Urban Policy

Urban policy actively shapes the ways in which people live in cities. As well as reflecting con temporary understandings of the role of cities in economic and social development, it also helps to create those understandings.

Definitions of urban policy are elusive in part because the term appears so self explanatory. It seems to be no more and no less than the sum of those policies that are intended to help cities or those living in them. Unfortunately, however, this commonsense approach is ultimately not very helpful – since most of us now live in urban areas of one sort or another, almost all public policy might be deemed to be urban policy. Assessing quite why one particular form of policy intervention attracts the soubriquet ‘‘urban’’ while another does not is more difficult than at first appears. Although there is a superficial continuity in the emphasis on ‘‘urban areas’’ rather than particular welfare client groups, the definition of the ‘‘urban’’ on which policy attention is focused has itself varied significantly, even if this has rarely been acknowledged by those making or implementing the policies.

The arrival of urban policy as a form of social policy in its own right (rather than an offshoot of urban planning or housing) can be located in the specific circumstances of the US in the 1960s, in the context of the ‘‘War on Poverty’’ and the political demands of the increasingly urbanized African American population, which also found their expression in the urban riots or rebellions of the late 1960s. In this first incarnation it can be seen as a means of bringing previously excluded groups into the broader post war welfare settlement, even if still on rather different terms. And it was taken up in analogous ways in many other western countries (most obviously the UK). However, the development of urban policy from this starting point does not reflect a continuing process of learning with a clear and continuing set of aims and ambitions. On the contrary, it is ‘‘at least in western society, a chaotic conception’’ (Atkinson & Moon 1994: 20) because there has been no shared understanding of the ‘‘problem’’ around which policy might be defined.

There have been several quite distinctive attempts to find a means of defining urban policy that is capable of capturing and reflecting its full complexity. Some of its earliest analysts (e.g., Piven & Cloward 1972) saw its arrival in the US of the 1960s as a response to political pressure (whether expressed through the threat or reality of riots or the need to incorporate a rising black middle class) and the importance of such pressure in helping to generate urban policy, particularly in its early years, should not be dismissed. But the way in which it made its transatlantic migration (and has since gone on to become a global phenomenon) suggests that it is not enough to focus on its role as a response to popular pressures.

Another early explanation identified urban policy as an expression of the rise of a new political class: new professionals in government and academia seeking to stake their own position as an alternative policy elite, based around the rise of the social sciences and what has come to be called evidence based policymaking, rather than the traditional culture of the civil service or public bureaucracy (Marris & Rein 1972). This interpretation, too, has its attractions, since it fits well with the shift away from the traditional bureau professionalism of the Keynesian welfare state that has been widely recognized as a central feature of state restructuring since the 1970s. However, the extent to which urban policy can be closely identified with the rise of a new professional class remains questionable, not least because that class has proved difficult to track or identify.

The emergence of urban policy in practice was accompanied by an explosion of critical theory which set out to place the new agenda in a wider context. At the core of this explosion were approaches that focused on issues of social reproduction, described as ‘‘collective consumption’’ by neo Marxists such as Manuel Castells. These approaches make it possible to identify a policy area that is not simply reducible to what is (confusingly and inconsistently) labeled ‘‘urban’’ in everyday speech or even the language used by new professionals. They also place the ‘‘urban’’ at the heart of political life and policy debate and the reshaping of con temporary welfare states. Castells (1977: 440) argued: ‘‘The essential problems regarding the urban are in fact bound up with the processes of ‘collective consumption’ or what Marxists call the organization of the collective means of reproduction of labor power.’’ Since in this formulation the ‘‘urban’’ is itself defined by policy – the delivery of services and goods provided by or through the state to support the reproduction of labor power – core aspects of social policy are redefined as urban policy.

Unfortunately, one of the strengths of approaches that focus on collective or social reproduction is also a weakness, since, by identifying a separate sphere for the urban, they effectively exclude from consideration some of the policy initiatives that increasingly define the politics and shape the experience of life in urban areas. Many of the policies that would not be defined as urban in this sense help to define the experience of urban life (including policing and economic development, as well as transfer payments through the social security and benefits systems). Equally important, spending on some programs (such as education and health) might qualify as collective consumption, but they are generally only seen as urban when they are associated with specific area based initiatives.

If the debates of the 1970s focused on the role of the urban in processes of social reproduction, by the mid 1980s the emphasis had shifted dramatically. Now it was placed increasingly clearly on the role of cities in processes of production, or on the realization of profits from real estate development. So, for example, in a powerful phrase, Logan and Molotch (1987) identify the city as a ‘‘growth machine.’’ They argue: ‘‘Local conflicts over growth are central to the organization of cities . . . not only the economic imperative of the larger system, but also the striving of parochial actors to make money’’ (p. viii).

In some important respects the insights of these theorists are helpful, particularly because they seem to fit with key aspects of today’s actually existing urban policy. They are consistent with some of the policy shifts that have led to the identification of the ‘‘entrepreneurial’’ or the ‘‘competitive’’ city; that is, the policy approach that sees economic success as the necessary precondition for the well being (or welfare) of citizens rather than the existence of an extensive (social democratic) welfare state. For some, this understanding has come to form the basis of a critique; for others, it provided the basis of normative policymaking.

However, if Castells and others overemphasized the significance of cities as places of collective consumption, then this approach understates it. Because urban politics is under stood through the drive to realize exchange value and generate profits from growth (through rising property values) or from the necessary relations associated with locally dependent business policy, aspects of urban policy that might be focused on other forms of social consumption (e.g., community) tend to be ruled out as irrelevant, or redefined as instrumental infrastructure. So, for example, the significance of urban policy as an attempt to control the disorderly and manage disordered spaces fits uneasily with a structural emphasis on growth as driver of urban policy. Similarly, while it might be possible to claim community based initiatives (and communitarian thinking) in terms that relate them to issues of production and the competitiveness of cities, the tension between a community based agenda and a more narrowly defined competitiveness oriented agenda is hard to ignore.

More recently, attempts have been made to position urban policy rather more explicitly within broader shifts in economy, public policy, and state restructuring. One aspect of this is reflected in the major critique launched by those who see in its contemporary development and definition the working out of a global neo liberal agenda (Brenner & Theodore 2002). This approach invites us to understand urban policy as part of a wider process of change, while also positioning the city as an active agent in shaping that change. In this context, urban policy is seen to take on a key role in the reshaping of post war welfare states and the settlements associated with them. The rise and development of urban policy helped to shape (as well as reflect) the policy upheavals and state restructuring that characterized the fraying of the Keynesian welfare state and the unsettling of the political, economic, and welfare settlement implied by it. In its contemporary form(s) it begins to suggest the possibility of new political and welfare settlements, even if they remain highly provisional and contested.

The ‘‘urban’’ may often still be used as coded language for ‘‘welfare’’ (and black), but the rise of the ‘‘competitive’’ or ‘‘entrepreneurial’’ city powerfully illustrates the wider direction of change. Historically, the emphasis may have been on ‘‘inner cities’’ and those living in them, but now it is urban economies that are to be revitalized or restructured in order to make cities competitive and improve the economic well being of residents. Physical and commercial infrastructure is to be regenerated, making urban land economically productive once again, and there has also been a drive towards place marketing and cultural reimagination, so that cities can be made attractive to the ‘‘creative class.’’ Local neighborhoods are increasingly targeted either for community renewal (building social capital or community capacity) or for new forms of policing, where they cannot be relied on to police themselves effectively.

The rise of mega projects, the reimagination of cities as cultural centers, and ‘‘global cities’’ are as marked in Pacific Asia as in the US and Western Europe. In this context the nature of the urban ‘‘problem’’ is also interpreted differently – instead of a catalog of decline, which urban policy needs to reverse, in the new urban policy cities become potential (and actual) sources of growth and development. Even the ‘‘slums’’ of the new megacities in South America and Africa are now identified by the World Bank as potential hotbeds of entrepreneurialism. There has been a broad shift away from a vision of the state as regulator of the market to one in which the state is defined as agent of the market, with an explicit policy focus on providing the infrastructure for profitable production rather than welfare support to those on the margins. It is within this context that cities are left to bargain and negotiate to achieve different outcomes for their populations.


  1. Atkinson, R. & Moon, G. (1994) Urban Policy in Britain: The City, the State and the Market. Macmillan, London.
  2. Brenner, N. & Theodore, N. (2002) Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe. Blackwell, Oxford.
  3. Castells, M. (1977) The Urban Question. Edward Arnold, London.
  4. Cochrane, A. (2006) Understanding Urban Policy. A Critical Approach. Blackwell, Oxford.
  5. Euchner, C. & McGovern, S. (2003) Urban Policy Reconsidered: Dialogues on the Problems and Prospects of American Cities. Routledge, New York.
  6. Hall, P. & Pfeiffer, U. (2000) Urban Future 21: A Global Agenda for Twenty First Century Cities. Spon, London.
  7. Logan, J. & Molotch, H. (1987) Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  8. Marris, P. & Rein, M. (1972) Dilemmas of Social Reform: Poverty and Community Action in the United States, 2nd edn. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
  9. Piven, F. F. & Cloward, R. (1972) Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Wefare. Tavistock, London.
  10. Savitch, H. & Kantor, P. (2002) Cities in the International Marketplace: The Political Economy of Urban Development in North America and Western Europe. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Back to  Top

Back to Urban Sociology.