Urban governance

Post-City Politics: US Urban Governance and Competitive Multi-City Regionalism

Urban regions are now widely understood as the engines driving economic prosperity. But in a globalizing marketplace, mid-tier cities struggle to compete with global cities in attracting the capital investment that fuels those engines. In the past two decades, a historically unprecedented form of urban development policy has emerged in the United States in response to this challenge: multi-city economic partnerships uniting urban growth coalitions across multiple cities and regions. Post-City Politics: US Urban Governance and Competitive Multi-City Regionalism, is a comparative interview- and document-based analysis of this phenomenon—which I call competitive multi-city regionalism—and of the broader context of “post-city politics” in the United States. My analysis builds on the foundations of the new urban politics, while adding an additional key explanatory factor: the increasing instability of local growth coalitions due to the suburbanization of urban areas, economic globalization, and the growing involvement of state and federal governments in local economic policy. The rise of competitive multi-city regionalism amounts to a transformation in the way localities conduct economic development. But the policy and social implications are still unclear. Will these collaborations allow communities to work together with neighbours to avoid wasteful undercutting and corporate subsidies in efforts to attract business investment, or will they simply crystallize such zero-sum urban competition at a larger scale—a new race to the bottom? Through the first in-depth analysis of competitive multi-city regionalism, my dissertation research answers these questions.

Saving the City with Data? The Technology and Politics of Urban Sustainability

My next major project, Saving the City with Data? The Technology and Politics of Urban Sustainability, will provide a critical geographical analysis of an important new domain of global urban policy: the technology-driven approaches to urban sustainability referred to as “smart cities”. Across the globe, city leaders have taken the lead in the fight against environmental crisis, and they are increasingly turning to technology- and data-driven smart city policies to wage this fight. And while “smart” approaches to urban sustainability are an important emerging topic of research within urban studies, scholars have not yet addressed the central question of how and why the smart city and sustainable city agendas intersect politically, even as worldwide investments in sustainable smart city schemes increase rapidly. The smart city might be green, but is it democratic? This gap is problematic because it leaves scholars and policymakers alike without an understanding of the likely impacts of sustainability-oriented smart city policies, not as technical interventions to lower carbon emissions, but as socially contested political projects that have winners and losers. I will fill this gap by examining the institutional and political networks developing, promoting, and resisting smart-city sustainability, with particular emphasis on four key global cities: Amsterdam, New York, Singapore, and Vancouver. My research asks: What socio-environmental interests are legitimated by a smart-city approach to sustainability, and what interests are foreclosed? Is democratic urban space compatible with smart-city sustainability?


The relationship between cities and the environment

Three Ecologies: Urban Metabolism and the Society-Nature Opposition
2012. The Sociological Quarterly 53 (4): 506-523.

This article is an intellectual history of two enduring binaries—society-nature and city-countryside—and their co-identification, told through evolving uses of the concept of “urban metabolism.” After recounting the emergence of the modern society-nature opposition in the separation of town and country under early industrial capitalism, I interpret “three ecologies”—successive periods of urban metabolism research spanning three disciplines within the social sciences. The first is the human ecology of the Chicago School, which treated the city as an ecosystem in analogy to external, natural ecosystems. The second is industrial ecology: materials-flow analyses of cities that conceptualize external nature as the source of urban metabolism’s raw materials and the destination for its social wastes. The third is urban political ecology, a reconceptualization of the city as a product of diverse socio-natural flows. By analyzing these three traditions in succession, I demonstrate both the efficacy and the limits to Catton and Dunlap’s distinction between a “human exemptionalist paradigm” and a “new ecological paradigm” in sociology.

Urbanizing Urban Political Ecology: A Critique of Methodological Cityism
2015 (with Hillary Angelo). International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Advance copy available online.

Urban political ecology (UPE), an offshoot of political ecology that emerged in the late 1990s, has had two major impacts on critical urban studies: it has introduced critical political ecology to urban settings, and it has provided a framework for retheorizing the city as a product of metabolic processes of socionatural transformation. However there was another goal in early UPE programmatic statements which has largely fallen by the wayside: to mobilize a Lefebvrian theoretical framework to trouble traditional distinctions between urban/rural and society/nature by exploring urbanization as a global process. Instead of following this potentially fruitful path, UPE has become bogged down in ‘methodological cityism’: an overwhelming analytical and empirical focus on the traditional city to the exclusion of other aspects of contemporary urbanization processes. Thus UPE’s Lefebvrian promise, of a research program that could work across traditional disciplinary divisions and provide insights into a new era of planetary urbanization, has remained unfulfilled. In this paper we trace UPE’s history to show how it arrived at its present predicament, and offer some thoughts on a research agenda for a political ecology not of the city but of urbanization.

Superstorm Research Lab

I am one of the co-founders of Superstorm Research Lab, a NYU-based collaborative research team investigating the impact of Hurricane Sandy on New York City. As part of this team, I am engaged in two research projects—”The Multiple Space-times of Disaster” and “The Storm as a State Project”—both of which analyze the relationship between the disaster and inherited structures of governance in the New York region.

How Local Governments Hinder Our Response to Natural Disasters
2013. The Atlantic Cities, October 28.

Hurricane Sandy didn’t respect jurisdictional boundaries, and it challenged us to coordinate disaster response on a regional scale.

The Fantasy of Disaster Response: Governance and Social Action During Hurricane Sandy
2013 (with Max Liboiron). Social Text Periscope, October 29.

Governments make disaster plans. Between municipal, state, and federal level agencies, the amount of planning for potential disasters is enormous. But during Hurricane Sandy, plans that took several years and millions of dollars to produce were thrown out almost immediately. In fact, discarding disaster plans is entirely normal, and may even be desirable.


Urban theory

City as Ideology: Reconciling the Explosion of the City Form with the Tenacity of the City Concept
2014. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (1): 75-90

This essay is a theoretical re-examination of the traditional concept of the city in the context of urbanization processes that exceed it. Recent decades have seen a proliferation of new variations on the city concept, as well as calls to discard it altogether. I argue that both options are inadequate. The city has generally been understood as a category of analysis—a moment in urbanization processes—but might now be better understood as a category of practice—an ideological representation of urbanization processes. I substantiate this claim through an examination of three tropes of the traditional city which in material terms have been superseded in recent decades in the Global North but retain their force as ideological representations of contemporary urban spatial practice: the opposition between city and country, the city as a self- contained system, and the city as an ideal type.

Assemblage Urbanism and the Challenges of Critical Urban Theory
2011 (with Neil Brenner and David J. Madden). City 15 (2): 225-240.

Against the background of contemporary worldwide transformations of urbanizing spaces, this paper evaluates recent efforts to mobilize the concept of ‘assemblage’ as the foundation for contemporary critical urban theory, with particular attention to a recent paper by McFarlane in this journal. We argue that there is no single ‘assemblage urbanism’, and therefore no coherence to arguing for or against the concept in general. Instead, we distinguish between three articulations between urban political economy and assemblage thought. While empirical and methodological applications of assemblage analysis have generated productive insights in various strands of urban studies by building on political economy, we suggest that the ontological application favored by McFarlane and several other assemblage urbanists contains significant drawbacks. In explicitly rejecting concepts of structure in favor of a ‘naïve objectivism’, it deprives itself of a key explanatory tool for understanding the sociospatial ‘context of contexts’ in which urban spaces and locally embedded social forces are positioned. Relatedly, such approaches do not adequately grasp the ways in which contemporary urbanization continues to be shaped and contested through the contradictory, hierarchical social relations and institutional forms of capitalism. Finally, the normative foundations of such approaches are based upon a decontextualized standpoint rather than an immanent, reflexive critique of actually existing social relations and institutional arrangements. These considerations suggest that assemblage-based approaches can most effectively contribute to critical urban theory when they are linked to theories, concepts, methods and research agendas derived from a reinvigorated geopolitical economy.

Urban Theory Without Methodological Cityism (Teoría urbana sin ciudadismo metodológico)
2013. URBAN 6: 23-35 (translated into Spanish).

The purpose of this paper is to critically evaluate the role of the traditional idea of the city in contemporary urban theory. I do so via an elaboration of the concept of “methodological cityism”—the analytical privileging of the city as a site in place of the urban as a process. This site-centrism in urban studies has tended to rely on three tropes: the city in opposition to the countryside, the city as a self-contained system, and the city as an ideal type. I examine these three tropes, and then turn to the possibilities for critical urban theory without methodological cityism. One the one hand, the city may still correspond to the everyday experience of urbanization even if it is not an adequate analytical category. On the other hand, we require new theoretical and methodological tools for exploring the multisite and multiscalar geographies of planetary urbanization.


Urban politics

Transnational Gentrification: Globalisation and Neighbourhood Change in Panama’s Casco Antiguo
2015 (with Thomas Sigler). Urban Studies. Advance copy available online.

Drawing upon the case of Panama’s Casco Antiguo, this paper establishes the theoretical concept of ‘transnational gentrification’: a process of neighbourhood change both enabled by and formative of a spatially embedded transnational ‘gentry’ whose locational mobility creates new possibilities for profitable housing reinvestment in geographically disparate markets where such possibilities would not have otherwise existed. Globalisation does not just create a common political-economic structure driving urban change or a common ideology for a gentrifying cohort. In this case, it creates historically and geographically specific connections between places, which themselves can become pathways along which gentrification processes propagate, connecting local capital to international consumer demand. The case of the Casco Antiguo offers a provocative inversion of a standard critical narrative of globalisation, whereby capital is freed from national constraints and able to roam globally while people largely remain place-bound. In the Casco Antiguo, residents are transnational and property developers are local.

Whose Streets? The Toronto G20 and the Challenges of Summit Protest
2011 (edited with Tom Malleson). Toronto: Between the Lines.

In June 2010 activists opposing the G20 meeting held in Toronto were greeted with arbitrary state violence on a scale never before seen in Canada. Whose Streets? is a combination of testimonials from the front lines and analyses of the broader context, an account that both reflects critically on what occurred in Toronto and looks ahead to further building our capacity for resistance. Featuring reflections from activists who helped organize the mobilizations, demonstrators andpassersby who were arbitrarily arrested and detained, and scholars committed to the theory and practice of confronting neoliberal capitalism, the collection balances critical perspective with on-the-street intensity. It offers vital insight for activists on how local organizing and global activism can come together.

Reflections on Occupy Wall Street, the State and Space
2012 (with Stuart Schrader). City 16 (1-2): 247-252.

This article reflects on the relationship between the Occupy Wall Street movement and the production of state and oppositional spaces in New York City.