Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

Structure, Place and Opportunity

Image c/o Merisa Gilman
People don’t tend to think of their lives within structures, but rather as days, relationships and places.  Families seek supportive schools, reasonable commutes, quality local stores or, when they have time, nice parks to relax in.  Working people worry about commutes, neighbors they can trust rather than fear and affordable tax rates.  Matters of racial disparity or class differences are not common features of our everyday thoughts.  We have enough to worry about meeting needs in the time available, with the people we encounter and in the places where our needs are likely to be met.  These are the things that matter most to one’s sense of opportunity.  Structural relationships seem elsewhere.
Yet structure has a lot to do with all of the details of how people and places experience opportunity.  At the Center on Law in Metropolitan Equity (CLiME), we join a growing line of lawyers and legal academics who appreciate the role of structure—much of it legal structure, but public policy, too—in determining opportunity.  The make-up and quality of our public schools results from housing policies and rules about public finance. Our commutes and consumer infrastructure reflect patterns of economic development, transportation priorities and tax policy.  Our safety in public, the quality of nearby parks and even the composition of our neighbors reflect, in large part, the structure of local government law.  Structure works on place, and place is where life happens. 
In our first year, CLiME will endeavor to be a resource about the structural relationship between place and opportunity.  Our students and associated faculty and colleagues across disciplines certainly care about the details of daily life, but our contribution here is to better understand structures. These include the dynamic interaction of race, class and rules about place across our metropolitan areas.  In our New Jersey focus, we publish equity audits by Rutgers law students who have been trained in doing interdisciplinary analyses of comparative opportunity structures in at least two New Jersey municipalities.  We will also update the status of exclusionary zoning in the Garden State.  Our first featured publication is an empirical analysis of regional equity factors such as housing, tax and school policies by the noted author and advocate David Rusk.  Our inaugural CLiME fellow Ian Liberty has completed an early analysis of the equities involved in Super Storm Sandy and the character of the government’s response.  Upcoming CLiME research projects include reports on the legal dynamics of white poverty in New Jersey, the potential meaning of a more robust “affirmatively furthering fair housing” regulatory regime, and a broader look at the pros and cons of interlocal services agreements.  Meanwhile, we will continue to develop our new website to make it an effective digital research portal for all things metropolitan equity. 
CLiME is the result of a basic recognition at the bottom of where law, policy, structural opportunity and daily needs meet: Mutuality.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. explained in 1968, we live our lives “in an inescapable network of mutuality, bound in a single garment of destiny.”  This has become even more apparent with the events of the last decade—the Great Recession and the collapse of the housing bubble, rapid demographic change beckoning a new majority of minorities, rising wealth inequality, severe fiscal stress among states and local governments, a global labor economy requiring much higher skills despite a shrinking jobs base, persistent segregation—and no clear way out.  We are committed to joining the ranks of problem-solvers through question-driven research.  We recognize the primacy of the region as a unit of analysis.  We appreciate the challenge to contribute legal analyses to the important work of other disciplines in promoting greater equity, efficiency and opportunity in New Jersey and beyond.  We don’t fear interdependency.  We embrace it.  Join us.
Thank you,
David D. Troutt