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Reconstructing Urban Economics: A New Challenge for Political Economists

by Franklin Obeng-Odoom on January 30, 2017

In a recent conversation on ‘the power of ideas’ that took place at the LSE, David Harvey pointed out to Michael Storper that urban economics is a most despised field in mainstream economics. The ‘best economists’, Harvey claimed, don’t do urban economics. The crowd, mostly pro-Harvey, cheered on, suggesting a victory for political economy. But is urban economics better received in political economy? In lieu of answers, consider the following:

  • Can you think of any urban economist in Australia or internationally who is a political economist? There’s Frank Stilwell and, perhaps a few more but that is it… There are many political economists who are interested in space, of course, but an interest in space alone does not make one an urban economist;
  • It is instructive that the political economy units at Sydney University Political Economy Department do not include urban political economy. ECOP3003: Political Economy of Cities and Regions was taught for a short while, but it vanished from the units on offer when Frank Stilwell retired;
  • Major publications by leading political economists overlook urban economics. Consider issue 75 of JAPE, Australia’s leading political economy journal. It appropriately reflects on ‘the state of heterodox economics’, but urban economics does not feature in any substantial way in this major state of the field address; and
  • Challenging the Orthodoxy: Reflections on Frank Stilwell’s Contribution to Political Economics, a major book on Stilwell’s contribution to political economy, was reviewed by Stuart Birks in the Review of Radical Political Economics (48, no. 2). What did the reviewer have to say about the chapter on cities? Only that ‘It might have been written for a more select audience’ (p.326)

So why is urban economics such an overlooked subject in political economy? I think part of the reason is the old view held by Marxists, including David Harvey himself, that space can be treated as a reflection of capital. Seeking to prevent the so-called ‘fetishisation’ of space, this view suggests that if you can master how capitalism works, you have succeeded in mastering space too. Not all Marxists take this view, of course. Henri Lefebvre, for example, takes the opposite view: space first. But whether space first; or social forces first, both views are anti-dialectical because true dialectical analysis will suggest that a mechanistic cause and effect reading of the social world is naïve. Space must be taken seriously on its own terms but also because it mediates social processes. Political economists must be interested in urban economics for that reason but also because (1) cities have become increasingly central to the world in which we live and (2) urban economics is an area in which political economists have taught us the least and offered the least resistance to mainstream economics.

What will it take to challenge the mainstream on this turf and reconstruct urban economics to better understand and transform the urban world in which we live? Or, put in other words, how can we better appreciate and transcend the current state of our cities and regions? The answers to these questions can neither be found in urban planning, geography, nor regional science.  In the words of two political economists, ‘Reestablishing a Relationship Between Heterodox Economics and Critical Urban and Economic Geography’ is long overdue.  But how to start, where to start, and in what ways can the challenge be sustained?

I wrote Reconstructing Urban Economics: Towards a Political Economy of the Built Environment to try to provide some answers. It is the product of several years of reflection. I took an undergraduate degree in land economy, a master’s in urban economic development, and a doctorate in (urban) political economy under Frank Stilwell who invited me to Australia to work with him after working as a housing and estate officer, manager, and land economist in West Africa. Here in Australia, I draw on my experiences as a teacher in the property economics programme offered at the School of Built Environment where I have been based in the last five years.  The book, then, benefits from deliberate dwelling from both theoretical and practical experiences. Added to this stock of experience, I took a visiting research fellowship at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development  (UNRISD) in Geneva, co-founded by the Swedish institutional economist Gunnar Myrdal, to enable me to develop the institutional economics element in the book. The UNRISD experience ended up bringing balance and clarity to the arguments in the book.

As noted by Brendan Gleeson in Challenging the Orthodoxy: Reflections on Frank Stilwell’s Contribution to Political Economics, Frank Stilwell is one of the world’s leading urban economists of a political economy bent, so Reconstructing Urban Economics builds on Stilwell’s work, including his twin tour de force, Understanding Cities and Regions and Urban Problems in Australia. Apart from trying to be up-to-date with the debates in urban economics, my book has some unique features. One is providing a global perspective. Most urban economics focuses on cities such as New York and  London but I probe how differently we can do urban economics, if we started from Accra, Abidjan, or Lagos and looked at the world through their experiences or how their experiences intersect with those of the ‘global cities’. Marxist analysis is important, but so too are traditions such as institutionalism and Georgism. I try to combine their insights. As my review of Georgist economics in the recent issue of JAPE shows, Georgism and Marxism are different but historically have had much to offer in showing the adverse consequences of commodifying land and labour. With the long established tradition of institutionalism also in the mix, Reconstructing Urban Economics challenges mainstream economics. To do so, the book provides a transdisciplinary framework that calls into question existing approaches, analyses the material conditions in cities, and investigates ways of making cities central to creating a socio-ecologically sensitive future.

The book can be judged in terms of how it achieves these aspirations, but also hopefully it will be judged on how it helps to stir up interest in urban economics among political economists, and to encourage interest in wider analytical frames in broader political economy.  Simultaneously I hope the book will be of interest for research purposes but also for teaching, policy, and advocacy.

It is early days yet to know how the book will be received. But, so far, there are indications of a positive reception. Apart from the interest by a number of editors of political economy journals to get the book reviewed, including for Journal of Economic Issues and JAPE, and others such as Urban Challenge, a review for Choice Connect, a journal for librarians, has returned an emphatic verdict: recommended! The review urges libraries around the world to obtain copies of the book. Similarly, the book is recommended reading for students of the LSE cities programme, City Making: The Politics of Urban Form.

I thank the editors of Progress in Political Economy for inviting me to bring this book to the attention of readers of this forum and the wider political economy audience.

Franklin Obeng-Odoom
Franklin Obeng-Odoom is a Senior Lecturer in Property Economics at the School of Built Environment and a member of the Asia Pacific Centre for Complex Real Property Rights at the University of Technology Sydney. His research interests are centred on the political economy of development, cities and natural resources (specifically water, oil, and land).

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