Urban Political Economy Essay

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One of sociology’s foundational questions has been: How does the city shape social life? The answer provided by urban political economy is: As a mechanism in the accumulation of wealth, with all the power and inequality that result. An interdisciplinary paradigm, urban political economy localizes and spatializes the concerns of ”political economy,” the broader field investigating how material processes of production and exchange shape and are shaped by institutional decisions and activities. Characteristically, urban political economy emphasizes production within cities (urban labor relations, local business costs, and infrastructure) and of cities (which literally builds the settings for community and everyday life).

Starting in the 1960s, urban political economists analyzed urban form and growth as expressions of historical relations of industrial production. In this Marxian view, the twentieth-century flight of manufacturing to the urban periphery and the growth of residential suburbs serve industrialists’ interests in, respectively, avoiding the business costs of aging and inflexible urban infrastructure and dispersing urban hotbeds of labor unrest. Next, urban political economy joined the neo-Marxian scholarship on capital accumulation by emphasizing financial investment in land and the built environment, which offers capital a crucial alternate site for investment when industrial economies soured. This theoretical turn also drew attention to landlords, developers, and other capitalists who generate rents (land-based profits) as a specifically urban ”ruling class.” Subsequently, urban political economists turned to neo-Weberian questions of how growth and rents organize the collaboration and political dominance of urban elites. Here, a particularly robust theory involves the growth machine, a territorially defined coalition of elites from public, private and civic sectors that promotes growth in order to advance common interests in intensifying land-based exchange values: higher rents for developers and landlords, increasing tax revenues for local governments, new readers for local newspapers, more rate-payers for utilities, more jobs for local trade unions, and so on.

Since the 1980s, urban political economy has furthered scholars’ understanding of capitalism’s ”flexible” mode of accumulation by identifying how space, markets, and networks assume a coordinating role formerly contained within corporate bureaucracy. This is evident in flexible industrial districts where sectors of skilled labor, entrepreneurial companies, and specialized support systems cluster: finance (New York, London, Tokyo), high technology (Silicon Valley), film (Hollywood), fashion (Paris), even neighborhoods producing bohemian art and lifestyle. Often lauded for their prosperity, these cities and regions reveal the polarization of the dual city. While well-paid workers revitalize once-staid urban economies, gentrify declining neighborhoods, and stimulate the growth of high-end consumer services, the loss of manufacturing and other activities that support decent-paying jobs leave working classes less secure, and new immigrants leapfrog over older ethnic and racial groups to manage and fill low-wage service, sweatshop, and informal economy jobs.

As the dynamics of growth and decline increasingly extend beyond the scale of any one city, region, or even nation, urban political economists continually reevaluate what constitutes the ”political.” Does the customary emphasis on capitalists’ pressure politics and growth machine hegemony still have explanatory value? If so, how, and at what scale?


  1. Harvey, D. (1982) The Limits to Capital. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  2. Logan, J. & Molotch, H.  (1987)  Urban Fortunes. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  3. Mollenkopf, J. & Castells, M. (eds.) (1991) Dual City. Russel Sage Foundation, New York.

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