U.S. Urban Political Economy Research Paper Starter

U.S. Urban Political Economy

(Research Starters)

This article presents an overview of urban political economy, a term that refers to a specific school of urban sociology that emerged in the late 1960s and to a more general field of social science that includes related elements of political science and economics. Political economy as a discipline studies the interpenetration between political and economic forces within society. Urban political economy generally studies scenarios in which political science and economics overlap, particularly in relation to laws and customs. Three distinct schools of urban sociology emerged in the twentieth century: the Chicago School of Urban Ecology in the 1920s; the neo-Marxist school of Urban Political Economy in the late 1960s; and the often neo-Marxist and postmodern Los Angeles School (or LA School) of Urbanism in the late 1980s.

Keywords Central Business District (CBD); Chicago School of Urban Ecology; Concentric Zone Model; Diseconomic Effect; Edge Cities; Los Angeles School of Urbanism; Multiple-Growth Nuclei Model; Post-Industrial Economy; Postmodernism; Urban Culturalists ("Fourth School"); Urban Political Economy; Urban Sociology

Population, Urbanization


Three distinct schools of urban sociology emerged in the twentieth century: the Chicago School of Urban Ecology in the 1920s; the neo-Marxist School of Urban Political Economy in the late 1960s; and the often neo-Marxist and postmodern Los Angeles School (or LA School) of Urbanism in the late 1980s. The loose-knit Urban Political Economy school addresses some important issues that the influential and often predictive theories of the Chicago School largely neglected, particularly contextualized (that is, historical) political and economic factors. The LA School encompasses the earlier two schools in the sense that it extends the earlier neo-Marxist political-economic critique but also develops a new theoretical framework and qualifies the Chicago School's influential concentric zone model of urban organization.

A so-called "fourth school," which can grouped together as Urban Culturalists, examined the less obvious social factors about urban sociology that a political-economic investigation is likely to overlook. Much of the debate surrounding the LA School involves the degree to which the often extreme manifestations of urban structure and urban change (particularly decentralized urban organization, or in short, "the suburbs") are representative of national and international trends, or whether the "Southern California" condition is more of an exception to the normal rules of urban development as it has usually been seen; the sociological and cultural elements of this Southern California condition are often as pronounced as the political and economic elements.

The Chicago

A central theoretical idea of the Chicago School of Urban Ecology is that the Central Business District (CBD), or downtown core of a city, influences the expansion of the outer areas of a city and generally organizes urban structure. The LA School asserts that this long-standing principle of urban sociology has reversed course: the suburbs or "hinterlands" organize and determine the often depleted remains of inner-cities. The fragmentation of urban structure is the resulting national trend (Dear, 2003).

This dramatic one-hundred-and-eighty degree change in thought about urban organization is not exactly a reversal of theoretical orientation. Rather, the change is indicative of a drastic change in the manner in which cities function. The movement of middle-class households to suburban areas was well established by the 1960s, and the resulting loss of tax revenue in inner-cities only exacerbated the decline in urban infrastructure, school funding, and general social order; conversely, the suburbs flourished (Brenner, 2002).

As the LA School of Urbanism emerged, some of its adherents argued that Los Angeles might be considered the "capital of the twentieth century," evoking Walter Benjamin's characterization of Paris in the nineteenth century; they also predicted that the LA model would replace Chicago's role as the model of a metropolis (Dear, 2003). LA's defining traits include:

  • A broadly diffuse (that is, spread out) population;
  • Decentralized business sectors (as opposed to the conventional model of a centralized business district);
  • Large-scale commuting (often between suburbs);
  • Economic restructuring; and
  • The prominence of the economic and demographic effects of globalization (Engh, 2000).

In short, Southern California exemplifies suburban regionalism. LA is often described as the first city deliberately organized around the assumption that car ownership and commuting would be the norm, but political organization in Southern California has also long been fragmented and highly regional (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 2000).

The national proliferation of what are termed edge cities has increasingly rendered LA a model for regional urban development. Edge cities are largely independent clusters of office buildings and retail malls along outer rings of large cities (Dear, 2003). The growth of edge cities was encouraged by tax policies of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Those policies were intended to encourage American businesses to be internationally competitive, but evidently some of those "corporate gains windfalls" flowed into suburban commercial real estate development. About 250,000 middle-class residents of LA relocated to newer suburbs in the 1980s, and they were replaced by about 328,000 Mexicans who primarily found work in the service sector (Davis, 2002, p. 251-252).

According to the Chicago School's concentric zone model of urban organization, greater distance from the CBD corresponds with higher income and status. This element of the concentric zone model remains relatively accurate, though suburban poverty has increased as the suburban population has increased. The broader theoretical model of the Chicago School is "organic" in the sense that it attempts to explain urban structure through an analogy with competition, equilibrium, and change in natural ecologies and the natural sciences, but also in that it tends to construct the functioning of urban structures as a whole (or perhaps as a "closed system"), irrespective of some economic, political, and even social factors (Chen, 2006).

Urban Political Economy

Studies by the Urban Political Economy school would later address many of these neglected issues with particular emphasis on social and political conflict, state intervention in the economy, state social programs, and capitalist modes of economic production. A characteristic study in the field of Urban Political Economy illustrates how the city of Houston, for example, grew as the result of the development of the oil industry in Texas with the aid of tax subsidies and public-works projects (Chen, 2006). A typical Chicago School study might not address these formative issues.

The manner in which state programs and economic structure combined to reinforce racial segregation in the 1980s is a key example of how politics and economics interact (Chen, 2006). Early studies of the Chicago School found much of their impetus in contemporary race riots in that city, and racial uprisings in LA in 1965 and 1992 mark central periods in studies by the LA School (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 2000).


Concentric Zone Model

Map-making was a common means of studying demographic patterns of social behavior, particularly deviant behavior and crime, for members of the Chicago School. As such, spatial patterning in urban models has received extensive attention among later urban sociologists. The "zone of transition," the second of the five areas in the concentric zone model, usually receives the bulk of the attention. The zone of transition, which surrounds the CBD in the conventional model, is characterized by the conversion of aging private homes into smaller apartments, offices, or locations of light industry. The dense population, proximity to the CBD, and general social disorganization result in low property values and, as such, new immigrants tend to reside there. Many of the principles underlying the Chicago School's concentric zone model and its roughly corresponding ecological analogy involve the assumption that minorities residing in the zone of transition would assimilate into the general population as they achieved social mobility and progressed to outer, more prosperous area of the city, much as earlier immigrants had done. Those assumptions were obviously overly optimistic about some minorities' prospects for social mobility (Chen, 2006). The CBD and the zone of transition are also characterized as the areas in which most of the commuting population is employed in this model (Dear, 2003).

The concentric zone model has proven to be predictive and highly malleable (Chen, 2006). Dear (2003) attributes its resonance and applicability to numerous cities to its "beguiling" simplicity. Several variations on the concentric zone model have emerged, but most confirm that patterns originating in the CBD influence the outer areas of a city. One early variation noticed that recognizable urban patterns form in pie-shaped wedges extending from the CBD, and that residents in each pie-slice section of the city tend to have similar economic and social status (Hoyt 1939; Chen, 2006). Most of the variations on the concentric zone model have confirmed that patterns or variations that begin in the CBD are likely to reappear in outer areas of cities (Dear, 2003).

Multiple-Growth Nuclei

Another variation, termed the multiple-growth nuclei, is of particular importance in relation to urban structural patterns in Southern California. According to this model, suborganizations resembling smaller versions of a CBD form and grow in outer areas of a single city. An example would be a cluster of housing and businesses that form around a prominent employer. The multiple-growth nuclei model also confirms that earlier growth within a "nuclei" often shapes later urban developmental patterns (Dear, 2003; Chen, 2006). This model fits the spatial organization of LA very well. A common variation within this variation is that satellite cities — often industrial sectors outside but dependent on a large city — can be incorporated as the larger city grows. In such a circumstance, the satellite city can lose its economic identity but also influence the structure of the larger city (Dear, 2003).

Chen (2006) describes the Chicago School's construction of urban development as a "free-market" (that is, essentially capitalist) approach to spatial disorganization and reorganization. The Chicago School's intended model was one of "natural areas" that perform a required function within the ecology of a city. Although it is probably more accurate to claim that the Chicago School neglected political and economic issues in an attempt to elaborate an empirical and scientific sociological methodology than to describe their conceptual framework as "capitalist," Urban Political Economy does indeed identify numerous theoretic questions necessary for addressing political and economic issues. These issues include: how the interaction of government policies and economic changes affect minorities and immigrants; how adaptation to an inhospitable environment (such as the "zone of transition") might occur through a means other than moving to a more prosperous neighborhood; and how technological change is intertwined with the political and economic forces that shape urban structure. Chen's accompanying critique — that the Chicago School constructed technological change as simply a part of the physical environment — seems sound on these grounds (2006).

In a 1925 anthology by Chicago School sociologists, "The City: Suggestions of Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment," Louis Wirth appears to have predicted the role that globalization (that is, the growth of international trade) would play in shaping urban structure. Wirth (1925) observed that advancements in communications technology allowed information about economic markets and industrial inventions to be incorporated into businesses anywhere almost immediately. Dear (2003) describes this observation as a prediction of the change from an industrial to a post-industrial (or knowledge-based) economy, which is emblematic of the LA School of Urbanism. In theory, it would seem that the de facto CBD or multi-growth nuclei form of economic organization need not have a specific, stable physical location in a post-industrial economy.

Diseconomic Factors

Another, very different, qualifying factor to the influence of a CBD or a multi-growth nuclei model is known as the "diseconomic effect." The Urban Culturist school illustrates how non-economic factors can upset the conventional model of how the CBD is expected to function. For example, a 1945 study found that a high-end cluster of housing in downtown Boston known as Beacon Hill had not been overtaken by the CBD, nor had a series of public areas including cemeteries, parks, and a forty-eight-acre area that comprised an early common-area of the city. Residents of Beacon Hill could have found cheaper and comparable or superior housing without moving more than several blocks. In this case, the diseconomic effects likely derived from a sentimental attachment to the neighborhood, social-bond formation in that community, and possibly a desire to avoid integration into an ethnically diverse neighborhood (Firey, 1945; Borer, 2004). Other diseconomic effects can include the preservation of historic buildings or even purchasing choices based on factors other than economic self-interest (Dear, 2003). The reverence granted to cemeteries and other established, traditional inner-city locations seem to reflect a more straightforward and socially-accepted diseconomic effect.

Los Angeles's "Exceptionalism"

The diffuse population and highly regionalized governmental structure in Southern California has usually been considered an exception to national trends in terms of urban development. Studies by the LA School occasionally preface scholarly discussions of urban sociology with a brief account of the historical and...

(The entire section is 6292 words.)