Urban theory

Urban theory describes the city formation phenomenon where economic priorities prevail to facilitate the city's propensity to generate and accumulate wealth. Such city formation involves some irreversible spatial investments, massive resource allocations and financial investments recoverable only if anticipated future income transpires. Consequently, it is a pertinent concept in urban planning. Though related, this is not to be confused with urban economics where economic principles and tools are applied at macro and micro levels. Urbanomics is to be understood as a paradigm to understand impact of the globalization process on urban development.[1][2][3]

Urban theory is an agglomeration of social theories - classical, neo-classical and modern. Reference to social theory assumes the indivisibility of political, social and economic forces. Sustainability is increasingly becoming the lynch-pin of urban studies with triple-line accountability (social, environment and economics) given more emphasis though not necessarily translated to practice. Here, urbanomics, by default, renders environmental and social concerns to subservience.

Urban theoryEdit

Theoretical discourse has often polarized between economic determinism[4] and cultural determinism[5] with scientific or technological determinism adding another contentious issue of reification. Studies across eastern and western nations have suggested that certain cultural values promote economic development and that the economy in turn changes cultural values.[6] Urban historians were among the first to acknowledge the importance of technology in the city.[7] It embeds the single most dominant characteristic of a city; its networked character perpetuated by information technology.[8] Regardless of the deterministic stance (economic, cultural or technological), in the context of globalization, there is a mandate to mold the city to complement the global economic structure and urbanomics gains ascendancy.

Globalization and economic capitalEdit

The notion of urban’ is derived from ‘urbs’ which refers to the built city and ‘civitas’ which refers to feelings, rituals, and convictions that define urban life.[9] It connotes a dialectic relationship between materialism and ideas. This can be related to the ‘sense of place’ that Bourdieu refers to as ‘habitus’. He makes reference to symbolic capital – an appropriation of how things should be; that can be individualistic or collectively expressed. This concept has been well received in urban theory.[10]

[Stated with immense oversimplification,] architects focus on symbolism, engineers on quality standards, urban planners on land use and zoning and landscape artists on aesthetics, environmentalists on depletion of natural resources and climatic consequences, social-cause groups on the economically marginalized and residents on saving suburbs from the degradation of neighborhood character. Symbolism has many facets but its cumulative capital does not provide a convincing wealth generation (economic capital) model as an alternative to prosper the city.

Economic sustainabilityEdit

In fact, urbanomics can spillover beyond the city parameters. The process of globalization extends its territories into global city regions. Essentially, they are territorial platforms (metropolitan extensions from key cities, chain of cities linked within a state territory or across inter-state boundaries and arguably; networked cities and/or regions cutting across national boundaries) interconnected in the globalized economy. Some see global city-regions rather than global cities as the nodes of a global network.[11]

The rules of engagement are built on economic sustainability – the ability to continuously generate wealth. The cornerstones of this economic framework are the following ‘4C’ attributes: (1) currency flow for trading, (2) commoditization of products and services in supply chain management, (3) command centre function in orchestrating interdependency and monitoring executions and (4) consumerization. Unless, decoupling the economy from these attributes can be demonstrated; symbolic capital expressions as legitimate as they may be; must accept the domineering status of urbanomics.

Revisiting economic measurementsEdit

Arguably, the culprit of this economic entrapment is the high consumption lifestyle synonymous with affluence. The resolve may well be that ‘less is more’ and that true welfare lies not in a rise in production and income. As such, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is increasingly being questioned as inaccurate and inadequate. GDP includes things that do not contribute to sustainable growth and excludes non-monetary benefits that improve the welfare of the people. In response, alternative measures have been proposed such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI)[12] and the Index of Sustainable Welfare - ISEW.[13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Friedmann J. & Wolff, G. (1986), “The World City Hypothesis” in Development and Change, Vol. 17(1) pp.69-84
  2. ^ Hall, P. G. (1966) The World Cities, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Hanley, N. Moffat, I. Faichney, R. and Wilson, M. (1999) “Measuring Sustainability: A Time Series of Alternative Indicators for Scotland” in Ecological Economics, 28(1) pp.55-73
  3. ^ Sassen, S. (1991) The Global City: New York, London and Tokyo, Princeton: Princeton University Press
  4. ^ Marx, K. (1976) Capital Vol 1Harmondsworth: Penguin (Original work published in 1867)
  5. ^ Weber, M. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Allen & Unwin (Originally published in 1905)
  6. ^ Allen, M. W. Ng, S. H. Ikeda, K. Jawan, J. A. Sufi, A. H. Wilson, M. & Yang, K. S. “Two Decades of Change in Cultural Values and Economic Development in Eight East Asian and Pacific Island Nations” in Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology Vol. 38: pp. 247-69
  7. ^ Hommels, A. “Studying Obducracy in the City: Toward a Productive Fusion between Technology Studies and Urban Studies” in Science Technology and Human Values, Vol. 30 No. 3: pp.323-51
  8. ^ Graham, S. & Marvin, S. (1996) Telecommunications and the City: Electronic Spaces, Urban Places, London: Routledge
  9. ^ Sennett, R. 1990 The Conscience of the Eye, the Design and Social Life of Cities, London: Norton & Company
  10. ^ Bounds, M. (2004) Urban Social Theory: City Self and Society, New York: Oxford University Press
  11. ^ Scott, A. J. (ed.) (2001) Global City-Regions, Oxford: Oxford University Press Sennett, R. 1990 The Conscience of the Eye, the Design and Social Life of Cities, London: Norton & Company
  12. ^ Talberth, J. Cobb, C. & Slattery, N. (2006) “The Genuine Progress Indicator 2006 – Executive Summary” in Redefining Progress http://www.rprogress.org/publications/2007/GPI2006_ExecSumm.pdf Accessed 16 May 09
  13. ^ Hanley, N. Moffat, I. Faichney, R. and Wilson, M. (1999) “Measuring Sustainability: A Time Series of Alternative Indicators for Scotland” in Ecological Economics, 28(1) pp.55-73

External linksEdit


  • Papageorgiou, Y. & Pines, D. (1999)An Essay on Urban Economic Theory, London: Kluwer Academic Publishers
  • Steingart, G. (2008) The War for Wealth. The True Story of Globalization or Why the Flat World is Broken, New York: McGraw Hill
  • Aseem Inam, Designing Urban Transformation New York and London: Routledge, 2013. ISBN 978-0415837705.