Handbook of Emerging 21st-Century Cities
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Handbook of Emerging 21st-Century Cities

Edited by Kris Bezdecny and Kevin Archer

The majority of the world's population now live in cities, nearly a quarter of which boast populations of one million or more. The rise of globalisation has granted cities unprecedented significance, both politically and economically, leading to benefits and problems at national and international levels. The Handbook of Emerging 21st-Century Cities explores the changes that are occurring in cities, and the impacts that they are having, at the local, national and global scale.
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Chapter 2: Strategic simplification and the urban politics of defining ‘the city’

John Lauermann


Urban policy is replete with speculative plans that seek to define ‘the city’ while making claims on its future. These attempts to define and claim the city – through strategy statements, urban visions, scenario planning, or multi-decade master plans – but regularly over-simplify their subject. Critical urban theorists note that such claims fail to account for the institutional and territorial complexity of 21st-century cities. Yet these simplified claims play an important role in urban politics by mobilizing resources, legitimizing development plans, and demonstrating governance capabilities. This chapter argues that such speculative claims on the city are a form of strategic simplification: nuance and complexity are traded for targeted claims on urban resources. Indeed, these definitions may not be intended to represent the broader city at all, but rather to promote local development projects. This is assessed with a case study of bids to host sports mega-events like the Olympics. Mega-event planners routinely make discursive claims on ‘their’ city, defining its future around particular real estate projects. A comparative mixed-methods study links the urban futures proposed in mega-event plans to the political economic characteristics of the planning coalitions, across a multi-decade global sample of Olympic projects. This chapter shows that meanings of the term ‘city’ are mobilized as a tool of urban politics. Such conceptualizations of the city are problematically simplified, but this act of simplification accomplishes urban political work. Analyses of emerging cities should consider the political and ideological agendas that are pursued through intentionally simplistic conceptualizations of the city.

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