Changing cities
Changing cities

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Changing cities

4 Explaining urban issues

The framework of critical spatial thinking outlined in Section 3 leads us to ask three types of question – about explanation, understanding and action. The first type of question focuses on identifying the causal processes at work in generating the stresses and strains, the opportunities and potentials provided by urbanisation processes.

To elaborate further on this first aspect of the analytical heuristic provided by critical spatial thinking, it is worth considering the work of the geographer and social theorist David Harvey.

Harvey’s work focuses on developing a comprehensive account of the causal dynamics of capitalist crisis. Harvey conceptualises neoliberal policy regimes as promoting the financialisation of everything, and in so doing makes visible the connections between the dynamics of global financial markets and the dynamics of urban restructuring around the world in the last 40 years. His strong claim is that his approach represents a more robust and more incisive causal explanation of the current financial crisis than those provided by others precisely because it does explain the internal relationship between, for example, the innovation of new financial instruments such as ‘derivatives’, which gamble on future commodity prices, and the explosion of sub-prime mortgage products in the USA from the 1990s onwards.

Activity 1

In order to get a sense of how Harvey’s approach to explanation differs from other approaches, watch this RSA Animate version of Harvey’s 2010 lecture on the crisis of capitalism [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . As you watch the animation, you might want to note down the different sorts of explanation Harvey identifies in his talk.


The animated lecture helps us to see two things about Harvey’s view of capitalist crisis:

  • There are always likely to be different explanatory narratives about a particular event: Harvey runs through a series of alternative explanations, and then develops his own preferred option.
  • A distinctive feature of Harvey’s approach is the connection he makes between the dynamics of global financial markets and the situated, localised transformations of urban built environments.

In Harvey’s causal narrative, cities are not presented as self-contained, bounded entities, separate from the rest of society. Rather, they are understood as products of the concentration of more and more of a society’s surplus into tangible, material infrastructures. These built environments are constructed in order to facilitate the investment of profits in further productive activities and the circulation of capital through the integration of production, distribution, exchange and consumption. In the vocabulary of an alternative theoretical tradition, the ‘actor–network theory’ developed by the sociologist Bruno Latour, the built environments of contemporary urbanisation can be understood as immutable mobiles: they are the material mediums that facilitate the mobility of people, things and ideas by providing a stable background against which movement and circulation can take place.

Harvey’s work provides one version of what we can call the urbanisation of responsibility. It is an example of a causal narrative in which particular aspects of urbanisation processes are identified as being causally responsible for the generation of fundamental challenges to whole societies – in this case, the challenge of economic stability and social justice. In Harvey’s work, the flip side of this identification of urbanisation as responsible for causing various problems is the development of a normative argument about how cities are at the centre of efforts at solving these challenges. This second aspect focuses on the concept of the ‘right to the city’, which we will explore in Section 4.4.


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