How motion, relationships, and productive tension help build better cities across the world

Barcelona has been hailed for its ability to inform future strategies for world cities in urban planning and regeneration. In the new book Mobile Urbanism, multiple contributors argue for a theorizing of both urban policymaking and place-making that understands them as groups of territorial and relational geographies. Image from Creative Commons.

Ward is professor of human geography at the University of Manchester.
McCann is associate professor of geography at Simon Fraser University.

The urban policy world is in constant motion. In a figurative sense, policymakers seem to be under increasing pressure to get a move on, to keep up with the latest trends and ‘hot’ ideas, to convert them into locally appropriate ‘solutions,’ and to ‘roll them out,’ to make the most of them before they become unfashionable. As waves of innovation arrive more frequently, a concordant ‘churning’ appears to characterize much of urban policy.

Contemporary policymaking, at all scales, appears to involve the constant ‘scanning’ of the policy landscape via professional publications and reports, the media, websites, blogs, professional contacts and word of mouth for ready-made, off the shelf policies and best practices.

It is in this context that figurative motion in the policy world becomes literal motion. Policy actors (a broadly defined category including politicians, policy professionals, practitioners, activists, and consultants) shuttle policies and knowledge about policies around the world through attendance at conferences, fact-finding study trips, consultancy work, and so on. These travels involve the transfer of policies from place to place, involving local, regional, national and supranational policymakers in networks that extend globally, bringing certain cities into conversation with each other (while pushing others further apart). They create mental maps of ‘best cities’ for policy that inform future strategies: Austin for quality of life and creativity, Barcelona and Manchester for urban planning and regeneration, Curitiba for environmental planning, Freiburg for sustainable living, Portland for growth management, and Porto Alegre for participatory budgeting and direct democracy. In a policy sense (as in other ways) cities are constituted through their relations with other places and scales.

While motion and relationships define contemporary policymaking, this is, of course, only half of the picture. Policies and policymaking are also intensely and fundamentally local. The examples we’ve listed confirm this point since our ability to refer to complex approaches to vexing problems through the use of a shorthand of city names indicates how tied certain policies are to specific places. For example, there is a Barcelona model of urban regeneration that rests on the historical-geographical circumstances of that city and its relationship with other regional and national forms of decision-making. While other cities might be encouraged to adopt the model, it is generally understood that adjustments will need to be made in order for it to work in those other locales. Similarly, it is understood that the success of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, for example, will not necessarily guarantee its successful adoption elsewhere. Furthermore, policy is fundamentally territorial in that it is tied up with a whole set of locally dependent interests. As such, policymaking must be understood as relational and territorial; as both in motion and simultaneously fixed, or embedded in place. The contradictory nature of policy should not, however, be seen as detrimental to its operation. Rather, the tension is a productive one.

This tension lies at the heart of Mobile Urbanism and is considered in each essay. While the essays are distinct, they are nevertheless united by their attention to the productive tension between territoriality and relationality in urban policymaking, governance, and politics. This manifests itself in three issues that appear and reappear in many essays. First, all of the contributors show that cities are assembled (literally put together) by what policy actors do and how they imagine the futures of their cities. These actors are continually attracting, managing, promoting, and resisting flows of information and knowledge while reaching out to make connections to places elsewhere. This is evident in Doreen Massey’s discussion of the London-Caracas agreement that offered material and political benefits to each city, at least until a new regime in London reoriented the city’s global outlook. Jamie Peck, for his part, compares two policymaking ‘moments’ in UK urban cultural policy. He argues that in each case local actors managed all kinds of ‘flows’ but he notes that the differences in how they managed these flows says as much about the wider systems in which the cities were embedded as about the cities themselves.

Second, most of the contributors offer more or less explicit critiques of the existing academic literature on policy transfer. The notion of ‘transfer’ is jettisoned and replace with the notion of mobility. This change reflects the concern of the authors to emphasize how polices change and mutate as they are moved from one place to another. Nowhere is that clearer that in the chapters by Kevin Ward on business improvement districts and Jennifer Robinson on city strategies. In the first of these the policy that emerged in 1970 in Toronto, Canada, is not the same as that introduced into the UK in 2001. As the model of downtown governance moved in and through various Canadian and

A model of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)
has been produced in certain New York districts
and came to be appropriated by UK policymakers.

US cities, most noticeably New York, it morphed and mutated. Regarding city strategies for participatory decision-making in governance and planning, Robinson highlights their emancipatory potential. The model’s progressive potential seems to depend as much on the politics of the cities it passes through as much as the model itself.

Third, the essays offer varied insights into how best to study the movement of policies. There is value in paying attention to how various spaces are brought into being during the journey of a policy/program or in attempts to manage the movement of global flows in and through cities. This is clear in Roger Keil and Harris Ali’s discussion of the SARS outbreak, its flow through key cities, and the rapidly shifting geographies of medical knowledge that were involved in stemming its movement. Key to the spread of SARS were airports, and Donald McNeill’s chapter highlights how these are spaces and infrastructures that are managed globally in their own right. His analysis shows that the study of mobility is, necessarily, also the study of fixed infrastructures.

Finally, we can see the relationship between studying and following policies in Eugene McCann’s essay, which traces Vancouver’s drug policy, its origins elsewhere, and its ongoing connections to other cities. He uses a range of qualitative techniques to trace the inter-connections between places and argues that there is always a local politics of policy mobility that extends local debates out beyond the city limits and that lingers on after new policies have been ‘imported.’ Policy mobilities reflect and enforce urban ‘globalness.’

Mobile Urbanism
ultimately, to quote Cochrane in the preface, ‘makes it possible to explore the ways in which apparently distant phenomena can be drawn in by political actors to reinforce their position, to develop political initiatives, resolve or generate political controversy and build political power and authority.’ After Mobile Urbanism, the study of ‘urban’ governance and politics should never be the same again.


Find out more in Mobile Urbanism: Cities and Policymaking in the Global Age, edited by Eugene McCann and Kevin Ward.

The authors invite you to check out the Imagining Urban Futures Program of the University of Manchester, a program in which they are both involved.

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