Changing cities
Changing cities

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Changing cities

6.1 The politics of urbanisation processes

A common assumption in urban studies and spatial theory is that the importance of urbanisation processes in generating issues, and in enabling them to be identified and recognised as potential political, public concerns, must also inform a distinctive style of urban politics, contained at the urban scale and consisting of actors with distinctively localised, place-based interests.

However, much of what we have already considered in this course should lead us to think that the politics of urbanisation processes does not necessarily lead to urban politics in this sense at all. We are returned to the challenge laid down by Harvey’s all-encompassing causal analysis of the dynamics of urbanisation – does this type of explanatory account of the factors shaping any and all localities necessarily imply that purely local action, contained within and enabled by place-specific factors, is doomed to failure or to be merely ameliorative?

The third aspect of the critical spatial thinking framework is meant to help us think more openly about the potentials of local action to make a difference in the context of this sort of causal, explanatory account of the degree to which particular places are shaped by, and in turn shape, processes that pass through and reach beyond them.

Recognising that ‘the local’ or ‘the city’ is not a privileged scale for concerted, effective political action should not lead us to dismiss the importance of activities at this scale. It is not necessary to assume that local institutions are somehow more democratic because in closer ‘proximity’ to people’s concerns in order to recognise, nevertheless, that those local institutions are empowered to act effectively in certain ways. This is particularly relevant for organisational fields such as town and country planning or environmental management, which are often by definition institutionally organised at local, territorially bounded scales and oriented towards the goal of bringing about locally specific objectives.

The challenge that the framework of critical spatial thinking seeks to answer is to provide insight into imagining alternative ways in which such localised action might be undertaken, including ways which are fully engaged with the extra-local dynamics that both constrain and enable such local interventions (see Barnett et al., 2011).

With this in mind, two issues are particularly important in understanding the forms of agency which can be exercised through locally embedded, locally oriented institutional fields such as urban planning or environmental management. The first concerns the forms of participation and influence that centralised, state authorities can and should be expected to be responsive to. The second relates to the way in which ‘local autonomy’ might be best conceptualised.

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