On philanthropy and urban governance: setting a research agenda

Blog post by Pablo Fuentenebro and Michele Acuto

20 Jul 2021, 11:04 a.m.
Pablo Fuentenebro and Michele Acuto



While in recent years scholars have been paying increasing attention to the critical geographies of ‘super-philanthropy’ (Hay and Muller 2014) and the broader societal implications of the so-called philanthrocapitalism (McGoey 2012)  little attention has been paid so far to the intricate ways in which philanthropic institutions and philanthropists have been getting involved with urban issues and urban governance: From the Ford Foundation’s support of the 2016 New Urban Agenda to Realdania’s lobbying of cities for the 2015 Paris Agreement, it would be hard to deny that, at the turn of the 2020s, philanthropy isn’t playing a key role in shaping much of the so-called ‘urban age’. In fact, one of the major drivers of this very discussion, LSE’s Urban Age Programme, was kickstarted by a sizeable investment by the German Deutsche Bank’s philanthropic arm of the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft in 2005.


In this commentary, we propose a two-part research agenda focused both on philanthropic institutions and individuals: 1. On an institutional level, major urban initiatives in the spotlight for tackling the likes of climate change, culture or migration have been tightly intertwined with the support of sizeable philanthropic entities like local governments and urban development programmes. 2. On an individual scale, urban governance has also been influenced by the intervention of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) who have become a driving force behind a new ‘Golden Age’ of philanthropy (Hay and Muller 2014). As we argue, philanthropic engagement with cities is not just about the location of gifts and grants but, rather, about the explicit ways in which institutions and individuals are intervening in urban governance and shaping development global urban agendas (Montero 2020; Parnell 2016).


In addition, and despite that lack of many conversations in the literature, the fact if that philanthropy is having a fundamental role shaping policies and urban agendas in both Global North and South. For example, in his analysis of transport policies in Bogotá, Sergio Montero (2020) describes how both international organisations and philanthropic institutions have played a major role in defining ‘best practices’ that can be easily replicated. In what the author refers to as the practice of ‘leveraging cities’, through their potential to leverage replicable models and scalable solutions, cities have become increasingly important for international philanthropic institutions as models for sustainable development. As such, in our paper we make an explicit call to go beyond Euro-American practices, and to acknowledge that philanthropy is a global phenomenon emerging from Global North and South, even if of course Euro-American institutions still seem to dominate much of the headlines and discourse.


Finally, if we want to address all of the above, it is also necessary that we acknowledge our role as ‘urban academics’, this is, as scholars working for universities and other research institutions which continue to benefit from the patronage and generosity from private foundations and individuals. And yet again, little debate is taking place in urban studies on our role and position as individuals working in such places. At a minimum, we argue, we should acknowledge both the complicity in philanthropic giving but also recognise the diversity of what is rarely referred to as an economic sector, with vastly different institutional, normative and practical differences. In a time when the role of researchers and academia is more and more put into question, we consider it necessary to acknowledge our role as scholars benefiting from such donations and what this entails from an ethical standpoint.



  • Hay, I. and Muller, S. (2014) Questioning generosity in the golden age of philanthropy: Towards critical geographies of super-philanthropy. Progress in Human Geography, vol. 38.5: 635-653.
  • McGoey, L. (2012) Philanthrocapitalism and its critics. Poetics, vol. 40: 185–199.
  • Montero, S. (2020). Leveraging Bogotá: Sustainable development, global philanthropy and the rise of urban solutionism. Urban Studies, vol 57.11: 2263-2281.
  • Parnell, S. (2016) Defining a Global Urban Development Agenda. World Development, vol. 78: 529-540.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.




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