In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban Growth Machine

  • Introduction
  • Conceptual Origins
  • Local Challenges to the Growth Machine
  • Historical Studies
  • Varieties of Growth Rationale
  • Skeptical Assessments of Growth, Large Data Sets
  • Skeptical Assessments of Growth, Case Studies
  • Environmental Degradation
  • Beyond the United States: Applications in Europe and Latin America
  • Beyond the United States: Applications in Asia and South Asia
  • Oppositional Findings and Alternative Viewpoints

Sociology Urban Growth Machine
Harvey Molotch
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0258


Whatever else organizes city politics, economies, or modes of governance, dedication to growth is the main political force at work—according to the widely influential “growth machine” thesis. Growth interests, it argues, especially dominate in countries like the United States, where land and buildings operate as private markets, rather than held in common by government or some other entity; most studies have been US based but many commentaries and analyses have followed on from research elsewhere. Researchers describe pursuit of growth in payrolls, capital spending, or construction activity. As in the classic Marxian framework, such would enhance “exchange value.” In the political sphere, growth interests form up at nested scales where they pressure for advantageous zoning and public infrastructure investments at relevant administrative levels—in roads, sewer lines, and so forth. They lobby and help finance campaigns. Opposition forms up, in turn, from those whose interest in the city is primarily for home life or shared enhancements—represented by civic groups or, increasingly, environmental organizations. They strive for gains, again from the extended Marxian lexicon, in “use value”—substantive public benefits, as in health care, libraries, schools, safety, and parks. The resulting debates, studies, and applications are subjects of hundreds of articles, reviews, and books.

Conceptual Origins

The founding growth machine document was Molotch 1976, elaborated in Logan and Molotch 1976. It emerged from both the “Chicago School” of urban sociology and from the social science field of community power studies. The classics of the Chicago School bypassed problems of power, concentrating instead on the search for a science of settlement, based in geometric concepts (like central-place theory) or likening to biotic systems of natural order. Among those who followed on and who did take up the problem of power, analysts tended to split into one of two orientations—that power was held by a single group, primarily the corporate rich and their allies (the “power elite” doctrine), or alternatively that power was dispersed among competing governmental, economic, and civic groups (the “pluralist” school). A first empirical study was, somewhat idiosyncratically, provided by Floyd Hunter, a researcher trained in social work (Hunter 1953) and aligned with what was to become the growth machine position. Even more closely, conceptually, was a sociological essay, Form 1954. Political scientists, considerable in number, tended toward pluralism—as in Dahl 1961 and Banfield 1961. In contrast, works by sociologists, like Domhoff 1967, aligned with the power-elite school, as did many geographers and planning scholars, sometimes with more strongly Marxist orientations, for example Cox and Mair 1988. A number of scholars, including political scientists (Stone 1989 and Mollenkopf 1983), present more tempered conclusions. Dissenting from both pluralism and also from a traditional class-based power elite (or Marxist) position, growth machine thinking argues that although national (and global) corporate involvement is present, see Farmer and Poulos 2019 (cited under Skeptical Assessments of Growth, Case Studies), it is not the so-called capitalist class, in general, that is the most actively engaged. Instead, it is those in real estate and related business and professional groups, usually locally based, who press the growth agenda. For their part, rich people with inherited wealth, from whatever source, often have little interest in intensification of development, a point at least implicit in Domhoff 1967.

  • Banfield, Edward. 1961. Political influence: A new theory of urban politics. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.

    Based on six case studies of political controversies in Chicago, Banfield concludes that rather than a single elite (or other faction) dominating decision-making, influence varies in terms of the issue area (which kind of welfare policy versus location for a new convention center, as examples). The variation in who matters most provides support for a pluralist point of view.

  • Cox, Kevin, and Andrew Mair. 1988. Locality and community in the politics of local economic development. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72:307–325.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1988.tb00209.x

    Here and in related projects, the authors note local conditions that foster or inhibit a growth machine dynamic. These include the role of cosmopolitan capital, the “sunk costs” of production systems, and civic ideologies that may or may not facilitate growth machine regimes.

  • Dahl, Robert. 1961. Who governs? Democracy and power in an American city. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    A landmark in the pluralist school of community power study, Dahl uses New Haven to argue that US cities are not dominated by any particular elite group, not even by Yale University which is so present on the landscape as well as in social connections. Once traditional political party machinery is taken into account (including the role of ethnic players), power is plural, not singular. Dahl argues, in effect, that the elite theories and variations based on them are wrong.

  • Domhoff, G. William. 1967. Who rules America? Power, politics, and social change. New York: McGraw Hill.

    As part of his famous series of books on elite domination, Domhoff invokes growth machines as a way to conceptually connect local elites to national power structure. He strongly argues against Dahl on methodological as well as substantive grounds. There have been seven editions, under somewhat varied titles.

  • Form, William. 1954. The place of social structure in the determination of land use. Social Forces 32:317–323.

    DOI: 10.2307/2574112

    Overlooked by Molotch and virtually all urban analysts over the last several generations, William Form worked out several principles of the growth machine argument, in particular urging abandonment of the “human ecology” ecology model. He faulted it for ignoring the varied and unequal institutional and political capacities of various groups that actively shape land use in their own interests.

  • Hunter, Floyd. 1953. Community power structure: A study of decision makers. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

    One of the first studies of local power structure, based on Atlanta, reveals an influential methodology along with landmark findings that support a power elite perspective. Hunter replicated his findings twenty years later under the title Community Power Succession: Atlanta’s Policy-Makers Revisited (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).

  • Logan, John, and Harvey Molotch. 1976. Urban fortunes: The political economy of place. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

    With a chapter that expands the “growth machine” hypothesis, this book delineates implications for neighborhood life, social movements, and environmental problems. It synthesizes with co-author John Logan’s concept and evidence of place stratification.

  • Mollenkopf, John. 1983. The contested city. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Overlapping growth machine analysis, there are particularities of postwar governance structures and political party power at local and national levels.

  • Molotch, Harvey. 1976. The city as a growth machine: Toward a political economy of place. American Journal of Sociology 82.2 (September): 309–332.

    DOI: 10.1086/226311

    The founding statement of the growth machine argument, much reprinted and cited in urban studies across the social sciences.

  • Stone, Clarence. 1989. Regime politics, 1946–1988. Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press.

    Based on detailed studies of Atlanta, the author’s “regime theory” resembles the growth machine paradigm but acknowledges other types of interests as significant in forming local coalitions. There is thus a kind of pluralism but with growth interests strongly represented.

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