Journal of Planning Education andResearchhttp://jpe.sagepub.comAvoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning ResearchBranden Born and Mark PurcellJournal of Planning Education and Research 2006; 26; 195DOI: 10.1177/0739456X06291389The online version of this article can be found 2/195Published by:http://www.sagepublications.comOn behalf of:Association of Collegiate Schools of PlanningAdditional services and information for Journal of Planning Education and Research can be found at:Email Alerts: http://jpe.sagepub.com/cgi/alertsSubscriptions: http://jpe.sagepub.com/subscriptionsReprints: ions: tions (this article cites 39 articles hosted on theSAGE Journals Online and HighWire Press /26/2/195Downloaded from http://jpe.sagepub.com by on August 21, 2007 2006 Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
Avoiding the Local TrapScale and Food Systems in Planning ResearchBranden Born & Mark PurcellDuring the past several years, research on food systems has become increasinglyprevalent in the urban-planning literature (Pothukuchi and Kaufman 2000;Goodman 2003; Kaufman 2004; Pothukuchi 2004). For obvious reasons, food-systemsresearch historically has been the concern of scholars in rural studies, especially amongsociologists, geographers, anthropologists, and economists. However, there recentlyhas been growing attention across the disciplines to the importance of food systems forurban dwellers, and conversely, to the important role of cities in food systems. Withincreasing awareness of this important link, it has become clear that planners mustbegin to confront questions of food safety, ecology, security, access, and distributionboth inside and outside the city. Pothukuchi and Kaufman (2000), for example, detailseveral reasons why food systems are integral to the work of planning, including the lossof farmland on the urban fringe, water pollution problems related to agricultural landuse, the importance of food-distribution centers to the urban economy, health problems related to inadequate diets (especially in poorer areas of the city), and access tofood retailing for urban residents (the last problem is explored in depth by Dunkley etal. 2004). We entirely support planners’ growing emphasis on food. However, this article offers planners a strong caution as they engage more with food systems and drawincreasingly on food-systems research outside planning. Food-systems research andadvocacy, we argue, contains a widespread and important problem that planners mustavoid. Following work by Brown and Purcell, we call this problem the local trap (Brownand Purcell 2005; Purcell and Brown 2005).The local trap refers to the tendency of food activists and researchers to assume something inherent about the local scale. The local is assumed to be desirable; it is preferreda priori to larger scales. What is desired varies and can include ecological sustainability,social justice, democracy, better nutrition, and food security, freshness, and quality. Forexample, the local trap assumes that a local-scale food system will be inherently moresocially just than a national-scale or global-scale food system. This article argues that thelocal trap is misguided and poses significant intellectual and political dangers to foodsystems research. To be clear, the concept of the local trap is not an argument againstthe local scale per se. We are not suggesting that the local scale is inherently undesirable. Rather, the local trap is the assumption that local is inherently good. Far fromclaiming that the local is inherently bad, the article argues that there is nothing inherent about any scale. Local-scale food systems are equally likely to be just or unjust, sustainable or unsustainable, secure or insecure. No matter what its scale, the outcomesJournal of Planning Education and Research 26:195-207DOI: 10.1177/0739456X06291389 2006 Association of Collegiate Schools of PlanningAbstractA strong current of food-systems researchholds that local food systems are preferable to systems at larger scales. Manyassume that eating local food is more ecologically sustainable and socially just. Weterm this the local trap and argue stronglyagainst it. We draw on current scale theory in political and economic geographyto argue that local food systems are nomore likely to be sustainable or just thansystems at other scales. The theory arguesthat scale is socially produced: scales (andtheir interrelations) are not independententities with inherent qualities but strategies pursued by social actors with a particular agenda. It is the content of thatagenda, not the scales themselves, thatproduces outcomes such as sustainabilityor justice. As planners move increasinglyinto food-systems research, we argue it iscritical to avoid the local trap. The article’s theoretical approach to scale offersone way to do so.Keywords: food systems; scaleBranden Born is an assistant professor inthe Department of Urban Design andPlanning at the University of Washington.His research interests include planningprocess and social justice, particularly withregard to the inclusion of marginalizedpopulations in societal decision- making;land use planning and regionalism, andurban food systems planning and policy.Mark Purcell is an associate professor inthe Department of Urban Design andPlanning at the University of Washington.His research interests include urban politics and democracy, especially as theyrelate to political and economic changesassociated with neoliberal globalization.His current project involves developing anew model for radical urban democracy.195Downloaded from http://jpe.sagepub.com by on August 21, 2007 2006 Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
196Born & Purcellproduced by a food system are contextual: they depend on theactors and agendas that are empowered by the particular socialrelations in a given food system.The food-systems literature is broad and diverse. It includesacademics, advocates, and activists. Some in the literature fallprey to the local trap more fully than others. The question ofscale has been examined explicitly in the literature, and someare sensitive to the possibility that the local scale does notalways result in desirable outcomes (see, for example, Hinrichset al. 1998; Hinrichs 2000). Nevertheless, our argument is thatthe literature in general is marked strongly by the assumptionsof the local trap. We argue that planners must avoid theassumptions of the local trap as they engage this literature. Tothat end, we offer a way to theorize geographical scale thatentirely precludes the local trap. Despite some concern in thefood-systems literature about the local scale, we currently lacka theoretical way to avoid the local trap.The Local Trap: ProblemsThere are several problems with the local trap that we contend should give pause to planners as they move into foodsystems. The first is the most basic: The assumption that thelocal is desirable does not always hold. Mounting case-study evidence suggests that in some cases, local-scale food systems produce one outcome (e.g., greater democracy), and in othercases, they produce very different outcomes (e.g., oligarchy).The local trap, therefore, can seduce planners with an incorrect assumption. Second, the local trap conflates the scale of afood system with desired outcome. In common planning language, it confuses ends with means, or goals with strategies. Ittreats localization as an end in itself rather than as a means toan end, such as justice, sustainability, and so on. Planners,therefore, can become sidetracked pursuing localization andbecome distracted from pursuing their real goal, whatever thatmight be. At the very least, this dynamic will cause planners tolose sight of their goal. In the worst case, it will subvert theirgoal, as when a planner who desires greater food democracypursues localization that results in more oligarchical decisionmaking. Third, the local trap obscures other scalar options thatmight be more effective in achieving a desired outcome. Forexample, a planner who assumes that localization necessarilyleads to more sustainable agriculture will fail to pursue theoption of, say, a European Union–wide law that mandatesmore sustainable agricultural practices in member countries(Goodman 2003). Thus, the local trap can blind planners tothe most effective strategy for achieving desired ends.Among some scholars in rural studies, there has been growing concern about the assumption that local is inherently good(Hinrichs 2003; Weatherell et al. 2003; Winter 2003). In onenotable shift, an author who previously favored the local(Kloppenburg et al. 1996) shifted course and laid earlygroundwork for our current argument (Hinrichs et al. 1998).This concern is borne largely by the growing body of empiricalevidence that local-scale food systems often result in undesirable outcomes such as environmental degradation or exacerbated inequality. A typical narrative here is that the researcherwas surprised to find that a local food system resulted in negative outcomes and concludes that we should be cautious aboutadvocating local solutions. While these empirical cautions area promising opening, we argue that they do not go far enoughbecause they do not yet offer a theoretical solution to the localtrap. Each empirical case in which local-scale systems result inundesirable outcomes demonstrates that the local is not alwaysbetter, but it still leaves open the fall-back position that thelocal tends to be more desirable, even if it is not always so. Theempirical findings of Winter (2003), for example, have not yetmoved them beyond the local trap. For them,it is open to question whether we can equate . . . the turn tolocalism as the first steps towards an alternative food economy which will challenge the dominance of globalizednetworks and systems of provision and herald a moreecologically sound agricultural sector. (Winter 2003, 31,emphasis added)We argue that it is not open to question whether we canequate localism with ecologically sound outcomes. We nevercan equate a scalar strategy with a particular set of outcomes.The position of Winter et al. leaves essentially unchanged thedangers of the local trap because they leave open to questionwhether the localization should be seen as an end in itself thatusually will lead to desirable outcomes. In that case, all theproblems mentioned above—deflection of attention, unintentional exacerbation of problems, and blindness to betteralternatives—still would apply. Instead of empirical cautions,this article offers a theoretical obviation of the local trap. Wedraw on recent work in political and economic geography toconstruct a theoretical approach to scale that stresses the socialconstruction of scale. That is, scale is not ontologically givenbut socially constructed; therefore, there can be nothing inherent about any scale. No scale can have an eternal extent, function, or quality. In this view, scale is not an end goal itself; it isa strategy. Scale is a means that may help achieve any of manydifferent goals. Which goal is achieved will depend not on thescale itself but on the agenda of those who are empowered bythe scalar strategy. Localizing food systems, therefore, does notlead inherently to greater sustainability or to any other goal. Itleads wherever those it empowers want it to lead.For planners interested in food systems, this new theoreticalposition encourages a very different research agenda than theone currently being pursued in food-systems research.Accepting that there is nothing inherent about scale makes itunnecessary to carry out extensive empirical work to investigateDownloaded from http://jpe.sagepub.com by on August 21, 2007 2006 Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research if localization is inherently desirable. Rather, the researchagenda must be to examine the agendas of those who pursuescalar strategies. The question for planners is not whether theyshould desire localization in food systems but whether theydesire to advance the agendas of those who will be empoweredby a given localization or whether other scalar strategies (e.g.,globalization) would produce better results. And because thereis nothing inherent about scale, the question of who is empowered by localization (or globalization) will vary by case. The particular social and ecological outcomes of each rescaling nevermust be assumed but always subjected to critical analysis. Thenext section lays out our theoretical argument about scale anddevelops why it solves the problems of the local trap. Scale Research in GeographyAlong with space, place, and territory, scale is a foundational concept in geography. However, perhaps because it isthe most abstract of those concepts, it traditionally has beenthe least extensively theorized and examined (Jonas 1994;Harvey 1996). But during approximately the past ten years,research on geographical scale has grown considerably. Mostof this new work has been undertaken by political and economic geographers concerned about understanding therecent rapid changes in the world economy that were touchedoff by the crises of the early 1970s. As capital extended its operations beyond the national scale, effectively globalizing production, and as the nation-state’s regulatory mechanismsstruggled to respond, it seemed clear that the global politicaleconomy was being remade by a massive and importantprocess of rescaling. As part of the effort to understand thisrescaling, geographers undertook a ne