Urban Studies Critical Urban Studies
Ugo Rossi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0075


A critical approach to the study of cities and urban societies began to take shape in English-language social sciences between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, reflecting an era of unprecedented turmoil when political engagement became a priority for students and intellectuals. The analysis of the capitalist city was at the heart of the nascent field of critical urban studies. In line with Marx’s critique of political economy, the study of the capitalist city was considered to be at the service of the revolutionary transformation of society, given the centrality acquired by urban environments in so-called late capitalist societies. While social behavior was at the center of earlier investigations of urban society, such as those of the Chicago school of human ecology, critical urban scholars centered their attention on class formation, capitalist restructuring, and social justice. The political and social turmoil of the 1960s was followed by an era of societal crisis and industrial decline since the mid-1970s, which prepared the ground for the transition to neoliberal post-Fordist societies. In the field of critical urban studies, the influence of Marxism partially persisted during the 1980s and the subsequent years, but its ideas increasingly combined with, or in some cases rivaled, emerging strands of critical thinking such as deconstructionism, feminism, postcolonialism, critical race theory, and political ecology. Over the years, what has characterized all the different approaches that can be associated with the field of critical urban studies is their common aspiration, and active struggle, for equality, solidarity, and social justice. In so doing, critical urban scholars have turned the descriptive tradition of urban studies into an intellectually engaged practice of emancipation in which scientific research and political activism find themselves in a mutually reinforcing relation.

Foundational Debates in Critical Urban Studies

While earlier examples of critical urban studies date back to the late 1960s, it was between the 1970s and the 1990s that the conceptual groundwork of critical urban scholarship was laid, thanks to the seminal contributions of Henri Lefebvre, Manuel Castells, David Harvey, and Saskia Sassen. The diversity of disciplinary affiliations of these scholars —at the intersection of sociology, human geography, and social theory—testifies to the interdisciplinary nature of critical urban studies. In different ways, their contributions anticipated subsequent key debates in the field. Lefebvre 1996 and Lefebvre 2003 theorize the emancipatory potential of cities, highlighting the political salience of urban societies through notions like “the right to the city” and “urban revolution.” These notions have exerted an enduring influence on critical urban scholarship. Over the following decades, “right to the city” became a catchword within studies dealing with urban citizenship and grassroots movements, particularly in the 1990s and the 2000s, as in Mitchell 2003. In the 2010s, the idea of the urban revolution inspired critical reinterpretations of the United Nations’ idea of the urban age, notably under the rubric of the “planetary urbanization” thesis put forward by Brenner and Schmid 2014. Castells 1977 theorizes how the contemporary city serves as a key site for the management of the capitalist process of social reproduction. According to Manuel Castells, it is the conflict over “collective consumption” that fosters what he defines as “the urban question.” Castells’s idea of the “urban question” and its governance has remained a focal point for debate among critical urban researchers in subsequent decades, as in Harvey 1989. Harvey 1973 conceptualizes the problem of social justice in contemporary urbanization from a Marxist perspective, laying the groundwork for subsequent inquiries on the just city, particularly in urban planning and urban political ecology, as in Fainstein 2010 and Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003. Harvey’s work on finance and what he defined—as in Harvey 1978, drawing on Henri Lefebvre—as the “secondary circuit of capital” (investment in housing and the built environment) has been a crucial source inspiration for critical urban studies investigating the financialization of urban development in the 2010s, as in Haila 2016. Finally, Saskia Sassen’s theorization of the global city, as in Sassen 1991, has been inspirational for a large body of literature investigating the role of cities as engines of capitalist globalization.

  • Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid. “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38.3 (2014): 731–755.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2427.12115

    A genealogical critique of the United Nations’ urban age thesis. In doing so, the authors put forward a historicized and theoretically informed understanding of the contemporary global urban condition, particularly inspired by Henri Lefebvre’s conceptualization of planetary urbanization processes.

  • Castells, Manuel. The Urban Question: A Marxist Approach. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977.

    Aims to lay the Marxist bases for a new urban sociology. Builds on the critique of existing scholarly accounts of urban societies (the Chicago school of human ecology and the field of urban political analysis that emerged in postwar decades), showing how the dominant urban ideology is instrumental in the reproduction of labor power in capitalist societies.

  • Fainstein, Susan. The Just City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.

    Drawing on contemporary philosophical debates, Fainstein develops an approach to justice that incorporates ideas of diversity, democracy, and equity, which she applies to the evaluation of postwar planning programs in New York, London, and Amsterdam.

  • Haila, Anne. Urban Land Rent: Singapore as a Property State. Malden, MA: Wiley, 2016.

    Uses Singapore as a case study to develop a comprehensive analysis of land, rent theory, and contemporary urbanization, with important implications for critical urban studies and urban theory.

  • Harvey, David. Social Justice and the City. Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

    Analyzes key issues in urban planning and public policy concerning the housing sector, land use zoning, transportation, and poverty from the perspective of the relationship between social justice and urban space.

  • Harvey, David. “The Urban Process under Capitalism: A Framework for Analysis.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 2.1–3 (1978): 101–131.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2427.1978.tb00738.x

    Provides an understanding of the urban process under capitalism in relation to the twin themes of accumulation and class struggle. In doing so, the author bases his analysis on the identification of three circuits of capital.

  • Harvey, David. “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 71.1 (1989): 3–17.

    DOI: 10.1080/04353684.1989.11879583

    Theorizes that urban governance has embraced an entrepreneurial stance, getting rid of the previous managerialist approach. This has meant, for city administrators, focusing primarily on local economic development and employment growth rather than on the provision of public services and facilities to local residents.

  • Lefebvre, Henri. Writings on Cities. Translated and edited by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

    This collection brings together, for the first time in English, Lefebvre’s reflections on the city and urban life written over a span of some twenty years. It contains famous essays such as those on the right to the city and on rhythmanalysis.

  • Lefebvre, Henri. The Urban Revolution. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003.

    Originally published in 1970, this book offers a critique of urban society that builds on the assumption that the complete urbanization of society is an inevitable process requiring new interpretive and perceptual approaches that recognize the urban as a complex field of inquiry.

  • Mitchell, Don. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford, 2003.

    Examines the relationship between struggles over public space and movements for social justice in the United States, through a wide range of empirical cases such as the Free Speech Movement, the history of People’s Park in Berkeley, anti-abortion protests, and anti-homeless policies.

  • Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

    Documents how New York, London, and Tokyo became command centers for the global economy and in the process underwent a series of structural changes, particularly in terms of heightened influence of producer services, the financial sector, and transnational corporate networks.

  • Swyngedouw, Erik, and Nikolas C. Heynen. “Urban Political Ecology, Justice and the Politics of Scale.” Antipode 35.5 (2003): 898–918.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2003.00364.x

    Argues that Marxist urban political ecology provides an integrated and relational approach that helps untangle the interconnected economic, political, social, and ecological processes that together form highly uneven and deeply unjust urban landscapes.

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