planning scholars who want to incorporate issues of international migration into their research.”

In the trajectory of my research agenda, I remain committed to exploring the political economy of metropolitan areas. I am particularly interested in the political, planning, and policy implications of demographic change and their spatial effects in a global context. Yet there remains a lack of understanding about the global variation of the processes of suburbanization. With co-editor and co-author B. Hanlon, my current book, The Routledge Companion to the Suburbs (Routledge, 2019) fills this gap by systematically integrating interdisciplinary perspectives on suburban transformation by using the suburb as a common spatial unit of analysis. This volume synthesizes and critically appraises the historical and current state of understanding about the development of suburbs in the world by bringing together over 40 leading scholars in the field.

The globalization of the city interests me and nicely complements my previous work on global city regions. In 2007, I was the lead author on a study that appeared in a leading journal in the field, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, on the transformation of the US megalopolis. In the 2010s, I expanded this line of work by joining the field of comparative urban studies. Building on my long-standing and successful study abroad program in Brazil as well as my scholarly contributions to the urban studies field, I won a highly competitive research fellowship to study issues of urban development in Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar in 2014. In the context of developing cities, the rapid processes of growth and decline challenge our thinking and theories about the city. The case of Brazil offers a timely opportunity to examine the politics of economic development and urban policies reshaping the nation. The changes of the urban spatial structure in terms of demographics, housing, infrastructure, and regional economies offer a unique laboratory to explain how and why these changes will impact people and place. I published these results in leading peer-reviewed journals such as Habitat International and the Journal of Urban Affairs as well as book chapters on topical policy issues facing cities in Brazil.

Finally, in 2015, with my colleagues Dietmar Offenhuber and Anjuli Fahlberg, I extended my work in Brazil to examine patterns of informal urban development in Rio de Janeiro. What does social resilience look like in urban neighborhoods of informal settlements? And how does development and insecurity affect the resilience of these communities? Rapid urbanization, growing inequality, and a host of other issues have made informal settlements one of the greatest contemporary threats to human security and resilience. This project seeks to extend our understanding of the conditions that lead to the resilience of communities in a globalizing and urbanizing region in the developing world through a comprehensive survey of residents in these communities. The results will lead to the development of a model that measures the factors that determine social resilience and will ultimately lead to larger, comparative studies on other regions throughout the world.

Throughout, my work has continued to be guided by a deep interest in metropolitan areas, where most of us now live around the world. It is fair to say that the resilience of the metropolis is key to the future health of entire societies. I expect my work to be central to this pressing issue.