Developed as a provisional formulation (and working concept) in the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, austerity urbanism refers to the localized effects of the significant retrenchment and restructuring of public expenditures and services in the ensuing period, particularly in Europe and North America. Originating as a banking crisis, the Wall Street crash of 2008 was rapidly translated into a much wider crisis for the (social and welfare) state, for public-sector financing, and for (local) government service delivery, as the widely adopted policy of austerity involved expenditure cutbacks, often devolved to subnational or municipal tiers of government, along with a renewed emphasis on public-sector downsizing, privatization, outsourcing, and fee-for-service arrangements. In this way, both the costs and burdens of the crisis and its extended aftermath were “downloaded” to the local level, as indeed would be a disproportionate share of the political blame for the crisis, in the form of renewed accusations of municipal profligacy, political corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, and abuses of labor union power. Austerity urbanism entailed regressive redistribution both in social and spatial terms, as the costs of adjustment were disproportionally shouldered by economically lagging cities, some of which were taken into financial receivership, and by low-income residents, racialized minorities, the elderly, and those reliant on public services. While austerity programs are often designed and activated in national (or state) capitals, it is cities that usually bear the brunt, where austerity bites. Far from a blanket condition, austerity urbanism was geographically uneven from the start. Austerity measures were among the principal policy responses of European governments in the wake of the crisis, particularly in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and the United Kingdom. In the United States, austerity was not named in the same way in mainstream political discourse but nevertheless exhibited a parallel form, since pressures for spending restraint were distributed “downward” to state and local governments, some of the most explicit manifestations of which were the bankruptcy declarations of Detroit, Michigan, and several Californian cities. Meanwhile, “ordinary” austerity—in the form of generalized financial restraint, social-service rationalization, and reductions in local-government employment—was experienced more widely, if again unevenly. Critical scholars understand austerity urbanism as a distinctive moment in ongoing processes of neoliberalization, the project to privatize and downsize the state, to embrace entrepreneurial values and metrics, to introduce market tests and logics, and to “responsibilize” cities, households, and individual citizens. As such, the post-2008 wave of austerity urbanism can be located within the wider field of neoliberal reforms and transformations, dating back to the 1970s. But if earlier periods of budgetary restraint and municipal restructuring had targeted the institutions (and principles) of the Keynesian welfare state, the more recent implementation of austerity measures has occurred in the context of an already neoliberalized governmental (and intergovernmental) system.
The precursors to and immediate fallout from the financial and subprime mortgage crises of 2008 are described in Lobao and Adua 2011 and Peck 2012, the proximate origins of the concept of austerity urbanism. Donald, et al. 2014 provides an overview of the causes and consequences of austerity urbanism in North America and Europe, introducing a special issue of the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society featuring a collection of useful articles on the subject. The wider context of the post-2008 austerity moment is explored in Kitson, et al. 2011 and Tabb 2014. Comparative studies, which also take account of some of the broader implications of austerity urbanism, can be found in Schönig and Schipper 2016, Hinkley 2017, Davies and Blanco 2017, and Davidson and Ward 2018. Much of the literature on austerity urbanism is based on case studies, but Kim and Warner 2018 offers a more systematic assessment.
Davidson, Mark, and Kevin Ward, eds. Cities under Austerity: Restructuring the US Metropolis. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018.
The first substantial edited collection focuses on the impact of post-2008 austerity measures on cities across the United States, suggesting that a new political-economic geography may be emerging at the urban scale.
Davies, Jonathan S., and Ismael Blanco. “Austerity Urbanism: Patterns of Neo-liberalisation and Resistance in Six Cities of Spain and the UK.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 49.7 (2017): 1517–1536.
Drawing on cases from Spain (Barcelona, Lleida, Madrid, and Donostia) and the United Kingdom (Cardiff and Leicester), the paper deploys urban regime theory in order to document variations in political responses to austerity, assessing the extent to which these challenge or reproduce neoliberal orthodoxies.
Donald, Betsy, Amy Glasmeier, Mia Gray, and Linda Lobao. “Austerity in the City: Economic Crisis and Urban Service Decline?” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 7.1 (2014): 3–15.
The introduction to a special issue of the journal on urban austerity, featuring case studies from North America and Europe; examines the scalar politics of austerity and different theoretical approaches to the problematic of austerity urbanism.
Hinkley, Sara. “Structurally Adjusting: Narratives of Fiscal Crisis in Four US Cities.” Urban Studies 54.9 (2017): 2123–2138.
Presents a comparative analysis of the austerity moment in four US cities (Detroit, Dallas, Philadelphia, and San Jose), suggesting that beyond the immediate effects of the post-2008 crisis, a new normal of lean local government is being established.
Kim, Yunji, and Mildred E. Warner. “Geographies of Local Government Stress after the Great Recession.” Social Policy & Administration 52.1 (2018): 365–386.
Drawing on the results of a 2012 survey of 1,889 cities and counties across the United States, the paper differentiates between three forms of local-government stress (fiscal, housing market, and demographic), tracing their different geographies.
Kitson, Michael, Ron Martin, and Peter Tyler. “The Geographies of Austerity.” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 4.3 (2011): 289–302.
The introduction to a special issue of the journal on the geographies of austerity in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, presenting both international and local-scale data.
Lobao, Linda M., and Lazarus Adua. “State Rescaling and Local Governments’ Austerity Policies across the USA, 2001–2008.” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 4.3 (2011): 419–435.
Drawing on comparative data from local-government units in the United States for the period 2001–2008, the paper finds support for the argument that the rescaling of state structures is shaping new and unequal geographies of urban governance.
Peck, Jamie. “Austerity Urbanism: American Cities under Extreme Economy.” City 16.6 (2012): 626–655.
The paper outlines the concept of austerity urbanism, surveying the emergent geographies of urban fiscal crisis in the United States. Longer-run implications for democratic politics, urban economic growth, and state form are considered.
Schönig, Barbara, and Sebastian Schipper, eds. Urban Austerity: Impacts of the Global Financial Crisis on Cities in Europe. Berlin: Theater de Zeit, 2016.
A collection of European cases of urban austerity politics, with a particular focus on Greece. Presents a critique of the balanced-budget orthodoxy in Europe.
Tabb, William K. “The Wider Context of Austerity Urbanism.” City 18.2 (2014): 87–100.
Locates the post-2008 urban austerity moment in terms of the wider political economies of neoliberalism and financialization, making the case for political alternatives.
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