Theses Doctoral

Team rules: how city officials tweak urban futures through 'gray institutions' in daily practice in land use, permitting and enforcement

Baird-Zars, Bernadette Virginia

Peri-urban expansion patterns typically aggravate inequality and environmental precarity. Planners attempt to improve the quality and location of development by employing new tools that connect semi-private entities, national policies and non-governmental coalitions. Along the way, they overlook how action in the ongoing operations of local government offices employing the ‘old tools’ of land use regulation, zoning and the issuance of building permits often fosters the very patterns they are seeking to change. Using a sociological-institutional lens, this collection of essays examines how municipal land use staff create and sustain practices that interact with the growth pressures driving expansion, and the related spaces of possibility to improve outcomes. The information and data for these essays was drawn from field work undertaken in municipalities across metropolitan Guadalajara, as well as a review of official and other documents. The results are presented in a series of four essays that explore varying aspects of the institutional threads driving ongoing land use planning action.

The first essay, "Ground rules: When daily practices among land use officials repeat to become 'gray institutions' of planning" examines the role of review by municipal employees and the presence of institutions. The second essay, "Making the ropes: How daily practices in a booming peri-urban municipality become durable 'gray' institutions shaping land use" analyzes the way prior experience creates precedent. The third essay "From archive to checklist: An ethnographic study of a municipal land use office in peri-urban Guadalajara" identifies an array of everyday collective practices in use.

These include checklists, shared spreadsheets, rules of thumb, ways of talking, and archive creation. These 'gray institutions' strategically create and sustain power inside the municipality and with developers, as well as transmit and communicate values around municipal permitting and approvals of land use development. The last essay, “Play before the rules change: Building permit issuance and administrative transitions in municipalities in metropolitan Guadalajara, 2004-2020” identifies how local election-related changes and turnover generates uncertainty and can shift regulatory application. Taken together, the essays suggest that institutional analysis can be a powerful way to foreground action in planning – and that the day to day operations inside local government matter to the immediate and long-term implementation of regulations, plans and pressures on urban land use.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Sclar, Elliott
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 18, 2021