Are all cities fundamentally the same? Expert scholars debate urban theory at Price seminar

May 6, 2018

By Matthew Kredell

Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett moderates a talk with geographers Allen J. Scott (left) and Michael Storper (Photo by Jennifer Hong)

Urban theory is somewhat of a theory of everything when it comes to cities. Our current theoretical frameworks can be used to understand the nature of all cities around the world, argued Allen J. Scott and Michael Storper in a seminar offered by the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis (DUPSA). This assertion comes as a direct challenge to much new writing and thinking on cities today.  This was the central discussion and debate at the April 16 DUPSA seminar.

USC Price Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett moderated the conversation, calling Scott and Storper two of the greatest living geographers for the way they “write about cities in very deep and important ways.”

Scott and Storper are colleagues at UCLA, and Storper holds concurrent appointments at UC Berkeley, the London School of Economics, and Sciences Po/Paris. Together, they have authored many influential papers in the field, including “The Nature of Cities: The Scope and Limits of Urban Theory” for the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research in 2014 and “Current Debates in Urban Theory: A Critical Assessment” published in Urban Studies in 2016, which were the papers underpinning their DUPSA seminar.

In the latter paper, the pair reject the popular modern trend of researchers who, when exploring the wave of urbanization in areas such as East Asia and Africa, claim that they need new theories to explain their urbanization processes because the old ones aren’t applicable.

“What we find wrong is this idea that cities are fundamentally different from one another and the notion that any theoretical idea of cities that comes from the global north is doomed to failure when applied in the global south because urban theorists in the global north are infected with Euro-centrism,” Scott said.

There are a number recent papers that assert urban theory should be “provincialized,” which puts the emphasis on studying variation rather than commonality. As an example, these researchers might think that favelas in Brazil require different theories than cities in the United States. Scott and Storper disagree.

“We’re talking about humans with the same motivations,” Storper said. “They want to go to a city because there are things they get by being in a city — like access to employment, education and social mobility. They want to live in a city because of the decline of opportunities in the countryside. These are all classic things. Claiming to need a different theory deprives you from all the insights we’ve accumulated about why people urbanize.”

Exploring definitions of ‘urban’

Scott and Storper also reject the concept that the geographical boundaries of cities are blurring.

“There’s a new literature that it’s really global now, so hyper-global that cities are everywhere – in the deepest Amazon jungle and the polar ice caps – and therefore there’s no distinctiveness to the urban,” Storper said. “Urban is everywhere and everywhere is urban. We don’t think that’s right theoretically or methodologically. There is a distinctiveness to the urban. It’s about density, the urban land nexus and why human actors and organizations concentrate very densely on urban land, and the processes that come from it.”

While Scott and Storper are discouraged by the trend of dismissing earlier, foundational urban theories in geography and planning, they are excited that cities are on the agenda. It’s quite a contrast from early in their careers, when the narrative was how to revive central cities as people moved to suburbs.

In closing, Storper mentioned how “even in countries that are 97 percent urban, we’re seeing this incredible inter-regional polarization going on. There’s a bunch of superstar cities basically sweeping everything up, and we have these lagging regions that are an incredible source of political, cultural and social tensions today.”

Currid-Halkett noted that “a lot of the great writing in social science is a response to the time. I think we’re in a totally different moment in human society, and issues around how inequality plays out in cities may offer us a way to rethink these questions in a radically different way.”

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