11 The paradox of urban policy

Lee Pugalis, Northumbria University, UK

Urban policy is a complex terrain. Consequently, the term itself is disputed Atkinson and Moon (1994, xi), for example, note that ‘[f]or some commentators it is inadequate, for others it constitutes unwarranted interference by government. Local government has not always wanted the same from urban policy as central government. We can even question whether or not there is actually such a thing as urban policy; whether it is ‘urban’; and whether it is a ‘policy’’ (Atkinson and Moon, 1994, xi). For some, urban policy is spatially focussed on particular territorial parcels, such as metropolitan areas, whereas for others, urban policy relates to ‘urban’ forms of society. Whereas the former refers to particular spatial formations, such as metropolitan areas, the latter refers to particular sociospatial relationships and processes. If we recognise that ‘policy’ is a social construct, there still remains the question of what is specifically ‘urban’ about urban policy.

Many societies around the world and increasingly in the Global South are urban societies, which poses a serious challenge to the utility of devising policy for discrete urban areas or territorial parcels, such as ‘inner cities’, ‘housing estates’ and ‘industrial enclaves’.  Antiquated approaches to urban policy sought to identify territorial parcels as they allow for empirical enclosure. Yet, there persists (in theory as well as practice) a predilection to parcelise urban space (e.g. urban-rural) rather than engage in a more penetrating engagement with the process of urbanisation.

Often governments, policymakers and academics refer to a variety of spatial policies including ‘regional development policy’, ‘urban regeneration policy’, ‘city policy’ and ‘growth policy’. Each of these overlap in terms of scope, scales and remits. In the UK, for example, ‘growth policy’ (used interchangeably with the prefix ‘local’, although not necessarily spatial), has been favoured by national government over the past five years. In many respects it has been used to dislodge ‘urban regeneration policy’, especially the more socially-conscious area-based programmes favoured by a succession of previous government administrations.

Despite its contentiousness I opt here to continue to apply the term ‘urban policy’ due to its historical significance in Britain, as well as other parts of the world (e.g. Kantor, 2013). But in doing so, I conceive urban policy through an expansive lens of inhabiting an urban society (cf. Lefebvre, 2003 [1970]). Thus, the parcelisation of urban space is of secondary concern, albeit important – a potentially pragmatic compromise in practice. I contend that a more nuanced appreciation of sociospatial transformations, facilitated by a fuller comprehension of the dynamic currents of urbanisation processes, could help engender a form of urban-targeting less constrained by territorial parcelisation and, perhaps, less prone to capture by city elites. I start to outline some of the principles for a renewed multiscalar articulation of urban policy.

The process of urbanisation: Moving beyond the ‘parcelisation’ of urban space

With a basis in urban population thresholds, proclamations that more than half of the world’s population now reside in cities (e.g. UN-Habitat (United Nations HumanSettlement Programme), 2007) is little more than a statistical artefact derived from a chaotic conception in the words of Brenner and Schmid (2014). This prompts them to conclude that the urban age thesis is empirically untenable and theoretically incoherent. An alternative way of thinking through the urban question and, thus, urban policy is to recognise the limitations of territorial parcels, such as those used by the United Nations to measure the population ratios of those inhabiting ‘urban areas’. This was documented by Manuel Castells during the 1970s who challenged ‘statistical empiricism’ which fabricated ‘criteria of administrative practice’; failing to capture ‘the rhythm of urbanization’ (cited in Brenner and Schmid, 2014). Thus, urban targeting does not need to be restricted by, or limited to, territorial parcels which are little more than a convenient, fabricated statistical artefact. A fuller comprehension of the dynamic currents of urbanisation processes is required to unshackle extant urban policy debates.

Notions such as ‘natural economic areas’ or ‘functional economic areas’, share a concern with the optimal scales at which policy decisions should be analysed, designed and implemented. Yet, these fuzzy concepts are beset by some serious constraining politico-bureaucratic factors, which coalesce to substantially limit the theoretical potential exuded in each concept’s broad principles (such as openness, porosity and dynamic fluidity) by containerising manifold flows, connections and disconnections. In effect, areas that are perceived to display relatively high degrees of functional cohesion are dissected from other places as they are demarcated by definitive territorial parcels. Ultimately, these ‘functional’ demarcations attempt to separate distinct urban cleavages from those fluid sociospatial independencies, which provided the original policy rationale for crafting a perceived optimum sociospatial scale. There is a paradox that the defining theoretical features underpinning functional area discourse are obliterated by the operational tendencies to construct hard boundaries (based on the same methodological flaws as the overly simplistic urban-rural dichotomous distinction). Perhaps more damagingly, these territorial parcels – particularly city region constructs – are claimed to provide an ultimate sociospatial fix through a process of spatial fetishism. It is in this sense that some policy discourse almost equates city region governance constellations with almost magical qualities – a universal fix for ailing economies, social distress and environmental degradation, to name but a few strands of urban policy.

Some tentative principles to re-energise urban policy debates

As places respond to new challenges and opportunities in novel ways, new urban policies are constructed, whether implicitly or explicitly. Nevertheless, urban policy in many countries is saturated by an economic growth discourse. There is an opportunity to re-energise urban policy debates, which warrants a reconsideration of the hegemonic, yet unsustainable, ‘growth is good’ mantra. Furthermore, drawing in particular on the recent work of Brenner and Schmid (2014), I suggest that simple territorial definitions of ‘urban’ are unhelpful. A more nuanced discussion of urban policy than hitherto is warranted; one that would benefit from going well beyond the territorial parcels of ‘city regions’, ‘core cities’, ‘mid-sized cities’, ‘towns’, ‘villages’ and other such constructs. Indeed, blunt territorial parcels lack regard to the structure, form, nature and history of sociospatial formations. This requires the qualitative nature of urbanity to come to the fore in urban policy deliberations.

Urban policy is contentious and long may it continue to be so. It is this aspect that needs to be confronted, perhaps even celebrated. Therefore, a rudimentary, albeit crucial, step is to reinvigorate multiscalar urban policy debates, whilst not to neglect that a key arena where the urban policy battle must take place is in the ‘abstract spaces’ of higher levels of government (i.e. regional, state or national).

Simplifying urban policy goals may be counterproductive given the complex nature of political-economic relations that one must engage with. There is a need to start to decipher the co-dependent relationships of state and non-state actors. It may, for example, help to address the structural impediments that constrain subnational efforts or might assist in unravelling myriad bureaucratic knots across multiple scales of governance. Such urban policy repertoires may help to reaffirm the vital role of the central state as ‘arbiter of equality’ (Southern, 2013), without which there are few mechanisms for assuaging, let alone reducing, spatial disparities as the ‘safety net’ is no more (Pugalis and McGuinness, 2013). To conclude, a more penetrating engagement with the process of urbanisation that moves beyond the dominant practice of the parcelisation of urban space could help to re-energise urban policy debates.

Authors note 

This blog is an abridged version of: Pugalis, L. (2015): ‘The English urban policy debate: an urban policy for all’, Town Planning Review, 86(2), 125-131.


Atkinson, R., & Moon G. (1994) Urban Policy in Britain. Basingstoke.Macmillan.

Benner, C., & Pastor, M. (2012) Just Growth: Inclusion and prosperity in America’s metropolitan regions, Oxon, Routledge.

Blackman T. (1995) Urban Policy in Practice. London.Routledge.

Brenner N. & Schmid C. (2014) The ‘Urban Age’ in Question, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38, pp. 731-55.

Kantor P. (2013) The Two Faces of American Urban Policy, Urban Affairs Review 49, pp. 821-50.

Lefebvre H. (2003 [1970]) The Urban Revolution. Paris.Gallimard.

Pugalis L., & McGuinness D. (2013) From a framework to a toolkit: urban regeneration in an age of austerity, Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal 6, pp. 339-53.

Southern A. (2013) ‘Regeneration’ in a time of austerity will mean the death of this metaphor, but what will come next?, Journal of Urban Regeneration & Renewal 6, pp. 399-405.

UN-Habitat (United Nations Human Settlement Programme) (2007) The state of the world’s cities Report 2006/2007 — 30 years of shaping the Habitat agenda. London.Earthscan for UN-Habitat.


Author biography

Lee3Dr Lee Pugalis chairs the Research group for Economic Development, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (REDIE) and is a Reader at Northumbria University. He has worked for local, regional and national government. Lee is a World Social Science Fellow, an expert advisor to the Assembly of European Regions and an editor of the journals Regional Studies, Regional Science and Local Economy, which reflect his research interests in urban regeneration, local and regional development and entrepreneurial governance. His most recent book is: Enterprising Places: Leadership and Governance Networks (2014, Emerald).

Contact email: lee.pugalis@northumbria.ac.uk

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