Do financial models reshape un-cooperative cities? On urban founder’s profit and collaborative-communicative planning in times of austerity

Blog post by Jeroen Klink

20 Jul 2022, 12:16 p.m.
Jeroen Klink



Money, credit, finance, and capital markets have always been indispensable to the building and transformation of cities. Nevertheless, a critical literature on the re-emergence of global finance has now claimed that its professionals, in collaboration with developers and producers of infrastructure, have changed the genesis and functioning of cities. Research under the label of financialisation focuses on how the entanglements between builders, consultants-experts and financiers have gradually reconfigured cities, as the privileged spaces of daily life, into tradable rights to projected bundles of income.

But are planners, as formally responsible for the regulation and intervention in the built environment, innocent bystanders to this process? What role do they perform in cash-strapped municipalities and state governments in trying to make ends meet while creating better, that is, more sustainable and just cities?

I debate this question by exploring planner’s somewhat counterintuitive role in the collective “making of” urban financialisation. Counterintuitive considering that mainstream theory in the field, which is structured around the premises of collaborative-communicative planning, never envisaged the financialisation (or neo-liberalisation, for that matter) of cities. Despite its good intentions, I discuss how this planning project has become entangled with finance capital in frequently contradictory ways.

First, in times of austerity it has triggered a collaborative search for upfront, “hard” cash and solutions for the pressing development challenges faced by cities. Planners, private developers, producers of infrastructure and finance capital have collectively designed institutional transactions whereby the municipalities’ and/or state’s exclusive rights to bundles of income in the future (e.g. tax receivables, revenues from infrastructure utilities, onerous building rights, royalties associated with non-renewable energy resources etc.) can be discounted to the present. In the process, investor’s value is being created for the upfront money that is received by cities and state governments.

Second, the communicative turn in planning is bound to face its contradictions considering it requires language, which, at best, is a representation of the object it tries to signify. Language is never neutral. “Really existing” communication has been increasingly structured around the language of financial models and money as a socially accepted “master signifier” of value. This communication has penetrated the more traditional, physical dimensions of the planning field.

But what is the policy relevance of this somewhat theoretical debate? Tracing financial models helps us to follow the money and understand how planners get sucked into the difficult balancing act to guarantee high internal rates of return to private investors and producers of urban space and at the same time generate the cash flow required to invest in better cities. Such an ex-ante exposure of the contradictory nature of much of the collaborative-communicative planning facilitates its contestation and substitution by a planning project with different space-time epistemologies. I provide a short heuristic illustration of a PPP in basic sanitation in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) to provoke a broader discussion on how such hypothetical unmaking of financialisation, and transformation of invited spaces into invented spaces of participation might unfold.  


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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