AUB City Debates: Crisis, Policy-making and “crisis urbanism”: A policy mobility perspective

This is a synthesis of the keynote “Crisis, Policy-making  and “crisis urbanism”: A policy mobility perspective” given by Pr Eugene McCann (Simon Fraser University, Canada) and discussed by Pr Patrick Le Galès (Science Po Paris, France) at the AUB City Debates 2016 (other reports are listed here).

The Dubai skyline, c. Matthew D. Leistikow

The Dubai skyline, c. Matthew D. Leistikow

Professor McCann was presenting a synthesis of a succession of collaborative works he and his colleagues worked on over the past few years. The main goal of the presentation was to present his own thoughts on a specific question, that of the mobility of urban public policies in a global environment. The main perspective was that of mobility from a political geographic point of view. There is a notice, argues Pr McCann, that specific parts of landscapes are transplanted from specific places to others. As an illustration, Pr McCann uses the reference to the importation of cityscapes and parts of neighbourhoods from a city to another. For instance, we can notice that in the design of specific neighbourhoods of Toronto was a wish to import an architectural and urban design from Hong Kong, which is then transplanted to Dubai, leading to the three cities having adopted a similar landscape, despite local differences in their layout, organisation, and situation. Such a phenomenon is not one of pure translation, argues McCann, and we must consider that policy mobility is taking place in cities which are networked globally, but are also in competitive, collaborative, and comparative relations. In the meantime the phenomenon is intensely localised as it concerns the implementation of specific urban design and policies in specific places. Finally, provided these translations are the effects of dynamics of power and involve some sorts of hegemonies which appear through a specific ideology of “how to do cities well”, which can be criticised by counter-hegemonic representations, and since institutions and models of governance are being mobilised, the process is necessarily political.

This leads to the general questions of the paper:

  1. How to conceptualise a type of work that mobile policies do in urban context in terms of representations?
  2. What are the actors involved in such a process?
  3. What are the interests that emerge around policy mobility?
  4. What forms of challenges and resistance are met by these processes?

a. Policy mobilities: questions and themes

The first point raised by the author is to attempt defining what questions are raised in the literature by the topic of policy mobilities. These questions rely on the premise that policy-making in cities is not strictly local, and that there are interactions between different scales (the cities, the global, other cities, regions, etc):

  1. Who gets mobilised or is mobilised in policy-making?
  2. How are policies mobiles? What are the processes of translation at play?
  3. What infrastructure matters in the mobility of policies?
  4. What are the spaces and sites of mobility?
  5. What are the politics of policy mobility?

To these questions we can derive seven broad conceptual themes of research:

  1. The study of policy-making as assemblage. The concept derives from the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri (especially Thousand Plateaus) and is, in philosophy, taken in an ontological sense: it describes the manner in which elements come together according to a specific shape and fashion (the term arrangement is equally used). The interest of the concept is to highlight the fluidity of how things “hold” together. Here we take distance from ontology to use it in a sense guided by practice: there are models of policies pushed by specific interests and brought together in the practice of urban planning, which leads to cities and policies being arranged in a specific manner.
  2. The focus on mobilities themselves in a geographical meaning: policies can be comprehended as socio-spatial processes which are effectively displaced from one location to another. We can notice that which policies move faster tend to be fitting ideologically hegemonic models. This is linked to the existence of institutions and organisations pushing forward certain policies (the World Bank or UN-Habitat can be given as examples of such institutions). Therefore the question of “What works best”, often at play, is always in consideration with certain urban ideologies.
  3. Although policies are transferred, it does not imply that they are not at the same time in mutation. The example given by McCann here is in opposition to a policy behaving like a paper-wrapped gift which would be the same when wrapped and when opened. Instead, policies are changed as they move: some parts may evolve or fit differently in a specific local arrangement. Similarly, the notion of mutation applies to the places and institutions which interact with these policies when they have been transferred: as much as the cities change the policies imported in them, they are changed by these policies. There is a notion of reproduction of urban systems at stake; although cities change, they do not rebuild themselves constantly.
  4. These elements must be associated with a policy tourism, the fact that mobility is often the result of an investigation from actors originating from the place willing to import a policy: they may chose parts or bits of a policy and associate it to others to answer to their own needs. There is often a whole industry of policy tourism, and the importance of experiencing the policies, of “being there”, and the manner in which that “being there” is organised, matters.
  5. In parallel there is a work to be done on the information infrastructure organised by cities. Indeed there is often a work to promote solutions found in one place, package it, advertise it and do a form of propaganda around it, to include in the strategy of presentation of the city. It is to be expected that a city will attempt to promote its policies in order to present itself as efficient.
  6. The actors at stake in this process and producing expertise can be considered (either professionals of urban expertise, private companies such as advertisers, occasionally scholars, NGOs, or social movements). This is a social world of itself, which has its own dynamics and relations of power to consider.
  7. Finally, the role of vehicular ideas can be considered. Developed by a sociologist [whose name I didn’t have time to note – AM] the notion represents blur and unclear concepts such as “sustainability”, or “smart cities”, which are willingly kept unclear because their main role is to serve as markers which can be mobilised and serve to wrap pretty much everything. They form efficient terminologies employed by policy-makers to acquire funding or other forms of support.

b. Crises, solutions, policy mobility and politics

In terms of urban politics, crises are to be seen as situations of trouble constructed as an urgent public problem which requires decision and action. They are material, discursive, and real political moments which are not entirely free or fluid: there are constraints weighing on the decision-makers. An urban crisis is always at the same time a world-historical and intimate experience. The event of a drug crisis, for instance, is lived both at the level of a city or even larger scales, and directly impacting the very life of a considerable number of users or inhabitants of this city. According to Geographer Cindi Katz [haha, fool me once – AM], some crises become chronic crises, which expand not only over time but also space, touching one city after the other and leading to a certain feeling of sameness.

Because of the development of such urban crises, a form of crisis urbanism, a form of government emerging from the fact that cities are demanded to take action quickly on crises that may have risen in other cities previously, has developed. Indeed, when such a situation presents itself, the more common answer has been to look at “What’s working elsewhere” and importing it. There is a demand for quick answers and therefore cities do not have time to be creative.

Case study – Urban renewal, “sick” neighbourhoods, and gentrification: Some neighbourhoods can for instance enter a phase of crisis after being identified as problems – we can by the way notice the use of an unadapted medical and pathological vocabulary such as “diseased”, “sick”, or “contaminated” to describe them and the need for them to be “cured”. A subsequent crisis then emerges for the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods who are submitted to policies of urban renewal, and often subsequent gentrification, leading to a second crisis. We can see that a single event leads to two crises being lived at two different levels (urban and personal/community). The same reasoning can be made about the squats and public places employed for drug consumption during the big drug crises of the 1980s, which were crises both for the cities (having important public places becoming “unsafe”) and for the drug users. We can make in both cases a “natural history” of the actors and actions at stake in turning the situation into a problem and a crisis.

Two typical models of crisis can be identified, associated either to a failure to treat a problem, or to an absence, either of a solution which has been implemented elsewhere (an “absent presence”, that is, something which is present but not here), or of a solution to a problem present here (a “present absence”) which demands innovation.

c. Counter-hegemonic ideas on the move

So far we have admitted that the policies which moved the faster tended to be the ones developed and chosen according to existing ideological hegemonies. Nonetheless we can also imagine the movement of policies not fitting these models and, instead, belonging to the realm of counter-hegemonic ideologies. We are more specifically referring here to these sorts of policies which may be defended by social movements. A first remark is that these policies tend to move slower and less than hegemonic policies. This is linked to the presence of effective frontiers which highlight how globalisation is not the “free market” model we can imagine: it can take time to acknowledge and promote a counter-hegemonic policy, to convince people of its advantages, or even to bypass opposition. A frontier is always a space in which a transfer is not certain: the mobility of counter-hegemonic policies is costly and difficult.

Case study – Safe injection rooms in Vancouver: The drug crises in the 1980s and 1990s in Vancouver, which was particularly salient on urban marginalised populations (homeless people, dwellers of poor neighbourhoods, and so forth) were particularly intense, with the occupation of public parks and space by drug users, associated with dangerous littering and an important rate of contamination because of unsafe water and environment, but also a rise of HIV contamination and overdose deaths over time. As the crisis became chronic both over time and space – touching other locations in the world (in Switzerland and Germany, for example) and in the region (in the USA) – associations and activists started pointing out the inefficiency of the repression model in Canada. They obtained first successes in investigating the problem locally, managing access to official bodies, and obtaining the declaration of the state of emergency in Vancouver in the 1990s. Following this, the same activists, in association with local government, developed an investigation model turned toward Europe and the injection rooms experienced there, relying partly on the invitation of German experts to convince that the problem was not of security but public health, in association to an increased activism around the parks concerned by the crisis in particular. With visits to Sydney where the policy had been applied and a practice of imitation – in particular of the medicalised aspect of these rooms – the activists managed to obtain the translation of this policy in Vancouver despite it being counter-hegemonic, and followed this implementation by maintaining studies proving their efficiency (in terms of number of deaths by overdose, for instance, which is null to that date). Similar phenomena can be observed in the diffusion of this policy in other countries such as Ireland or France more recently.


To conclude McCann insists that if policy mobility is evident, they are complex processes, which are bounded-up to the production of urban problems, and we must consider the situations of crisis and crisis urbanism, as well as the hegemonies at play.


Professor Le Galès insisted that Professor McCann’s paper was – as far as urban studies are concerned – an important one because of the tendency of urban studies to grasp the question of public policies. The topic is both important and sophisticated in its approach. The goal of the paper, which is to provide a framework for the analysis, is a success, and the definitions are accurate. Professor Le Galès particularly stressed the importance of thinking these processes counter the narrative of policy makers and planners who construct them as purely managemental, and comprehend them as political. The large and conceptual approach is important because focusing on the narrow can sometimes hide the fact that we are confronted to comparable and macrosocial processes which can be lost in narrow case studies.

A few points of nuance have been brought up:

  • On the question of networks and mobilities, Le Galès felt the question was presented as new, while it was already present in the analyses of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology, in which some texts describe these phenomena within states.
  • A dose of constructivism – on the question of the notion of assemblage – is always appreciated but we must tread lightly on these grounds. The concept of assemblage as proposed by Bruno Latour is interesting on certain objects and not on others: institutions, organisations, habits, path dependencies still “freeze” policy-making quite a lot and considering the sort of fluid world induced by that notion may lead us to forgetting these things. There is a lot of reproduction in urban systems, and solidity.
  • Contrarily to the previous remark, on the structuralist term of “hegemonic”, Le Galès expressed a lot of doubt [I euphemise considerably – AM]. The concept is too simplistic and we cannot rely on a divide between the hegemonic and the counter-hegemonic.
  • An interesting tendency in the paper is finally to consider policy making through the prism of outcomes: we must not consider these things as too strategic. Often, the organisations interacting and producing policy mobility are not even thinking about what they do, they just imitate what has been done before and what they know of.

To conclude, Le Galès insisted on the risk there can be of ending up relativising the weight of what is already there and the differences of power in trying to combine public policies and change. An interesting approach on the question can be to study how mechanisms of policy-making work, and not take policy makers as too strategic. In a final point Le Galèse wished to return to the notion of crisis: often a crisis is an occasion to reassert legitimacy, and in public policy we may often notice that a crisis has mostly been the occasion of renewing what a municipality was already doing before the crisis or strengthen it, while “selling it” as reformism.

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