Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Author's Blog: Urban Governance and the American Political Development Approach

This is an author-produced blog post to introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles. When this article is available in OnlineFirst, a link will be included.


Jack Lucas

Urban political authority is complicated. To explain who governs our cities, we first need to acknowledge that our answers will vary across time: a city that looks like a beacon of pluralism today may have been governed by a closed elite only a few decades ago. We also need to acknowledge that political authority varies across cities: take a snapshot of North American urban governance at any point in history and you will find a range of political institutions, embodying widely varying authority structures, in different cities across the continent. Even within our cities, political authority varies across policy domains; authority structures in education, for instance, might look very different from those in policing or public works.

How can we compare and explain long-term patterns of urban political authority without getting lost in this complexity? In my article, I suggest that the “American Political Development” approach, or “APD”, can help us answer this question. For more than three decades, scholars in the APD tradition have been working to explain the historical development of political authority within and across the American state. They, too, have discovered that political authority is complicated, varying not only across space and time but also across different parts of the American state itself. To capture this complexity, APD scholars have suggested a concept – “intercurrence” – to describe the way our snapshots of particular states or time periods always capture multiple forms of political authority within a single frame.

“Intercurrence” thus gives us a concept with which to describe the complexity that we find in our cities. But APD also gives us the tools to explore how intercurrence really works, a method that is focused on tracking concrete changes to governing structures. In my article, I seek to demonstrate the promise of this approach by describing long-term changes to concrete institutional structures in five policy domains – schools, public health, policing, transit, and water – across six Canadian cities. By tracking these insitutional structures, I suggest, we see not only that urban governance is indeed characterized by “intercurrence,” but we also discover the important patterns of political authority, across cities, policy domains, and time, that scholars of urban governance need to explain.

What makes the APD approach so useful, I think, is that it gives us an organizing concept, intercurrence, with which to characterize the complexity of urban governance, as well as an approach, focused on concrete governing structures, that allows us to identify patterns of authority in an empirically tractable way. Like many others, I believe that scholarship on urban governance and urban political authority has much to gain from long-term comparative analysis, provided we can find a way to capture the complexity that we will inevitably uncover. The American Political Development approach, suitably extended both to the urban scale and to the international context, provides some of the tools that we will need to do this work successfully. 

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