In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geography of Public Policy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Geography and Public Policy: Foundations
  • Geography and Public Policy: Relevance in the Postmodern Age?
  • Geography and Public Policy: Personal Reflections
  • Policy Mobilities: Conceptual, Methodological, and Foundational Texts
  • Policy Mobilities: Applied Texts and Case Studies
  • Understanding Policy: Actors and Expertise
  • Understanding Policy: Implementation and the “Everyday”
  • Urban Policymaking
  • Environmental Policy
  • Geography of Policy under Devolution
  • Exemplifying “Policy Relevance”

Geography Geography of Public Policy
Ben Clifford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0198


The title “Geography of Public Policy” is open to wide interpretation, and this article takes a fairly broad approach. With a few exceptions, however, all the works referenced here have been produced by academic geographers; there will be many papers produced by scholars from other social science disciplines (and beyond) that are of interest to issues surrounding the geographies of policy, but the aim here is to provide a sense of the relationship between geography and public policy rather than a more general bibliography of public policy. There are three broad foci here. First are works that consider the relationship between the discipline of geography and public policy, engaging in debate over the way in which geography scholars engage with policy and try to apply their research to real-world issues. There has long been a concern among some geographers that the discipline does not achieve as much impact in policy terms as perhaps it should. This is an ongoing and contested debate, which ebbs and flows, but there appears to have been a particular group of articles in the 1970s at a time of questioning the positivist, spatial science paradigm and a time of global economic crisis, and another series of articles in the first decade of the 21st century that were prompted by questions of the postmodern turn and increasing theoretical focus of work in human geography. Second are works that actually engage directly with the geography of public policy. In some sense, there has been a long-standing consideration of this in public administration and political science, with the “policy transfer” literature, but geographers have raised concerns about the rational models proposed and the tendency to focus on the nation-state scale. Some of the critique has in some ways presented a “policy transfer” straw man, but the emerging “policy mobilities” literature makes some fascinating interventions about how policies travel, who is responsible for this movement, how some places are anointed as favored “models,” and how policies in motion are assembled in practice. There has also been scholarship about policymaking and the nature of the state, particularly its everyday, peopled, and embodied practices, which help us understand how policy is implemented. Finally, geographers have particular interests in policy issues related to their research foci, such as the urban, the environmental, new state spaces as the state rescales, and various socioeconomic issues. Some examples of policy-relevant literatures associated with these common areas of geographical scholarly interest are also included here.

General Overviews

Somewhat surprisingly, there is no comprehensive textbook or overview work fully covering the “geography of public policy.” A number of works provide useful introductions to the key issues and angles, however. In terms of the engagement of the discipline of geography with issues of policy relevance, three overview papers (Ward 2005, Ward 2007a, Ward 2007b) are helpful here. In terms of the actual geography of public policy, and particularly the policy mobilities approach, McCann and Ward 2011, Peck and Theodore 2015, and Temenos and McCann 2013 are useful. Finally, in terms of specific concerns of geographers in policy development, the environmental-policy angle is addressed in Castree 2002 and Owens 2015, and the urban policy angle is the focus of Cochrane 2007.

  • Castree, Noel. “Environmental Issues: From Policy to Political Economy.” Progress in Human Geography 26.3 (2002): 357–365.

    DOI: 10.1191/0309132502ph374pr

    In this review piece, Castree considers what is “environmental” about environmental issues, long considered a key concern for geographers. A large number of papers considering environmental policy are cited, with Castree noting the popularity of research into the effects of specific policies in a variety of geographical contexts and on the state-public/expert-lay relationship. A useful overview of work concerning the environment, geography, and policy.

  • Cochrane, Allan. Understanding Urban Policy: A Critical Approach. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

    The book provides a wide-ranging and theoretically informed review of urban policy, including the contexts that have helped define it, such as place, regeneration, economic competitiveness, and managerialism. A very useful introduction to questions of urban policy.

  • McCann, Eugene, and Kevin Ward, eds. Mobile Urbanism: Cities and Policymaking in the Global Age. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

    This edited collection brings together a number of theoretical and empirical chapters considering the global-local assemblages of policy. The book moves us on from a traditional local focus of urban policy to consider the globalization of policy interventions and provides a useful introduction both to questions of early-21st-century urban policymaking but also to the policy mobilities approach.

  • Owens, Susan. Knowledge, Policy, and Expertise: The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 1970–2011. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198294658.001.0001

    Written after the demise of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, of which Owens had been a long-standing member, this monograph both traces the history of the commission and its role in providing expert advice to governments from 1970 to 2011 and also provides a much-wider discussion about issues on the relationships among knowledge, environment, politics, expertise, and policy.

  • Peck, Jamie, and Nikolas Theodore. Fast Policy: Experimental Statecraft at the Thresholds of Neoliberalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816677306.001.0001

    In this empirically and theoretically rich monograph, Peck and Theodore “follow the policy” around notions of conditional cash transfer and participatory budgeting. In doing so, they analyze the growing transnational connectivity between policymaking and policy mobility. The contextual introduction includes a detailed section on the “geographies of policy.”

  • Temenos, Cristina, and Eugene McCann. “Geographies of Policy Mobilities.” Geography Compass 7.5 (2013): 344–357.

    DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12063

    A review of geographical literature on policy mobilities, considering the emergence of the approach and the conceptual literatures it draws on, providing in the format of a journal article a useful overview of the concept.

  • Ward, Kevin. “Geography and Public Policy: A Recent History of ‘Policy Relevance.’” Progress in Human Geography 29.3 (2005): 310–319.

    DOI: 10.1191/0309132505ph551pr

    In the first of a series of three articles for Progress in Human Geography, Ward considers the history of discussions on policy relevance in the discipline of geography, and with numerous relevant sources cited, he provides a useful introduction to the topic.

  • Ward, Kevin. “‘Public Intellectuals,’ Geography, Its Representations and Its Publics.” Geoforum 38.6 (2007a): 1058–1064.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.11.021

    This second review article concentrates on the role of geographers as public intellectuals, highlighting the wider range of ways in which geographers engage with publics.

  • Ward, Kevin. “Geography and Public Policy: Activist, Participatory, and Policy Geographies.” Progress in Human Geography 31.5 (2007b): 695–705.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132507078955

    This third instalment from Ward considers the traditions of the most policy-applied approaches adopted by geographers—namely, the activist and participatory approaches—and compares these to more explicitly “policy” geographies.

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