In October of 2013 we convened a group of 30 prominent urban scholars from several social science disciplines to discuss new ideas and advance research on the changing nature of urban politics and governance.  Critics of the Chicago School tradition of urban research have focused on its conception of cities as composed of “natural areas,” wherein local conditions derive primarily from competition among groups and individuals, rather than the broader political and governance structure of the city.  This critique has been applied to research on neighborhoods, which is faulted for its neglect of the political economy of uneven urban growth, and for ignoring that urban organizations and their interests fundamentally influence the distribution of resources and the evolution of neighborhoods.  However, many of these critiques have in turn ignored the residential selection processes of individuals and typically posit more unified “top down” actors or political control than may be empirically warranted.

For purposes of discussion at the conference, the conference organizers offered participants a working definition of urban governance:  Urban governance refers to the multiple processes of collective decision-making that establish legitimacy for particular forms and distributions of resources in cities.  Governance links people, organizations, and regulatory practices—whether visible or hidden, intended or unintended – in the allocation of goods and services to individuals, neighborhoods, and cities.  Although not in a systematic way, different literatures have examined elements of this conception of urban governance under various rubrics—urban regimes, resource distribution, urban management, political power, the political economy of the city, the accountability of government to civil society, and others.  These multiple rubrics have differentially emphasized the role of government, business interests, non-profit organizations, local communities, state bureaucrats, and others.  Most have neglected place stratification induced by individual preferences and migration decisions.  The goal of the conference was to surface key issues and themes present in many of these perspectives, and to develop a more coherent vision for the investigation of contemporary urban governance.

The conference was held in Cambridge, MA at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and was organized as a series of panels addressing four substantive domains: economic development, housing, social services, and health.  Panel members presented brief remarks based on short “think-piece” memos that had been circulated to all participants prior to the conference.  Panel presentations were followed by about 45 minutes of open discussion.  The conference concluded with a wrap-up panel and wide-ranging discussion on urban governance more broadly.

The agenda and bios of panel participants are available on the conference website.  Memos and a more detailed transcript of the discussion sessions will be posted in the future. This executive summary presents six key themes that emerged from our discussions, along with initial ideas for future research.

1. Funding Facts.  Remarkably, in a diverse group of experts, there was uncertainty about just how much money flows into cities, of what type, and how funding has changed over time. Indeed, the group questioned how one might determine money flows, and which sources should be counted. A number of research ideas emerged:

a. How should we measure funding to cities? In an era where municipalities receive funding from property taxes, state and federal funding programs, and private grants (from foundations or other sources), what is the most appropriate measurement of city funding? Since nonprofits and other private service providers receive contracts from state and federal government programs to provide services for urban residents, should contracts to these organizations be counted as municipal funds? What about individual-level benefits to the urban poor, such as TANF, EITC and Medicaid? Should we include infrastructure investments (roads, housing, commercial investments)?

b. How have resource flows changed over time? There is a very basic question of the net change in city resources over time, but in addition, how have the sources of cities’ spending changed over time? That is, do cities rely on specific sources of funding, like federal funding programs, more or less than before? Have private funds become more important to city budgets? Have public subsidies to private interests held steady, shrunk, or grown?

c. What do these trends mean for city governance, and city inequality? If cities are relying on different sources or different amounts of resources, what are the implications for how governance works? Are there distributional effects, both within and across cities?

2. City Control.  Another major topic of discussion was the relative control city governments have over inequality and resource allocation. How much control do city governments have over spending the funds they do receive? Are funding sources largely discretionary, or mandatory? If taxes, tax instruments (e.g., tax increment financing) and intergovernmental grants (from federal and state governments) are the big revenue sources for cities, there may be increasingly available data to try to understand these questions in ways that have not been attempted by urbanists, at least not in any sustained way. The questions that emerged during the conference include:

a. Who controls resources targeted towards specific domains in cities, like housing, social services, or health care? City government is only one player in the securing and disbursement of resources.  When different constellations of actors control resources in different domains, what does it mean for the production of social goods, and for who is included and excluded from access to those goods?

b.How have changes in city control affected power dynamics? Does control over resources bring power?

c. Have city mayors emerged as the new power brokers? Recent books have suggested mayors might be in a position to “rule the world.” To what extent have mayors’ power and control changed over time?  Does the magnitude of mayoral power positively or negatively influence city growth and inequality?

3. Accountability and Mechanisms of Governance.  The question of accountability arises when “public-private partnerships” increasingly drive city policy and city spending. If accountability mechanisms are not in place, who wins and who loses when governance decisions are made? Some conference participants raised questions of definitions: Can we better define public and private interests, and make more explicit the trade-offs in public and private benefits of policies?  Important here is better empirical research on how government policy implementation actually works and how it connects to classic questions of social order and inequality. The “grassroots” nature of grassroots organizations was also challenged. The following research questions emerged from discussion:

a. How do citizens hold city leaders accountable and how effective are these mechanisms of accountability? The increasing involvement of private actors in public affairs raises the question of accountability. Under what conditions can citizens hold public officials accountable when so much of city governance is collaboration between public and private actors? How can we better understand the tradeoffs between public accountability and private investment?

b.Does organizational density and organizational participation facilitate democracy? The group discussed the co-optation of organizations that a generation ago would have protested the power structure. To what extent, though, is this actually a subversion of democracy? Are civil society organizations the sites of urban democracy, or are they contributing to its erosion?

4. Land Ownership and the New/Old Growth Machine.  Given the importance of the property tax as a city revenue source, as well as the importance of land use for addressing a range of urban issues (housing, location of social service providers, environmental concerns, etc.), basic questions about land ownership and its effects remain unanswered by urbanists. Additionally, there was discussion about the continued relevance of growth machine theory for understanding land use decisions and urban development. A number of research questions emerged: 

a. How well do existing theories of land use politics hold up? It has been 25 years since Urban Fortunes was published. Does the conflict between use value and exchange value still define local politics? What is the role of residential selection decisions based on use value or neighborhood identity in shaping the power of growth politics?  Have different power divisions emerged as the institutional context of cities changes? 

b.Has the growth machine changed? Participants disagreed about the extent to which growth machines still dominate city politics.  Has the growth machine’s influence changed? Has the composition of the growth machine changed, and if so, does this vary across cities? 

c. Whose interests are being served? While some conference participants suggested only elites benefit from land use development, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods, others pointed to examples of citizens resisting speculative real estate development and demanding equitable development projects. Who wins, who loses, and why?

5. The Role of Ideology and the Civic Sphere in Urban Decision Making. Another distinct theme that emerged from the conference was the logic of resource allocation and the relationship between ideology and governance. What sorts of services do city residents expect from their leadership? What’s the relationship between larger political transformations (e.g., the shift in the Republican Party) and those expectations? Logics and ideologies can produce real change in practice, and yet we have not seen sufficient research document the effects of ideas on city governance processes. The following research questions emerged over the course of the conference:

a. How do city governments decide which policies to propose or how to distribute resources? How can we better study the roles of public and private sector actors in these decisions? Has the relative influence of public and private sector actors changed over time? What kinds of data can help us understand these questions?

b. Is “best practices” an ideology that recreates inequality? Some suggested the emphasis on “best practices” is a cover to justify inequality. Does the pursuit of “best practices” help delineate actual “best” practices of governance or does “best practices” boil down to the fetishization of fashionable rhetoric?

c. What are the consequences of applying market logics to government functions? Does it make sense for governments and nonprofits to be in the business of crowdsourcing governance solutions, conducting cost-benefit analyses, or implementing other kinds of business-sector management practices? How does government’s use of market logics affect the inclusion or exclusion of particular social groups, values, or practices?

d. What are the logics of federal funding regimes, and how have they changed over time? Conference participants identified distinct logics of federal funding, such as capped vs. uncapped funding, and regional earmarks vs. open competitive bidding processes. What explains shifts in the logic of funding, and do these different logics produce different material outcomes for cities?

6. Heterogeneity by Place.   Finally, a fundamental question that cut across all topics was the extent of heterogeneity in urban governance processes across cities.  For example:

a. The “best practices” model was critiqued for implying that what worked well in one city, say New York, will also work in a Detroit or Tucson. Others questioned the definition and comparability of performance metrics.  Would Jane Addams’ Hull House win foundation grants in today’s nonprofit context?

b. How does mayoral power vary across cities?  What a mayor can do in a strong-mayor city like Chicago or New York is much different than in a city manager structure like Los Angeles.

c. How do accountability mechanisms or the “urban growth machine” vary by city?

d. In short, there was a call for more comparative studies of cities.  Because cities can appear so complex and unique, single case studies often feel limited.


This conference was organized by the “Joint Initiative on Neighborhood, Social Organization, and the Future of the City,” funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (Mario L. Small and Robert J. Sampson, Principal Investigators; Nicole Marwell, conference co-planner).  We thank Alaina Harkness for advice, Jeremy Levine for assistance, and the Radcliffe Institute for hosting the conference.