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alumni profile unintended consequences

January 10, 2020


Unintended Consequences

Serin Houston documents how one city’s pursuit of progressive ideals sometimes delivers contrary outcomes.

Social geographer Serin Houston

There are few cities as seemingly progressive as Seattle, and official policy often seeks to burnish that image. City leaders enact programs meant to bolster Seattle’s inclusivity, equity, and sustainability. But, according to Serin Houston ’11 PhD (Geog), institutional racism and classism are difficult to transcend, and progressive policies often “help perpetuate inequities, diminish the execution of social transformation, and constrain the enactment of social values.” That disconnect is at the heart of Houston’s recent book, Imagining Seattle: Social Values in Urban Governance, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Houston, an assistant professor of geography and international relations at Mount Holyoke College, cites, for example, a program aimed at reducing private car usage. It celebrated two-car families in well-resourced neighborhoods who gave up one car for a period of time, while ignoring that such options are not universal. “Only the people who publicly opted for riding the bus received recognition for their greenness,” she says. “People who rode the bus out of circumstance did not generate accolades.” This program, as well as a city-wide fee on single-use plastic bags, revealed that sustainability efforts often became positioned “as class-based endeavors.”

“My research underscores a broad truth: unless equity is central to endeavors, inequities are often reproduced,” she concludes. She acknowledges that Seattle and other cities are beginning to learn the lessons of unexpected countereffects. In her research, she met many people working hard to align values with practices to create progressive change—“doing serious work on this front,” she says, “in ways that still inspire and sustain me.”

This article appeared in the fall 2019 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail

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