Research Quick Take: Taking Stock of What We Know About Large-Scale Urban Development Projects: A Review of Existing Theoretical Frameworks and Case Studies

Large urban development projects (UDPs) such as stadiums, convention centers, waterfront, and downtown redevelopments are conspicuous in many cities today. These projects have become common enough to inspire an extensive literature of urban planning case studies in recent decades. Planning scholars have examined, for instance, the public-private partnerships that often make them possible, the tension between developers and the community, and the degree of control local governments have over who benefits from URPs. These case studies have come out alongside a theoretical debate about how urban change happens in the urban planning field. Minjee Kim takes on the ever-important problem of keeping an academic field’s theoretical frameworks aligned with on-the-ground reality with a comprehensive review of the recent planning case studies on UDPs. She finds that many case studies fail to fit neatly into the familiar theoretical frameworks of urban planning.

Kim places the recent works she reviews into, or outside of, broad theoretical categories previously identified by planning scholars. She identifies two dominant frameworks in the field. One, political economy, applies a Marxist analysis to understand urban governance. To these theorists, UDPs show that cities follow neoliberal policies to enrich private investors, limit public participation, and prioritize economic competition with other cities over benefits to their residents. The second category of work, regime theory, emphasizes the role of local politics rather than global structural economic trends. These authors argue that the benefits of UDPs depend on what groups or regimes of local actors, often corporate, banking, or real estate interests, have power and influence in a particular city.

A third category emerges from the need to guide planners in practice better. It emphasizes the plurality of interests, strategies, and perspectives of the actors in UDP schemes and suggests that planners can use this understanding to help broker constructive compromises. This trend, which Kim labels a “critical pragmatic” position, has recently grown.

Fewer than half of the case studies Kim reviews fall into these categories, as Kim’s Figure 2, reproduced here, makes clear. Many recent works have no clear theoretical allegiance but offer new perspectives on URPs. They explore such topics as the fight for control of the public discourse, the community’s social capital and capacity to influence decision-making, and the legal institutions like property rights and contracts that govern UDPs.

Kim’s finding of a large growing body of case studies, outside of the traditional lanes of political economy and regime theory, puts a spotlight on the ferment of theory building going on in the field. Kim says it is time to synthesize the ground-level work on UDPs into new guiding ideas for urban planning scholars.

Dr. Minjee Kim is an Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at FSU.

This post is a summary of Kim’s recent piece, summarized by COSSPP blog researcher, Jesse Fried.

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