Posted: February 26th, 2023

Human geography

1.  What is neolocalism?  What has been the driving force(s) behind neolocalism?  How has it manifested itself?

2.  After reading the examples given by the author in the article, choose an example from your own life or your own experience that could fit within the category of neolocalism.  Which view(s) of the local does your example fit into?  (these views can be found on pp. 66 - 71)  

3.  Do you agree with the author that your example can "expand the lens" as the author describes?

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Journal of Cultural Geography

ISSN: 0887-3631 (Print) 1940-6320 (Online) Journal homepage:

Deliberate identities: becoming local in America in a global age

Steven M. Schnell

To cite this article: Steven M. Schnell (2013) Deliberate identities: becoming local in America in a global age, Journal of Cultural Geography, 30:1, 55-89, DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2012.745984

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Published online: 31 Jan 2013.

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Deliberate identities: becoming local in America in a global age

Steven M. Schnell*

Department of Geography, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, USA

As the world becomes increasingly interlinked through the processes

of globalization, many have argued that geography as a basis for

identity is losing its resonance. However, the potentially homogeniz-

ing effects of globalization and corporatization have, in turn, spawned

a notable move in the opposite direction in the United States. James

‘‘Pete’’ Shortridge has referred to this move as neolocalism, the

conscious attempt of individuals and groups to establish, rebuild, and

cultivate local ties and identities. The word ‘‘local’’ has, as a result,

taken on renewed vigor over the past two decades, as it is actively

embraced as a counter to globalism. But what does it mean, and how

is it used? Because it is consciously cultivated, this idea of identity

becomes much more than a statement of ‘‘who I am’’; it becomes a

broader political, social, and economic undertaking. This paper

examines a wide variety of manifestations of neolocal identity

building such as microbreweries, local food movements, and the local

living economy movement, and argues that a distinctive American

geography of neolocalism exists.

Keywords: local; local economies; neolocalism; local food; James

‘‘Pete’’ Shortridge

The resurgence of place

Globalization has, without a doubt, changed our relationship to place. As

the speed of communication, travel, and movement of goods increases, the

power of space and place to bind our actions is loosened (Harvey 1989).

Technology seemingly creates the space for placeless communities, formed

more by common interests, bonds, and demographics than by place.

Aided and abetted by globalization (or at least the more homogenizing

impacts of the form of globalization dominated by large corporations),

such changes have led many to argue that geography as a basis for identity

has lost its importance. Although space may have been obliterated (at least

for those of us in the wealthy, privileged and wired neighborhoods of the

global village (DeBlij 2009)), the particularities of place have not been so

*Steven M. Schnell is Professor of Geography at Kutztown University, 105

Graduate Center, Kutztown, PA 19530, USA. Phone: (610) 683-1595. Email:

Journal of Cultural Geography, 2013

Vol. 30, No. 1, 55�89,

# 2013 JCG Press, Oklahoma State University

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easily relegated to the dustbin. These potentially homogenizing effects of

globalization, corporatization, and connectivity have, in fact, spawned a

notable move in the opposite direction over the past twenty-five years.

Many people have actively sought a new sense of place, a new attachment

to where they are. James ‘‘Pete’’ Shortridge has referred to this move as neolocalism, the

conscious attempt of individuals and groups to establish, rebuild, and

cultivate local ties, local identities, and increasingly, local economies. As

Shortridge has argued, people seek out ‘‘regional lore and local attach-

ment’’ in reaction to the destruction of more traditional bonds to

community because, as he put it, ‘‘we are feeling a need to forge better

geographical identities’’ (1996, p. 10)1. In the years since Shortridge first

made this observation, such attempts to re-root have gone far beyond a vague sense of regional attachment, and evolved into an interlinked series

of movements to create more local economies and local identities,

movements that are beginning to combine their efforts across the country

in mutual support of place.

This article is an exploration of some of the ways that people have

been attempting to recapture, or to create, ‘‘localness’’ as a way of life. It is

not an in-depth analysis of any one item; I have explored a number of the

individual phenomena discussed here elsewhere in more depth. Instead, it is an effort to examine the commonalities in motivations as well as the

nature of the simultaneous rapid expansion in entities as diverse as

microbreweries, watershed organizations, local living economies move-

ments, community supported agriculture, and numerous other manifesta-

tions of the self-conscious return to localness. I analyze some of the

diverse cultural meanings encoded in the word ‘‘local’’ as used by such

movements by examining promotional materials used by the many

different enterprises covered in the article. I then conclude with an analysis of the geography of neolocalism, as well as an evaluation of the

potential of the movement to transform economic and social relations,

and to reshape place identity in a globalizing age.

Manifestations of neolocalism2

What exactly is ‘‘new’’ about neolocalism? For most of human history,

people lived local lives by default*eating foods produced near them,

following local cultural traditions, and using local building patterns. But with the onset of modernity, the rise of industrialism, and the advent of

ever-improving communications and travel technology, such place-based

ties were no longer a given. People had options*economic, cultural, and

social*that no longer required local ties.

What makes neolocalism different from local ties in the past is its self-

conscious aspect. It is the result of people cultivating local ties by choice,

not by necessity (Zelinsky 2011). Although we can dissolve the bonds of

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place, it is increasingly clear that people do not necessarily want to. Place

remains a vital part of people’s identity, and when they become detached

from place, many feel that something is missing: a sense of the local, a

sense of belonging to a place, and a sense of that place as distinct from

other places. Increasingly, they react by actively cultivating these ties* whether through the growth of the local foods movement, the flourishing

of self-consciously local enterprises such as microbreweries, or the rise of

the local living economies movement.3

An early harbinger of neolocalism was the explosion of microbrew-

eries in the country in the 1980s and 1990s. The number of breweries has

expanded dramatically over the past twenty-five years, from 82 breweries

in the early 1980s to almost 1,600 today, during a time frame when per

capita alcohol consumption has generally declined (Flack 1997; NIAAA 2010; Real Beer, Inc. 2012). A major attraction of microbreweries is the

exclusive nature of their product*local beers that are not found

elsewhere, products that are tied to a unique place. Such breweries are

often proudly and self-consciously local, and actively promote their brew

through the use of idiosyncratically local beer names and imagery. In

fact, microbreweries are marketing ‘‘place’’ as much as they are

marketing beer, and they actively seek out distinctly local imagery, local

landscapes, and local stories to position themselves as intrinsically rooted in place.

Microbreweries are evidence that growing numbers of Americans feel

a lack of local connections in their daily lives, and will embrace enterprises

that promise reconnection with local economies, landscapes, history, and

culture. The images used by brewers vary as widely as the places they

inhabit. Local landscapes and wildlife are featured prominently in these

promotions. So too do other aspects of a place’s personality, such as

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s vanished steel-making past and its origin as a Moravian religious settlement (indicated by the star of Bethlehem); Moab,

Utah’s status as national center of mountain biking and a gateway city to

Arches National Park; and lobster, the signature food of Maine (Lewis

1989). The logo from New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin, with its

fingerprint-patterned map and exhortation to ‘‘Drink Indigenous,’’ makes

the yearning for a connection between identity and unique places explicit

(Figure 1).4

Brewers often go to great lengths to create a distinctly local theme, and the images that adorn their beer labels often get every bit as much

attention as the names themselves. For example, in this image from

the Free State Brewery, in Lawrence, Kansas, we see an image

promoting the brewery’s John Brown Ale (Figure 2). John Brown, of

course, was the famous/notorious anti-slavery crusader whose violent

exploits, in Kansas and elsewhere, helped to spark the Civil War.

Indeed, the name of the brewery itself derives from Lawrence’s status as

a bastion of free-state anti-slavery advocates in the decades prior to the

Journal of Cultural Geography 57

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Civil War. The image itself is modeled on John Steuart Curry’s painting

‘‘Tragic Prelude,’’ which adorns the Kansas statehouse in Topeka. The

forceful, and slightly crazed, appearance of Brown is presided over by a

looming tornado, a reference to Kansas’ presence in Tornado Alley.

Both images in turn take issue with the outsider’s common perception

of Kansas as a mild place where not much happens. The resulting

image is thus a multilayered distillation of Kansas uniqueness. Imagery

need not be a point of pride even*only of distinctiveness*as can be

seen in the Wasatch Ogden, Utah’s ‘‘Polygamy Porter’’ (Wasatch

Brewery), or Cleveland’s ‘‘Burning River Pale Ale’’ (Great Lakes

Brewing Company), a reference to the infamous 1969 Cuyahoga River

fire (Figure 3).

Figure 1. Distinctiveness of place, reflected in beer label imagery, from New

Glarus, WI, Bethlehem, PA, and Portland, ME.

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Local wineries too have expanded dramatically during this time

period (Trubek 2008). Indeed, wine is even more explicitly based in place,

through the idea of terroir, the integral connection between a place’s

climate, soils, and the character of the grapes produced in those soils, a

concept that has in recent years been applied to many other areas of food

production as well (Trubek 2008). Winery tours are a de rigueur part of

tourist advertising for most regions of the country, and are touted as a

means of experiencing the ‘‘authentic’’ nature of a place (Schnell 2011).

Breweries and wineries construct localness in different fashion, however.

While wineries generally ascribe their rootedness to the very soil and

climate their grapes are produced in (though some import grapes from

elsewhere to carry out their craft), brewers usually draw their raw

Figure 2. T-shirt image promoting John Brown Ale (Free State Brewery,

Lawrence, KS), drenched in Kansas symbolism, drawing on John Steuart Curry’s

famous mural, ‘‘Tragic Prelude,’’ which adorns the Kansas statehouse in Topeka.

For an image of Curry’s original painting, see

File:John_Brown_Painting.JPG [accessed 10 September 2012]. Courtesy of Free

State Brewing Company.

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ingredients from elsewhere; barley and especially hops, are grown in

geographically concentrated areas, and hops are said to similarly gain a

large part of their character from their terroir. Beer brewers thus rely on

different means to evoke localness: the art of brewing itself, and the

narratives of place they employ in their marketing.

Microbreweries and wineries are far from the only arena where

ferment of neolocalism has arisen. The local food movement has exploded

in popularity and prominence over the past decade as local food customs,

local food producers, and local cuisines are all increasingly emphasized as

integral to the experience of place (Trubek 2008). The motives behind the

local eating movement are diverse*eating local is said to reduce fossil fuel

inputs into the food system, increase the diversity of food available

(through heirlooms and other, not-easily-transported varieties), keep

dollars spent on food local, and enhance the sense of community centered

on food. Equally important are the explicit ties to place that local eating


The local-eating movement has many facets. One has been the

growth of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, a setup where

people buy a share in a farm for an entire growing season, and often

Figure 3. Imagery need not be a point of pride, just distinctiveness. The Wasatch

Brewery specializes in names that tweak the dominant Mormon culture of their

area. Courtesy of Great Lakes Brewing Company and Utah Brewers Cooperative.

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participate directly in the life of the farm*through volunteer days,

potlucks, and seasonal festivals. Participants in CSA often state that

they join specifically to become more directly connected with the

farmers and the land that produce their food (Schnell 2007).5 In fact,

the Japanese word for CSA, teikei, is often colloquially translated as

‘‘food with the farmer’s face on it’’ (Imhoff 1996, p. 430; Henderson and

Van En 1999, p. xvi). The numbers of CSAs (which began in the United

States in the mid-1980s) are expanding every year, and today there are

at least 4,000 of them nationwide (RVE 2010; Local Harvest 2012).

Many CSAs have lengthy waiting lists, also indicative of the growing

demand. In my interviews with farmers and members of CSAs, one of the

common reasons that both mention for participating is the desire to create

more direct connections between customers and growers. CSAs attempt to

achieve this through a variety of means: face-to-face interaction between

farmers and members, farm visits, social events such as potlucks and

harvest festivals, and even opportunities for members to take part in the

harvest (and the weeding). There is an oft-cited figure (that, if anything,

likely understates reality) that the average item of food travels 1,500 miles

before it reaches your plate; CSA attempts to bring food closer to home.6

It also, in many cases, goes beyond that, as one farmer that I interviewed

observed: ‘‘The growing popularity of CSAs, I think, shows a need in

people’s minds for more connections with their food supply, with small

family farms. And I think a certain amount of that is idealized . . . . But I

think there’s also value in things beyond the food, and when a farm can

offer that, can offer the sense of community, the events that bring people

together, that’s valuable. Because I do feel that community is neglected,

and people are searching for opportunities.’’

Farmers’ markets are another arena that has experienced a similar

level of explosive growth (Brown 2001). They, like CSAs, promote direct

connections between farmers and customers, and make the acquisition of

food both more personal, and more distinctly place-rooted. Many towns

have initiated farm markets as a part of revitalizing downtown areas, and

downtown merchants often sponsor markets in their midst*after all, the

farmers’ market shopper is also one who is likely to be inclined to shop

locally in other places as well.

Throughout the United States, eating locally has gained in promi-

nence, and ‘‘Eat Local’’ campaigns are now widespread. Whether

sponsored by local Chambers of Commerce, sustainable agriculture

groups, state Departments of Agriculture, or other organizations all

actively promote the idea of eating locally (Figure 4). An increasing

number of restaurants also promote their local connections, as diners look

for yet another means of filling their stomach in a place-based fashion.

Such establishments promise not only a good meal, but one with a story

Journal of Cultural Geography 61

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attached to it*a story with local connections (Figure 5) (Trubek 2008;

Inwood et al. 2009).

Indeed, the local food movement is the most prominent and rapidly

growing aspect of neolocalism.7 Numerous best-sellers, such as Michael

Pollan’s The omnivore’s dilemma (2006) and Barbara Kingsolver’s

Animal, vegetable, miracle (2007), have fuelled awareness of the broader

implications of our industrial food system. The idea of eating everything

produced within a 100-mile radius has turned into a bit of a game as well,

with ‘‘Eat Local Challenges’’ sprouting up to urge people to localize

their food consumption for a period of time. Oxford American

Dictionary even named ‘‘locavore,’’ a newly coined term for a person

who consciously eats as much as possible from local farmers and food

producers, its word of the year in 2007. This idea has become so

Figure 4. Eat local campaigns are increasingly common. Here, Ithaca’s logo

posts local eating as a revolutionary act, one with political overtones. Courtesy of, Edible Austin (copyright 2011; designed by Jenna Noel).

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widespread that it has already engendered the inevitable backlash (see,

e.g., Stein 2008) and was the subject of some good-natured ribbing in the

first episode of Portlandia, a show set in that most hyper-neolocal of

cities (Portlandia 2011).

This surge to local eating is driven by a desire for local connections,

but it has also been accelerated by an increased knowledge of, and

concern for, the path that industrial agribusiness has blazed. With

alarming regularity, headlines provide us with a new food scare* salmonella-laced peanut butter, melamine-poisoned milk and infant

formula, mad cow disease, infected jalapenos, and pesticide-laced drinking

water. The distant machinations of the food-industrial complex are

increasingly portrayed as producing products that are not only inferior

in taste, quality, and variety, but that may even kill you.

Local food, on the other hand, is positioned as a counter to the

impersonal industrial food economy, a means of sustenance that is place-

based and personal, with a conscious link to community. It is also a means

for people to feel more connected with the sources of their food, to

personalize the increasingly impersonal networks of capital that provide

Figure 5. This restaurant, in Lawrence, Kansas, puts localness at the core of its

identity. Courtesy of Local Burger.

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our sustenance, and to connect cities*both economically and psy-

chologically*with their countryside, a connection that the latter half of

the twentieth century largely severed.

This sense of opposition to the homogenization and loss of quality

caused by industrial agriculture has fuelled an expansion in the applica- tion of the European concept of terroir beyond the realm of wine to a

broader range of culinary activities, and applies it in a broader sense to all

foods that are intimately connected with place, whether traditional or

recent creations (Petrini 2003; Trubek 2008). This has seen its greatest

flourishing in the Slow Food movement, an international movement born

in Italy that takes a global view of the local, arguing that we can and

should act to preserve all food traditions that are local*that is to say,

rooted in place and tradition. These can range from individual ingredients such as shagbark hickory nuts in Wisconsin or maple syrup in Vermont to

distinctive recipes and artisanal production techniques (Petrini 2003;

Trubek 2008).

European countries, most notably Italy and France, have long

accepted that there is an integral tie between food and place, and

have developed a legal codification of regional appellations, reserving

for particular producers using particular techniques in particular

regions the right to apply a particular label such as Champagne or Asiago. The United States, on the other hand, does not have the same

depth of strong regional food traditions, and chefs have only recently

begun to deliberately attempt to establish distinctive local and regional

cuisine (Trubek 2008). Localness in this context has become a valued

descriptor, and the act of building up the idea of the connections

between taste and place, and celebrating and encouraging them, has

been a notable act of narrative and creation, in a country that has

traditionally been concerned more with progress, efficiency, conveni- ence, and cheapness.

So where is ‘‘local’’? What is ‘‘local’’?

We are, in part, defined (and define ourselves) by what we eat, what we

wear, and where we shop. The microbrewed beer, the locally grown

tomato, and the small local bookshop have become the equivalent of the

flag or the national anthem of this new localism, symbols of this new local

identity. Like all such symbols, they are vague, and they contain a wealth of ideals, contradictions, and contestations (Costa and Besio 2011). The

‘‘local’’ has become, in the famous phrase of Benedict Anderson, an

‘‘imagined community,’’ a socially constructed identity (Anderson 2006).

So what is this idealized nation over which the rutabaga flag flies? What

does it represent in the eyes of its inhabitants?

The term ‘‘local’’ is vague, to say the least. Is something five miles

away ‘‘local’’? How about fifteen? Fifty? What exactly is a ‘‘locally’’

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produced product? Is it local only if all the ingredients are produced

locally? Only if all the labor that produced it is local? Or if the ownership

of the company that produced it is local? Such questions have no

intrinsically correct answer; instead, they must be negotiated each time the

word ‘‘local’’ is employed, each time somebody deems ‘‘localness’’ as

something worth having.

To make the question more complicated, the meaning of ‘‘local,’’

particularly as it relates to local food, will necessarily be different in

different places, and to different individuals and institutions within a given

place, and even in different contexts to the same individual. Sometimes

this is done out of necessity*for New York City to have ‘‘local produce’’

for example, requires a much larger foodshed than a small town. In other

cases, the ‘‘local’’ of eat-local campaigns coincides, somewhat illogically,

with political boundaries, as with state agriculture department campaigns

like Pennsylvania’s ‘‘PA Preferred.’’8

Such contradictory and overlapping usages of the term should come as

no surprise. As J.K. Gibson-Graham has pointed out (2002), even

scholars (who are fond of rigorous definitions of terminology) cannot

agree on what ‘‘local’’ means, or how it relates to the ‘‘global.’’ This stems

from the fact that, in the parlance of social scientists, scales are social/

cultural constructions and have no intrinsic meaning (see, e.g., Gibson-

Graham 2002; Brown and Purcell 2005; Born and Purcell 2006; Miyares

2008; Herod 2009). Is ‘‘the local’’ an interpretive frame through which we

analyze a situation? Is it the yin to globalism’s yang, each deriving

meaning from the other? Is globalization nothing more than a collection

of local places, or does globalization sit astride the world and become the

sole shaper of what we think of as local places? Or is the idea of localism a

shape-shifting entity that, in tandem with the also-nebulous idea of

globalism, is continually remaking our lived reality (Gibson-Graham


What I am concerned with here are the different ways that ‘‘local’’ is

conceived of by participants in neolocal movements, and the implications

that this has on the identities that they derive from it. ‘‘Local’’ is always

shifting its meanings, both in time and in context. ‘‘Local’’ is continually

redefined, extolled and imbued with various virtues based on the current

political, cultural, and economic situation. Donald Meinig said that ‘‘any

landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies

within our heads’’ (Meinig 1979, p. 34); such a statement could just as

easily be made about the terminology we use to discuss the world. The

cultural meaning of ‘‘local’’ extends well beyond the dictionary definition

of the term. Below are several of the most dominant themes I have found

in the current rhetoric employed by neolocal advocates, themes that, by

extension, indicate the idealized sorts of places that people are increas-

ingly identifying with.

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Eight views of the local

The ‘‘local’’ as non-global: The rise in neolocalism has occurred alongside

growing public awareness of ‘‘globalization.’’ (Figure 6). As news cover-

age of globalization has increased, public perception of the globalized

nature of the world economy has also likely shifted. Increasingly, many are

not comfortable with what they see. ‘‘Local’’ then, conceptually becomes

the opposite of everything that the ‘‘global’’ is seen to be: personal instead

of faceless, fair instead of exploitive, democratic instead of plutocratic,

unique instead of homogenous. Indeed, the list is virtually endless;

whatever globalization is, we locals are not. Of course, reality is

considerably messier than such conceptions. Without this perception

among a sizeable segment of the public that globalization is a distinctly

negative phenomenon, the ‘‘local’’ would likely lose some of its draw; it

takes on meaning precisely because of what it is perceived not to be. The ‘‘local’’ as transparent: Another recurring theme is the idea of

transparency in economic interactions. Global supply chains have

stretched so far, and become so convoluted, that it can be almost

impossible to determine where the things you buy were produced, and

under what conditions. In the wake of such disconnection, all matter of ills

can creep in*exploitation of workers, inhumane treatment of animals,

environmental degradation, and so forth. The rhetorical promise of

localism is that transparency can be restored to the system. If you know

Figure 6. The rise in neolocalism, measured here by usage of the term ‘‘local

food’’ in articles in the New York Times, follows shortly after the large upsurge in

usage of ‘‘globalization’’ in the late 1990s. Both terms experienced a huge upswing

as the term was becoming more commonly a subject of discussion, and then a

subsequent decline in usage.

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the producers of your goods and your food, so the argument goes, then

abuses of labor, of the environment, and of places, are less likely to occur.

What is created through the local discourse is a narrative*a story that

directly connects the consumer with the place and people that produced

the products they consume, a narrative in which nothing is hidden or unknown.

The ‘‘local’’ as non-corporate: What is notable is that pro-local activists

are not necessarily anti-globalization. What they are often against is the

form of globalization that has often traveled under the name

‘‘neoliberalism’’*the move to a market system devoid of government

interventions driven by the developed world, a system that often is seen to

favor large corporations at the expense of individuals, communities, and

countries. More than being ‘‘anti-global,’’ the neolocal movement is anti- corporate. Indeed, this is one of the most common and powerful appeals

made by advocates of neolocalism. Whether in terms of alternative

agriculture, breweries, or local living economies movements, the corpora-

tion is often singled out as one of the biggest culprits in the un-making of

place. One of the biggest attractions of ‘‘local’’ enterprises for many is the

fact that they are not owned by faceless corporations (who have become

the objects of much suspicion and mistrust among the local movement).

In part, this is due to the legal structure of publicly held corporations, whose legal standing requires them to put the profit of their shareholders

above all other concerns, including the defense of places’ uniqueness,

character, environment, economic health, and well-being (Bakan 2004).

The ‘‘local’’ as unique: A side effect of large-scale corporate globaliza-

tion has been the homogenization of the landscape*from the building

styles to the stores you shop in. This is, of course, not news to geographers

and other observers of the landscape, who, for a third of a century have

discussed and debated the ‘‘Geography of Nowhere’’ (see notably Relph 1976, Kunstler 1993). Promoters of neolocal enterprises argue that we need

to make (or re-make) distinctive. The twentieth-century mantra of

convenience and standardization is outdated, they argue, and it has led

to homogenous landscapes that are impossible to identify meaningfully

with. As a result, when businesses are seen as unique, when your town offers

things that can’t be found in other places, such enterprises can become an

intrinsic part of local identity and a point of pride for many communities

(Figure 7). The ‘‘local’’ as environmentally responsible: Local enterprises are often

touted as being a more ecologically responsible alternative to global ones.

At its simplest level, such claims relate to the amount of fossil fuel and the

resultant pollution needed to get goods to market. The assumption is that

locally sourced goods will require less fossil fuel to get to market.9 As a

result, the idea of food miles, for example, has become an entrenched part

of the concept of localization, and has gained a great deal of traction

among the public. Local enterprises are also often argued to be better

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environmental stewards than multinational firms. The typical argument

states that, whereas a corporation with absentee owners has no stake in

ensuring the long-term viability of an operation in a given place, those who

are rooted in place are much more likely to take a long-term view, and to

ensure that their land continues to sustain themselves and their community

over the long term (Wicks 2008, Wicks n.d.). It is not hard to find

counterexamples where locals have not been the best stewards of the land

and water (Bhanoo 2010; Flam 2010; McGlone 2010). It is also true that

local actors are not entirely independent, but are themselves enmeshed in

broader systems of politics and economics. But absentee ownership, absent

government regulation or serious public pressure, all but guarantees that

environmental health will take a back seat to profits (Bakan 2004).

The ‘‘local’’ as empowered and self-sufficient: By removing control over

economic destiny from distant shareholders and boardrooms and putting

Figure 7. Local pride can even be found in a humble toothbrush (albeit in this

case, one favored by Sting, Robert Redford, Whoopi Goldberg, Jane Fonda, and

Cher), seen in this display at Global Libations, a Kutztown, PA, coffee shop.

Photograph by author (see also

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it back in the community, advocates of local business networks argue,

local spending keeps decision-making power in the hands of local

residents, and keep money close to home (Shuman 2000). Indeed,

although exact numbers vary widely, research has shown that money

spent at a locally owned store is much more likely to remain in the community than money spent at a chain store (Civic Economics 2004).

The density of locally owned small businesses is positively correlated with

economic growth, while the density of large, non-local firms has a negative

relationship (Fleming and Goetz 2011). Well beyond that, advocates say, if

business owners live in the communities affected by their decisions, they

are more likely to make decisions that benefit the community (Kolko and

Neumark 2010). After decades of news stories highlighting factory

closures, job losses, and outsourcing, it is not hard to understand the appeal of locally rooted economic endeavors. In some cases, communities

have even pooled their resources to create their own community-owned

and*operated stores and restaurants in places ignored or abandoned by

the fickle hand of market forces (Hewitt 2010; Cortese 2011).

The ‘‘local’’ as community-building: Local enterprises are portrayed by

neolocal advocates as fostering a sense of community. Whether through

local business organizations like the Business Alliance for Local Living

Economies (BALLE), CSA farms, or farmers’ markets, a key part of the rhetoric promoting local enterprises is the added sense of connection you

have with your neighbors with an increasing of personal-scale connections

and mutual support between people, and between people and businesses.

This is often stated in contrast to the commodity chains of the global

economy, where people lose personal contact with the sources of the food

and products they buy. Economic relationships in this conception become

embedded within a broader web of human relations, rendering them more

multi-dimensional. Transactions are no longer just economic exchanges, but also interactions between neighbors and friends, based on mutual


Thus, as globalization accelerates this process, some people increas-

ingly yearn to return to an idealized past, prior to the coming of

corporations and outsourcing. The prototypical example of this is the

early-twentieth-century American small town, where (presumably) one

knew all the people you interacted with economically. It is an idealized

world, to be sure (imagine, for example, being African-American in a small town in Alabama in 1930), but it speaks clearly about the sense of

connectedness that neolocal advocates are craving.

The ‘‘local’’ as authentic: The idea that the local is more real, more

authentic, and higher quality also pervades local marketing campaigns.

The implication is that local products are made by ‘‘real’’ people whom

you know, rather than simply the result of elaborate marketing ruses

fostered by multinational advertising firms and their corporate clients

(Figure 8). They are also seen as less likely to use harmful ingredients, and

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are portrayed as intimately linked to place, history, and tradition.

Products rooted in a community are valued not necessarily because of

what they are, but because of what they represent*local things made by

local people, in, one is led to assume, humane and fair working conditions.

The ‘‘local’’ as all of the above: Many of these themes are often present

in the same organization or individual. Consider the words of Judy Wicks,

a prominent national promoter of local economies which sum up the

interlinked nature of these facets of neolocal identity:

Today most of us no longer know who grows our food, who bakes our

bread, brews our beer, sews our clothes, or builds our houses. We’ve become

disconnected from each other and from our places. . . .Many towns and

cities have lost their unique identity as streets are lined with the same chain

stores found everywhere or left deserted as customers flock to big box

stores, owned by distant corporations selling goods produced in faraway

sweatshops and factory farms. Without direct relationships, few of us think

about the consequences of our economic transactions on other people and

communities, on animals and the natural environment (Wicks 2008, p. 4�5).

Figure 8. The local as authentic: sign advertising a small art gallery in Topton,

PA. Photograph by


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While it is in the nature of an academic analysis to pick apart and itemize,

it is important not to lose sight of the fact that neolocalism, for many, is a

multifaceted project, one that attempts to unify many of the idealizations

of the local.

Networked neolocals

When Shortridge first identified the trend of neolocalism, he described it

as a manifestation of a search for identity in place in an increasingly

rootless society. However, over the past decade, it has become something

much more expansive and ambitious. Increasingly, people are forming

national and international networks of neolocals, mutual support

organizations for their mutual interests in preserving distinctive places.

Both of the examples discussed below*FoodRoutes and BALLE (The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies)*are taking an innovative

approach*albeit a paradoxical one: they are trying to create a national

local movement. The identities they are promoting are identities tied not

only to a specific place, but also to the broader idea of localness and place


One example of this is The FoodRoutes Network, which started in

Pennsylvania in 2003. FoodRoutes is a nonprofit organization whose

mission is to provide marketing, communication, and informational assistance to local groups who want to promote a culture of local eating

in their own areas. In its own words, ‘‘FRN is dedicated to reintroducing

Americans to their food*the seeds it grows from, the farmers who

produce it, and the routes that carry it from the fields to their tables’’

(FoodRoutes 2012). Their most visible endeavor has been their ‘‘Buy

Fresh, Buy Local’’ campaign, which now has state chapters and local

affiliates in 24 states. Some chapters are state-based, some city-based,

while others are focused on a particular physical region*the nature of what is ‘‘local’’ varies widely. Their promotions attempt to use the power

of branding to market local foods, and to put the idea of local eating

foremost in consumers’ minds. Their various logos are visually unified, yet

each one changed to reflect the distinctive nature of a region’s food

production (Figure 9). In essence, they are creating a national brand

identity around the idea of eating locally.10

Other undertakings are even more ambitious. In 2001, Judy Wicks (a

Philadelphia restaurateur) and Laury Hammel, founded BALLE. BALLE is an international network of local groups that promote networks of

‘‘local living economies,’’ defined as economies that adhere to a ‘‘triple

bottom line’’ model of success: people, planet, and profit. Since its

founding, it has expanded to more than seventy chapters throughout

North America and the United Kingdom, each focused on creating a self-

conscious network of residents and businesses. Particulars of membership

are left up to individual chapters, but common elements include buying

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products and supplies from businesses that share similar values, providing

a living wage (sufficient to live in a particular locale) and safe working

conditions, engaging in fair trade, cooperating with other businesses, and

protecting the environment. The ultimate goal is to create local economies

that buy when possible from other local sources, and when that is not

possible, to patronize entrepreneurs and economies that follow these

principles in other locations (BALLE 2012).

Such networks are distinctly local, but they are not isolated; they are,

in BALLE’s words ‘‘bottom-up, networked change’’ (BALLE 2012). They

are, in fact, using the tools of globalization, such as the internet, to

achieve the goal of establishing greater local autonomy and a culture of

the local on a national level. As the Small Business Network of Portland

puts it, ‘‘We encourage you to get involved with us as we celebrate and

create our unique community’’ (SBNP 2010). Both parts of that are key* this is seen not only as an economic undertaking, but also as a promotion

of place, community, and identity. The first step in BALLE’s approach, like FoodRoutes, is the buy-local

campaign (BALLE 2012). Buy-local movements are nothing new in

American history (Allen and Hinrichs 2007). But the tone and tenor of the

Figure 9. Creating a local, yet national, brand image. Courtesy of FoodRoutes


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BALLE movement is different. Rather than a simple defense of one’s own

place, BALLE involves businesses in actively partnering not only with

others in their locality and their ostensible competitors, but also with

businesses across the country who share similar values. Currently, more

than 22,000 entrepreneurs are members of their local BALLE network

(BALLE 2012). As chapters develop, they move into more the compli-

cated matter of creating the ‘‘building blocks’’ of the local economy that

do not exist, by fostering entrepreneurship in these areas.

Co-opting the local?

How mainstream has the be-local, buy-local movement become? Consider

for a moment this quotation:

[W]e offer fresh produce that’s grown nearby by local farmers that love their

work and love their land. There are so many local farms that supply a wide

variety of produce to our stores. These farms form the backbone of our local

economies. And these farmers are people that live in our local communities.

The name of the earthy-crunchy local co-op that uses these words on their

website? Wal-Mart, the poster child for destruction of local economies,

which has recently, and somewhat perversely, hopped on the buy-local

bandwagon (Wal-Mart 2010). And indeed, Wal-Mart has moved towards

more local sourcing of produce for its stores (Bustillo and Kesmodel

2011), though they have been critiqued for their methods in doing so

(Mitchell 2011). The fact that Wal-Mart’s motives are purely commercial

shows that the lure of the local has increasingly important financial

implications. In its turn to ‘‘local’’ imagery, Wal-Mart is far from alone

(Figure 10a�b). Safeway and Albertsons, for example, recently received

criticism for creating faux-farmers markets in front of some of their stores

(Wingfield and Worthen 2010).

One of the newest, most thorough, and most ironic corporate

makeovers occurred in spring and summer 2009 in Seattle, where

Starbucks rolled out two remodeled stores with a new concept, the ‘‘street

level coffee experience.11 The new stores have furnishings re-purposed

from other local buildings, such as seats used from a defunct local theater,

along with LEED-certified design features, as well as wine and beer. They

also showcase local craftsmanship in construction, and attempt to create

interiors that reflect their neighborhood. But the most notable shift has

been in what you don’t see*the name Starbucks. The company opted to

remove its name entirely from the stores, and to re-brand the bags of

coffee and other products sold there with the name of the local

neighborhood. 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea was one of first of these

stores (15th Avenue Coffee and Tea 2010; Seattle Times 2009), along with

Roy Street Coffee & Tea. The company had planned to extend this

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concept to the rest of the country (and world) if this initial foray into local

branding were successful. Ironically, the place where this rebranding was

piloted is in the one city where Starbucks has a legitimate claim to being

local*its home city of Seattle (Figure 11a�b). Such a shift explicitly recognizes the changing public mood towards

local enterprises. According to Arthur Rubinfeld, President of Starbucks

Global Development, ‘‘We recognize the importance of continuously

Figure 10. (A) London-based HSBC, a multinational banking firm with offices

in more than 80 countries, now advertises itself as ‘‘the World’s Local Bank,’’ a

curious designation given its origin as The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking

Corporation, formed in the 1860s to foster trade between China and Europe

( (B) This grocery store in Kutztown, PA

exemplifies this trend as well. ‘‘Local’’ in this case seems to refer to the

Pennsylvania-based ownership of the store, because there is not notably more

local food on the shelves than at other conventional supermarkets. And even the

idea of it as a local (Pennsylvania-based) company is somewhat questionable; since

it is a publicly traded company, its ownership resides worldwide. Photographs by


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evolving with our customers’ interests, lifestyles and values in order to

stay relevant over the long term. Our new design approach will allow

customers to feel truly at home when visiting their local store and give

them opportunities for discovery at our other locations around the

world’’ (Starbucks 2009). To achieve this new, local feel, Starbucks sent

groups of observers to scout out other locally owned coffee shops in their

hometown in order to figure out how to be a local Seattle coffee shop.

Needless to say, this caused some tension, and indeed, the entire process

resulted in vociferous debate on the comment boards of The Stranger, a

local independent weekly newspaper (Seattle Times 2009; The Stranger

2009). Such a move shows that the anti-corporate rhetoric of the local

economy movement has had an impact; the lure of a homogenous front

is no longer the draw that it once was, and the locally distinctive is seen

to have some potential to reverse Starbucks’ slide. Whether this and

other attempts by large corporations to remake themselves in a neolocal

image involve genuine change or are merely localwashing remains to be

seen. The Roy Street Coffee & Tea store is still in existence, but

Starbucks unceremoniously changed the 15th Street store back to a

standard-issue Starbucks in early 2011, indicating that denizens of

Seattle, one of the epicenters of neolocal sentiment, did not buy into the

fakeout attempt.

Figure 11. (A) The former 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea in Seattle, ‘‘Inspired by

Starbucks’’ (that is, inspired by itself). (B) Protestors criticized the new non-

Starbucks as ‘‘faux-local,’’ while the company argues that it is merely trying to

become a better fit in the neighborhoods where it locates (Courtesy of Kat

Steinglass and

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The geography of neolocalism

While aspects of neolocalism can be found throughout the country, it

seems to catch on earlier and stronger in some areas than in others (Figure

12a�c). There are remarkable similarities, for example, between the maps

Figure 12. Remarkable similarities between the maps of BALLE chapters,

microbreweries, and community-supported agriculture farms seems to indicate a

distinctive geography of neolocalism. (A) community-supported agriculture farms

in 2008 (data from RVE 2010); (B) microbreweries and brewpubs 2012 (data from

Real Beer, Inc. 2012); (C) BALLE networks 2012 (data from BALLE 2012).

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of microbreweries, community supported agriculture farms, and the

network of BALLE local business networks. Initially, all caught on

most strongly in the urban and suburban northeast, the upper Midwest,

western Oregon and Washington, and Northern California, as well as

along the Front Range of the Rockies, and in areas around college towns.

In the case of breweries and CSAs, they have now expanded to the more

resistant Plains and Southeast, but are still strongest in their initial areas.

BALLE, which is a younger, more ambitious concept, is still largely

confined to these early-adopter areas, though it too has begun to spread in

recent years.

Such areas tend to be relatively wealthier, more politically progressive,

whiter (and slightly more Hispanic) urban and suburban areas (Table 1).

Counties with a CSA or microbrewery also have a smaller percentage of

their population born in that county than counties without such

enterprises. This lends support to the argument that people are driven

to neolocalism in part out of a search for rootedness, a desire no doubt felt

more keenly by people who have been on the move. Both CSAs and

microbreweries show similar patterns, which is not surprising given that

they follow similar distributions. However, this is not the entire story, and

indeed, stopping here can leave an overly stereotyped picture of

neolocalism as simply the province solely of a white, privileged elite. To

attempt a more detailed analysis of the type of communities more

receptive to neolocal enterprises, I employed the twelve county types

developed by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel as part of their Patchwork

Nation project, an attempt to move beyond the simplistic red/blue state

Figure 12. continued

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motif that passes for political analysis (2010).12 Using principal compo-

nents analysis on a whole host of socio/economic/political data, they

devised a classification of twelve county types (Table 2)13 Using these

twelve county types, I compared the percentage of the country’s

population that lived in counties of each type, and compared it with the

percentage of the CSAs and microbreweries in my data set that are found

in those counties (Figure 13). The largest overrepresentation of microbreweries and CSAs can be

found in Boom Towns, areas of growing diversity, and recent arrivals.

Other classes where neolocalism is overrepresented are the Monied Burbs,

the Industrial Metropolis, Emptying Nests, and Campus and Careers.

Those where they are heavily under-represented include


Nation, Minority Central, Tractor Country, Service Worker Centers, and

Military Bastions. Mormon Outposts, meanwhile, are distributed roughly

equal with their population. And then we have the Evangelical Epicenters,

areas that have a high adherence to evangelical Christianity and a

Table 1. Comparisons between CSA/non-CSA counties, and microbrewery/non-

microbrewery counties. Figures are the mean values for the counties in each

category. Gray shading indicates the larger of the two values in each comparison.

CSA Non-CSA Micro. Non-Micro.

Average HH income in $ 52657 43443 55299 43278

% white 95.6 87.9 92.1 89.0

% black 6.4 10.0 8.0 9.5

% Hispanic 8.5 7.2 10.3 6.8

% Native American 1.0 2.3 1.5 2.1

% Asian/Pacific 2.4 0.9 3.3 0.8

% Pop. age 20�34 21.1 19.8 21.8 19.7

% Pop. age 35�49 23.1 21.1 23.3 21.1

%Pop. age 50�64 19.6 18.7 19.4 18.7

% Pop. age 65 and up 14.9 15.5 14.1 15.7

% w/ HH Income 0�20K 22.3 28.8 21.4 28.7

% w/ HH Income 20�40K 26.5 29.2 25.8 29.3

% w/ HH Income 40�60K 20.5 19.5 20.1 19.6

% w/ HH Income 60�75K 10.4 8.6 10.5 8.6

% w/ HH Income 75�100K 9.4 6.7 10.0 6.7

% w/ HH Income 100�125K 4.3 2.6 4.8 2.6

% w/ HH Income 125�150K 1.9 1.1 2.2 1.1

% w/ HH Income 150�200K 1.6 0.9 1.9 0.8

% w/ Income 200K-up 1.7 1.0 2.1 1.0

% Coll.�Grad. School Enroll. 20.4 15.0 23.6 14.6

% Born In State of Residence 65.9 70.5 59.3 71.7

% with HS Diploma 81.7 76.2 83.8 76.0

Repub. Pres. Vote 2004 54.7 61.7 51.9 62.0

Dem. Pres. Vote 2004 44.2 37.3 46.9 37.0

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decidedly conservative political profile, actually are more likely to have

CSAs than their population alone would predict, though not surprisingly,

they have not taken as much to


What these two analyses in tandem show is that we must be careful

about overgeneralization. Though the Monied Burbs meet the general-

izations we see in Table 1, many of the others do not*


Metropolis counties, for example, are quite diverse, while Emptying Nests

are considerably older on average than the nation as a whole. In addition,

there is clearly a regional effect that demographics alone, and even the

broader county types, cannot account for. Some parts of the country,

most notably the Plains states and the Southeast, seem to be more

resistant to neolocal enterprises, even when you take into account the

differing demographics, whereas the early-adopter areas are considerably

more open to them. To name just a few examples, although Service

Worker Centers nationwide are less prone to having CSAs or micro-

breweries, there is a large swath of these counties in places like upstate

New York that have become centers of neolocal activity. Similarly, the

clustering in the upper Midwest in states like Michigan and Wisconsin

cannot be simply explained with recourse to demographics or political

inclinations. Careful consideration of the maps turns up many more

examples. This leads me to conclude that the move to neolocalism is not

readily reducible to any of these categories, although many of the socio/

economic/political variables do clearly have an impact.

In part, I think that this is because there is a decided libertarian streak

to many neolocal enterprises, one that cuts across and confounds

traditional political categories in this country, an anti-bigness that applies

Figure 13. Percentage of U.S. microbreweries and CSAs found in each of the

twelve county types, compared with the percent of the U.S. population residing in

each county type.

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equally to corporations and to government. There would seem to be room

to greatly expand the movement’s appeal for those who see neolocalism as

a broader economic, political, and social project. Perhaps the rhetoric of

neolocals needs to shift in some regions to broaden their appeal, to focus

less on the anti-corporate rhetoric that gains much mileage in more

progressive areas, and to focus instead on themes of local distinctiveness,

local autonomy, local independence, and local free enterprise*themes

that are likely to be more resonant in more culturally conservative

Table 2. Patchwork Nation community type definitions. Authored by Dante

Chinni and Dr. James Gimpel, 2008. Copyright 2008�2011 The Jefferson Institute

for the Study of World Politics, Licensed to Users under Creative Commons

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerive 3.0 Unported License.

Community Type Definition

Boom Towns Fast growing communities with rapidly diversifying


Campus and


Cities and towns with young, educated populations; more

secular and Democratic than other American communities

Emptying Nests Home to many retirees and aging baby boomer populations;

less diverse than the nation at large



Communities with a high proportion of evangelical

Christians, found mostly in small towns and suburbs;

slightly older than the U.S. average; loyal Republican voters



Communities with large Latino populations and lower-than-

average incomes, typically clustered in the South and




Densely populated, highly diverse urban centers; incomes

trend higher than the national average and voters lean


Military Bastions Areas with high employment in the military or related to the

presence of the military and large veteran populations; likely

Republican voters though Democratic President Obama

gained ground in 2008

Minority Central Home to large pockets of black residents but a below

average percentage of Hispanics and Asians

Monied Burbs Wealthier, highly educated communities with a median

household income of $15,000 above the national county


Mormon Outposts Home to a large share of members of the Church of Jesus

Christ of Latter-Day Saints and slightly higher median

household incomes

Service Worker


Midsize and small towns with economies fueled by hotels,

stores and restaurants and lower-than-average median

household income by county

Tractor County Mostly rural and remote smaller towns with older

populations and large agricultural sectors

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quarters of our country. In fact, the ideas of neolocalism, of greater ties to

place, are not intrinsically conservative or liberal, and it is counter-

productive for movements that hope to bring about lasting change to

confine their appeals to one end of the political spectrum.

Critiques of the local

It is easy to find examples where each of the virtues associated with the

local fail to materialize in practice. Sometimes, in fact, the various goals of

localism are at odds with each other. There are many Mennonite farmers

in southeastern Pennsylvania who sell produce at local stands. From the

standpoint of a local foods advocate, what could be more idealistic? On

further examination, however, some are active users of sewage sludge on

their fields, a practice that has been condemned by others as extremely unhealthy for people and the environment (USFA 2010). The goals of

transparency and environmental virtue then are undermined at a distinctly

local level.

Indeed, scholars have gone to increasing lengths in recent years to

point out that scale has few, if any, intrinsic qualities. Just because

something is ‘‘local,’’ despite the rhetoric of local movement promoters,

it is not automatically more just, healthier, or more sustainable than

national- or global-scale enterprises. Born and Purcell have termed this assumption of virtue automatically adhering to a particular scale ‘‘the

local trap’’ (Brown and Purcell 2005; Born and Purcell 2006). Indeed, the

rhetoric of many local movements does often equate localness with more

desirable outcomes in many realms*sustainability, social justice,

democracy, and nutrition, to name a few. Some critics go even further.

Born and Purcell have argued that ‘‘local scale food systems are equally

likely to be just or unjust, sustainable or unsustainable, secure or

insecure’’ (2006, p. 195). It has also become commonplace for scholars to critique neolocal

enterprises as potential instances of ‘‘defensive localism,’’ a sort of local

chauvinism that is seen as catering to a whole array of humanity’s baser

instincts. In some of this scholarship there is an assumption that defense

of place is necessarily a bad thing, that it necessarily leads to xenophobia

and bigotry. They argue that, in creating the ‘‘us’’ of the local, local

identities inevitably create a ‘‘them’’ that is excluded (at best) and

demonized (at worst) (Hinrichs 2000, 2003; Winter 2003; DuPuis and Goodman 2005). Local elites, they argue, can be every bit as exclusionary

as larger scale systems, and local old boy networks can shut non-white-

males out of power, and economic influence,14 and ‘‘can provide the

ideological foundations for reactionary politics and nativist sentiment’’

(DuPuis and Goodman 2005, p. 360). Critics have also argued that the

local food movement is ‘‘a-political (anti-democratic, anti-reflexive)’’

(DuPuis and Goodman 2005, p. 360), and that it often ignores questions

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of social justice (i.e., access to quality food for all). Indeed, these scholars

have voiced their opposition to any movement that relies on defense of

place as a goal in and of itself, dismissing all ‘‘local’’ movements as mere

nativism (most forcefully Born and Purcell 2006).

While such critiques have some merit, I feel that, by relying on vague,

‘‘could-be, it’s possible’’ generalities, they greatly overstate their case,

creating a skewed picture, and fundamentally misrepresent the nature of

neolocal movements. And they are considerably off the mark when they

argue that local movements reduce the ‘‘lens of who we care about,’’

(Hinrichs 2003, p. 37) or that ‘‘‘the local’ as a concept intrinsically implies

the inclusion and exclusion of particular people, places, and ways of life’’

(DuPuis and Goodman 2005, p. 361).

Expanding the lens

Certainly as it regards the neolocal movements I have examined, such

statements ring false. As Clare Hinrichs has noted, self-conscious

localness does not necessarily lead down this path; it can also lead to a

more open, inclusive view of the world as well, expanding and not

contracting the lens of who we care about (Hinrichs 2003). Doreen

Massey has made a similar point, arguing that there is nothing

intrinsically exclusionary about localness. Although it can be, place

need not be bound and exclusionary; it can also serve to create a sense

of responsible linkages with the wider world (Massey 1999, p. 155).

I would argue that such place-rooted activism is precisely the kind of

engagement that is needed to evince true, lasting social change at any

level. Local places are the sites of day-to-day human action and

experience. The nature of people’s connection to local places is qualita-

tively different than to broader, more abstract affiliations (Tuan 1975),

and any social movement that ignores this is bound to fail. Because of the

more personal nature of such connections, defense of place provides a

powerful incentive to action. Neolocalism can also engage people in

reflexive thinking about the relationships our actions have on a wider

social, economic, and natural world by encouraging people to identify

with and care not only about their ‘‘local,’’ but also about the idea of the

‘‘local’’ in general. In short, place is not a distraction to the goals of

building a more sustainable, just, and livable world; it enables it.

What seems to be emerging, then, through the various aspects of

neolocalism, is a distinct turn to ‘‘the local’’ as a primary form of identity,

and the promotion of people thinking of themselves not only in the sense

of abstract symbols, but also in terms of what they buy, what they eat,

whom they interact with, and identifying not only with their own places,

but with the idea of place itself. Corporations have long encouraged

identifying with brand names (Klein 2000); in some ways, neolocalism is

82 S.M. Schnell

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turning such strategies on their head by encouraging identification with

‘‘the local’’ instead.

What makes neolocal identities potentially more powerful than they

may appear on the surface is through the visible effects they have, the

alternative spaces that they create. As Andrew Herod has argued, a dominant discourse concerning corporate-led globalization is TINA* ‘‘There is no alternative’’ (Herod 2009). But CSAs, microbreweries, citizen

watershed groups, farmers’ markets, and the like are (in some cases

literally) visceral proof that there are spaces for alternatives. The

importance of such a realization should not be understated. Class

consciousness as a form of identity has not exactly panned out as Marx

had envisioned, but the drive for people to identify with local places seems

to be a much stronger urge. Neolocalism is defensive. But it is also creative and positive. Just as

importantly, it indicates an unwillingness to cede the shape that one’s

place takes to abstract forces beyond one’s control*adopting the idea

instead that there is an alternative. This, in essence, creates a new narrative

of place adopted by neolocals, one not driven by impersonal market forces

but rather by individual and community empowerment. The new

narrative of ‘‘the local’’ consists of an interwoven set of virtues and

ideals that it is supposed to typify. As critics have pointed out, just being local is not a guarantee that such abuses will not continue. But because of

the way that it embeds economic transactions and identity in a broader

social matrix, it lays the groundwork for the creation of a world where

values other than the purely economic shape our lived reality.

Neolocalism is not really the opposite of globalization. In fact, it is

enabled by globalization. Without the homogenization of place over the

past half century, it seems quite likely that conscious cultivation of place

attachments would not be as strong as it is today. In addition, without the media networks that have created a globally interlinked world, the ideas of

localism would have a much more provincial base. Instead, neolocal

identities have become part of a broader political, social, and economic

undertaking, one in which local knowledge, local economy, and local

connections are all consciously cultivated, and one in which place

connections are nurtured. At the heart of such a project is the idea of

narrative and identity (Tuan 1991). From the local yarns behind the beer

names at the local brew pub, to the narrative that traces the origins of your tomato to a specific plot of earth and a specific farmer, to the effort

to establish and support a network of locally rooted businesses, all focus

on creating a narrative of place in which the participant plays an active,

personally connected role. It is an identity that becomes much more than

‘‘who I am,’’ but also a statement of ‘‘what I am a part of.’’

Pete Shortridge has long argued forcefully for the importance of

studying the subjective aspects of human experience through the complex

interplay of identity, place, and narrative. As he observed in concluding

Journal of Cultural Geography 83

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his groundbreaking study of the images of the American Midwest more

than twenty years ago, ‘‘[t]here is an increased realization that the positive

values that grow out of a rootedness in place are needed to give meaning

to life . . . .’’ (1989, p. 141). Shortridge was referring here to the Midwest’s

role as a repository of idealized pastoral imagery, a place whose image

allowed Americans to see themselves as directly connected with the

landscape that sustains them. In the decades since Shortridge’s observa-

tion, the rapid rise in globalization has rendered the search for connection

and local identity more vital than ever. Increasingly, Americans are

looking for this rootedness not only in the imagery of the Midwest, but

also much closer to home, and in more concrete, active, and diverse ways.

Shortridge’s fellow Kansan Wes Jackson has argued for conceiving of

the Earth at a local level*not as a unified whole, but as a group of places

to which people are attached (Jackson 1996). And he asks people to

develop a relationship with their ecosystems, to root themselves firmly in

nature and place. In countless ways, big and small, Americans are doing

just that*becoming native to this place.


1. The term is now discussed in many of the standard introductory human/

cultural geography textbooks (Fouberg, Murphy, and de Blij 2009; Fellman,

et al. 2010; Greiner 2011; Domosh, et al. 2013). Although Shortridge first

employed the term ‘‘neolocalism,’’ Raimondo Strassoldo (1992) used the term

‘‘new localism’’ in a similar fashion*referring to a deliberate response to

globalization of rooting oneself in a locality*in his study of regionalism in

Italy a couple of years earlier.

2. Although I focus here primarily on commercial manifestations of neolocalism,

the urge for local connections encompasses many other phenomena as well.

For example, the past twenty years have seen a large increase in numbers of

local watershed associations. They often monitor pollution and water quality,

promote understanding of plant and animal communities that depend on the

watershed, and work to increase awareness of the relationships between people

and the watersheds that support them, promoting a vision of place as one

inextricably intertwined with the landscapes that we inhabit. The bioregion-

alism movement that began in the 1970s takes this concept even further,

advocating a fundamental reorganization of society to create political

structures and boundaries that are in line with biological regions that would

be more responsive and sensitive to the geographical and biological realities of

the landscapes they inhabit (Sale 1985).

3. The local living economies movement is a movement whose goals are to create

viable networks of local businesses that are financially viable as well as

ecologically and socially responsible.

4. An extended version of this discussion can be found in Schnell and Reese

2003. See also Flack 1997 for a discussion of the earlier development of


5. See Schnell 2007 for an expanded discussion of CSAs.

84 S.M. Schnell

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6. This number is actually 1) almost a complete fabrication, and 2) almost

certainly way too small, an argument that I expand on in a forthcoming article.

7. Local eating has also become a mainstream part of the tourist industry. In a

comparative study of state and provincial tourism guides, I examined changes

in promotion strategies between 1993 and 2008, and one of the most notable

shifts was to an emphasis on agritourism and local eating. Incidence of the

word ‘‘local’’ in tourism booklets increased tenfold. Local foods and farms are

now almost uniformly touted as a way to experience the real, authentic place, a

marketing strategy that was barely present fifteen years ago (Schnell 2011).

8. See

3-11-09_Revised_PA_PREFERRED_Agreement_Package for an example

of the ways in which ‘‘local’’ is codified in such programs. See also Hinrichs

2003 for a discussion of the definition of ‘‘local’’ in the context of a ‘‘local’’

Iowa dinner.

9. Some studies have disputed this claim (see Saunders, Barber, and Taylor 2006

for the most notable example), and argued that in some circumstances, long-

distance transport is actually more ecologically minded than local production.

Such arguments typically rely on cherry-picked examples to try and leave a

broader impression.

10. Some have argued that this idea is an oxymoron (Allen and Hinrichs 2007),

but I disagree. Indeed, I would argue that the creation of a broader

consciousness of localness is a vital part of creating a local food movement

that more broadly penetrates all sectors of society.

11. A third is located in Disneyland Park in Paris*also an interesting choice,

since Disney was the subject of much controversy when it first opened in Paris,

accused of cultural imperialism by French activists.

12. See also for fuller methodological explanations

and for full-color maps detailing the distribution of these different county


13. Although it is a simplification to assign each county to a single type (my own

county, Berks PA, is classed as ‘‘Monied Burbs’’ while being home to Reading,

which was just named the city with the highest poverty rate in America), an

analysis using each county’s score in each of the twelve categories yielded

similar results.

14. There is not space in this article to address this critique fully; I am addressing

it at much greater length in a forthcoming article.


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