Urban Studies Annual Lecture 2023

Dimensions of Urban Development Politics: Transcalarity, Circuits, Territories

23 Dec 2022, 11:58 a.m.

Urban Studies Annual Lecture 2023 poster


Urban Studies Journal is delighted to announce our 2023 Annual Lecture will be held virtually at Urban ARC, the Annual Research Conference of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements – ‘Dimensions of Urban Development Politics: Transcalarity, Circuits, Territories’ presented by Professor Jennifer Robinson on Thursday 12 January at 18:30 IST (13:00 GMT).



Characterised by relatively weakly resourced municipalities, and the intermittent implementation of political decentralisation and financial devolution, African experiences provide strong insights into the nature of urban development politics in an era of strongly transnationalised processes of urban policy and urban development financing. In concert with the rise of global urban studies, with subjects of urban theory contributing insights from many different contexts formerly excluded from shaping wider conceptualisations of urbanisation, there are strong grounds for thinking urban development politics from the diversity of experiences across the African continent. Evidence from current research and long-term observations in three African urban contexts (Lilongwe, Accra and Dar es Salaam), and contrasting insights from the distinctive post-apartheid South African experience, indicate the need for revising two inherited conceptualisations. The US-based model speaks to the alignment of locally dependent interests of rooted capitals, municipal governments with strongly territorialised revenue streams, and an electorate concerned with locality and jobs, all looking to circulating capitals to secure investment. A political economy model focusses on the circulation of finance, policies and practices aligned with powerful international interests, including neoliberalisation, financialisation and a putative “green structural adjustment” motivated to enhance resilience and bankability at the city scale. Both models vastly overestimate the resources and agency of municipal government in many urban contexts and omit the enhanced institutional interests of national actors in urban development, as well as the embedded and emergent nature of “circulating” processes and actors. The range of international actors has also been analytically restricted, as sovereign, developmental and a various private sector interests are together fundamentally reshaping urban environments, notably across the African continent.


This paper offers an analytical trio of concepts to chart the dimensions of urban development politics in these conditions. Transcalarity, rather than local dependence, characterises much urban development, in which coalitions driven by close alignments of national governments and international actors lead to the realisation of ambitious projects often tenuously connected to the spatial fabric or socio-economic needs of urban areas, and can involve an active side-lining of local governments. Agency and power relations are emergent, rather than aligned with formal institutions, a key feature of urban development politics more generally (as in “regime theory”, for example) where power relations and revenue streams are determined beyond institutional procedures. Circuits, characterised by territorially emergent formations of interests and programmes, rather than circulations of pre-determined policies or interests, highlight the long-term embeddedness of “international” actors in countries and urban areas, as embassies, representatives of bi-lateral and multi-lateral aid agencies, and private firms (or state-owned enterprises) foster investment and financing decisions through close ties cultivated across municipal, national and regional institutions. Finally, in the era of planetary urbanisation, with the emergence of sprawling urbanised regions and urbanised territories in far-flung and dispersed contexts, the grounds of urban politics need to encompass the actual territories of urbanisation, rather than administratively delimited municipalities, metropolitan governments or city-regions. Large-scale urban development projects and ambitious infrastructure-led developments articulate an emergent agency of development, while (any) urbanised territories provide a starting point for attending to a politics of urban development.



Register for the Urban Studies Annual Lecture webinar here: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_5QA8Y4ItT4CHfdSGk3D98Q



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