Expand the Frontiers of Urban Sustainability

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New York’s High Line Park

I’m thrilled to announce that today Nature has released a commentary written by myself, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Hillary Angelo. It’s called “Expand the Frontiers of Urban Sustainability” (weblink | PDF), and it argues that the current paradigm of urban sustainability policy is too narrow in both spatial and social terms.

The article’s key argument is as follows:

Although the social, economic and ecological issues behind sustainability are regional or global in scale, urban policy usually addresses single ecological issues in individual urban neighbourhoods. Focusing on dense cities and their affluent areas ignores social movements and their advocacy for quality-of-life issues such as housing and commuting, which have direct ecological consequences. Targeting specific districts ignores the often negative regional and global impacts of local environmental, or ‘greening’, improvements.

One of our motivations for writing this piece was our sense that even sustainability policies with apparently strong evidence for their efficacy turn out to be much more ambiguous in their impacts when they are evaluated in a larger spatial or social context. If green buildings or bike paths lower a neighbourhood’s carbon footprint, that’s a good thing. But if those developments increase the desirability of the neighbourhood and lead to displacement of poorer residents to other, less sustainable areas of the urban region, it’s much harder to celebrate the success. As a result, we conclude:

Many sustainability gains are simply a regressive redistribution of amenities across places.

This commentary arose out of the five paper sessions that Hillary Angelo and I organized at the 2016 AAG annual meeting, on the theme of “Why Does Everyone Think Cities Can Save the Planet?”. Hillary and I are also in the process of editing a special issue in Environment and Planning A with papers drawn from these sessions, and I’ll have more information to share about that in the months to come.

The article is freely available to read at Nature’s website, and can be downloaded from Nature, in the August 25 issue.

Governance from Megalopolis to the Megaregion: A World of Cities or Planetary Urbanization?

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The paradoxes of the megalopolis

At the end of July I had the honour of being a keynote speaker at the second international colloquium “Las paradojas de la Megalópolis” (“The paradoxes of megalopolis”) in Mexico City. The event was organized by Dr. Felipe de Alba from the Centro de Estudios Sociales y de Opinión Pública (CESOP), and featured an impressive range of Mexican and international academics and policymakers all grappling with the governance challenges of mega-urban areas.

This is an issue I’ve been thinking and writing about for some time now (e.g. in my contribution to John Harrison and Michael Hoyler’s edited volume Megaregions: Globalization’s New Urban Form?). My talk at the Mexican colloquium took a historical perspective on megalopolitan or megaregional governance, with a focus on the United States. I argued, first of all, that in the last fifty years we’ve seen a shift from redistribution to competitiveness in mega-urban governance thinking (corresponding to the broader shift from Fordism-Keynesianism to neoliberalism). Second, I argued that recent megaregional scholarship and policy discourse is in important respects the consolidation and even intensification of a city-centric imaginary of the mega-urban, which unfortunately draws our attention away from the many ways in which large-scale urban agglomerations are co-constituted with their hinterlands and global economic networks. Finally, and relatedly, I argued that actually-existing megalopolitan governance challenges today are more-than-territorial, and in fact implicate a proliferation of internal and external urban relations at multiple scales.

To make this argument I drew on the growing literature on planetary urbanization, and concluded that an adequate concept of the megalopolis or the megaregion is one defined as much by what is outside it as what is inside it.

One interesting detail about the colloquium is that it took place in the Mexican national parliament building (since CESOP is the research institute affiliated with the parliament). The result was quite a bit more pomp and circumstance than I’m used to from purely academic conferences:

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Dignitaries in the Mexican parliament

The experience was interesting, and I learned quite a lot about urban governance in the Mexico City region. A video of my presentation is available here, dubbed into Spanish:

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Infrastructure Alliances: Supply-Chain Expansion and Multi-City Growth Coalitions

Infrastructure alliance in the Arizona Sun Corridor

Infrastructure alliance in Arizona

The journal Economic Geography has just released an online-first version of my forthcoming article “Infrastructure Alliances: Supply-Chain Expansion and Multi-City Growth Coalitions”. It’s the first of several articles I have in the pipeline which collectively explore the emergence of new, extremely large-scale urban growth coalitions in the United States—spanning polycentric urban areas of up to hundreds of kilometres.

I call this phenomenon “competitive multi-city regionalism”, and in this article, I argue that one important structural inducement to the formation of these new growth coalitions is transportation and logistics infrastructure development. This sort of investment can intensify existing economic activity or introduce new economic possibilities throughout an entire regional supply chain. So local capitalists have an easier time forming large-scale partnerships around these goals than around the traditional growth-machine agenda of land-use intensification, which runs into problems of zero-sum competitiveness. The result is “infrastructure alliances”—a new kind of local growth coalition.

Here’s the abstract:

Recent scholarship has suggested that infrastructure development is fragmenting local urban politics, but I argue that it has had the opposite impact at the multi-city regional scale. New multi-city growth coalitions are currently emerging across the United States, united by a shared interest in supply-chain expansion—the extension of effective supply chains and the intensification of circulatory possibilities in regional transportation networks. In this article I develop a theoretical account of these novel infrastructure alliances, and explore empirical examples across the domains of (1) logistics and trade, and (2) manufacturing and resource extraction supply chains. I conclude by considering possible future trajectories for infrastructure alliances and entrepreneurial urban governance.

The final author draft of the paper is freely available to download. The Version of Record of this manuscript has been published and is available in Economic Geography, 13 July 2016.