City as Policy Lab

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]

One of the paradoxical developments in this era of globalization is that local spaces are now increasingly being viewed as crucial institutional arenas for a wide range of policy experiments and political strategies. Ironically, much of the contemporary political appeal to “the local” actually rests on arguments regarding allegedly uncontrollable supralocal transformations such as the financialization of capital and the intensification of interspatial competition for economic development. Under these conditions, and in the absence of a sustainable regulatory fix at the global, regional, or national scales, localities increasingly are being viewed as the only remaining institutional arenas in which a negotiated form of capitalist regulation might be forged.

In city after city, policy experiments have been advocated in order to unleash the latent innovative capacities of local economies, to foster a local entrepreneurial culture, and to enhance labor market flexibility, competitiveness in place-marketing schemes, and place-specific assets. Crucially, this new localism and its associated politics of place contain a number of deep ambiguities:

—Does the local really serve as a site of empowerment in the new global age or do discourses of globalization and localization just conceal a harsher reality of deregulation, and intensifying interspatial competition?

—Have cities really acquired new institutional capacities to shape their own developmental pathways, or are their fates being determined — or at least significantly constrained — by political-economic forces that lie beyond their control.

—Are local regulatory experiments actually improving local social conditions, or are they rendering local economies still more vulnerable to global financial fluctuations, state retrenchment, and the capricious investment decisions of transnational corporations?

These ambiguities lie at the very heart of the new forms of policy experimentation and place-production that have proliferated in urban economies in North America and elsewhere in the last two decades — they present significant puzzles for analysts of urbanization, and they pose profound strategic dilemmas for activists concerned with remaking places towards more progressive, democratic, and socially just ends.

Cities are today embedded within a highly uncertain economic environment characterized by fiscal instability, speculative movements of financial capital, global location strategies by transnational corporations, and rapidly intensifying competition between cities. In the context of this deepening “global-local disorder,” municipal governments have been constrained, to some degree independently of their political orientation, to adjust to heightened levels of economic uncertainty. This adjustment has involved engaging in short-termist forms of interspatial competition, place-marketing, and regulatory undercutting in order to attract investments and jobs. Meanwhile, the retrenchment of national welfare states has likewise imposed powerful new fiscal constraints upon cities, leading to budgetary cuts during a period in which local social problems and conflicts have intensified in conjunction with rapid economic restructuring.

In this context, cities (including their suburban peripheries) have become increasingly important geographical targets and institutional laboratories for a variety of neoliberal policy experiments, from place-marketing and local boosterism, enterprise zones, tax abatements, urban development corporations, and public-private partnerships to workfare policies, property redevelopment schemes, new strategies of social control, policing and surveillance and a host of other institutional modifications within the local state apparatus. The overarching goal of such experiments is to mobilize city space as an arena both for market-oriented economic growth and for elite consumption practices.

The manifestations of destructively creative neoliberalization are evident across the urban landscape: the razing of lower income neighborhoods to make way for speculative development; the extension of market rents and housing vouchers; the increased reliance by municipalities on instruments of private finance; the privatization of schools; the administration of workfare programs; the mobilization of entrepreneurial discourses emphasizing reinvestment and rejuvenation; and so forth.

This destructive creation of institutional space at the urban scale does not entail a linear transition from a generic model of the “welfare city” towards a new model of the “neoliberal city.” Rather, these multifaceted processes of local institutional change emerge from a contested, trial-and-error searching process in which neoliberal strategies are mobilized in place-specific forms in order to confront some of the many regulatory problems that have afflicted cities in the post-1970s period. However, neoliberal strategies of localization severely exacerbate many of the regulatory problems they ostensibly aspire to resolve — such as economic stagnation, sociospatial polarization and uneven development — leading in turn to unpredictable mutations of those very strategies and the institutional spaces in which they are deployed. As a result, the various forms and pathways of neoliberal localization should be viewed not as coherent, sustainable solutions to the regulatory problems of post-1970s capitalism, but rather as deeply contradictory restructuring strategies that are significantly destabilizing inherited landscapes of urban governance.

Cities have become increasingly central to the reproduction, mutation and continual reconstitution of neoliberalism itself during the last two decades. Indeed, it might be argued that a marked urbanization of neoliberalism has been occurring during this period as cities have become strategic targets for an increasingly broad range of neoliberal policy experiments, institutional innovations and politico-ideological projects. Under these conditions, cities have become the incubators for many of the major political and ideological strategies through which the dominance of neoliberalism is being maintained.

Neoliberalism is a political project that is continually being made and remade. It didn’t spring into life fully formed, some inevitable outgrowth of globalization. It is a work in progress — and a site of struggle. Cities are sites of experimentation, and they are the command centers of neoliberalism — the places where policy ideas come from. At the same time they are the places where the contradictions are most apparent, where the destructive tendencies are most visible, and where the everyday violence of neoliberalism is played out most vividly.

The failures of neoliberalism have not triggered its abandonment or dissolution as a project of radical institutional transformation. To the contrary, this project has continued to reinvent itself — politically, organizationally, and spatially — in close conjunction with its pervasively dysfunctional social consequences. It remains to be seen whether the powerful contradictions inherent within the current urbanized formation of destructively creative neoliberalism will provide openings for more progressive, radical democratic re-appropriations of city space, or whether, by contrast neoliberal agendas will be entrenched still further within the underlying institutional structures of urban governance. Should the latter occur, we have every reason to anticipate the crystallization of still leaner and meaner urban geographies, in which cities are compelled to engage aggressively in mutually destructive place-marketing strategies, in which transnational capital is relieved of its responsibilities for social reproduction, and in which urban residents are increasingly deprived of the power to shape the basic conditions of everyday urban life. At the same time, the deepening crises within and around the neoliberal project itself will open up new strategic opportunities for alternative politics. There is nothing preordained, of course, but it seems certain that the urban terrain will be a decisive battleground. Local struggles around fair housing, living wages, free education, and environmental justice, each in their own ways, reveal progressive alternatives to neoliberalism. Rolling back neoliberalism, however, will also entail efforts to tackle the corrosive effects of interurban competition and regressive redistribution. One of the keys to the transcendence of neoliberalism is, therefore, the construction of new forms of urban solidarity, between as well as within cities. ♦


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