Changing cities
Changing cities

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Changing cities

4.5 Limits to explanation

We have emphasised Harvey’s explanatory narrative because of the clarity with which it picks out the causal forces of urbanisation processes. In his account of the ‘right to the city’ and ‘urban revolution’, he also makes claims about the other two dimensions of our three-way heuristic, the aspects of understanding and action.

It should be said, of course, that Harvey’s account is not without its critics. In particular, it is so all-encompassing in its view of capitalist dynamics that it ends up presenting the ordinary practices of urban politics, administration and management – the activities of planners, environmental managers, councillors, NGOs and the like – as, at best, ameliorating the worst effects of these processes or, at worst, as being complicit with their reproduction. The coherence of the explanatory narrative ends up leaving an ‘all or nothing’ impression about what can be done to address the challenges of what has been called ‘planetary urbanisation’ (Brenner, 2013).

A particular feature of Harvey’s analysis is the sense it gives that all places are subject to the same disciplining effects of global financial capital: they are forced to engage in a competitive race-to-the-bottom in establishing urban development policies that will attract apparently footloose and mobile global investment.

This vision of the powerful causal forces buffeting places might underestimate the autonomous ‘causal powers’ which mean that particular places have to adopt urban policies that are potentially more sustainable, egalitarian and redistributive than is often acknowledged.

Harvey’s narrative might provide the resources for explaining how the contradictions between economic growth, investment in fixed infrastructures and settled urban living spaces generate the conditions in which new visions of the possibilities for urban living might emerge.

However, on its own, this causal narrative doesn’t provide the whole story. It doesn’t account for why these conditions generate public issues in some places but not others. To account for this we need to move on to consider in more detail the second aspect of critical spatial thinking: how people come to understand their interests in an issue through processes of identification, recognition and communication.

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