How the Political Economy and Race Relations Shape Metropolitan Form

Metropolitan form is shaped by decisions made and not made by institutions, groups, and individuals. It is important to understand the evolution of cities because the metropolitan environment influences how people interact, generate wealth, and maintain quality of life. Since World War II urban researchers have theorized how political, economic, and social forces have shaped American cities.

The political economy is the link between social organization and economic activity. In the political economy, economic considerations dominate the political state, and cities are shaped by social actions and the capitalist search for profits (Thomas 1997; Halebsky 2004). Regimes operate within the political economy, and a regime is a stable, long-lasting partnership between public officials and private actors. Regimes have agendas focused on governance and economic gain in a particular geographic area, and they utilize economic, political, and cultural resources to sustain influence and make land use decisions (Bauroth 1998). These partnerships affect metropolitan form because they decide what is built, demolished, and preserved.

New Orleans has never had a stable, long-lasting partnership among resource providers, and the absence of a regime has affected how the city has responded to Hurricane Katrina. (Burns and Thomas 2006). The lack of coordination among federal, state, and local entities has hindered resource allocation and prevented public and private actors from developing an overall vision for the city (Burns and Thomas 2006). New Orleans residents cannot decide what to build, demolish, or preserve. Consequently, the city’s infrastructure is incomplete, many of the dilapidated neighborhoods are still uninhabitable, and thousands of residents are displaced. Churches, nonprofit organizations, and other community-based coalitions have attempted to lead rebuilding efforts, but these groups have been unable to make a large scale impact (Burns and Thomas 2006).

Racial biases have permeated institutional structures and human agencies in many postwar American cities. Regimes have utilized physical and socioeconomic barriers and reinforced urban patterns of inequality to protect themselves from the financial risk associated with racial integration. Postwar Detroit is a prime example of a city shaped by race relations. After World War II, urban politicians, bankers, private developers, and citizen groups exploited local and federal policies to reconfigure urban geography by class and race (Sugrue 1996). Government policies concerning urban renewal and public housing were used to destroy housing and concentrate minorities and low income citizens in isolated enclaves. Individual preferences for racial segregation impeded neighborhood upgrading, restricted housing and job markets, and limited individual choice (Thomas 1997). Today, Detroit is characterized by concentrated poverty, racial segregation, physical decay, abandonment, unemployment, and population loss (Sugrue 1996).

Planners possess many valuable skills that can improve the economic, political, social, and physical deficiencies of many postwar metropolitan areas (Thomas 1997). However, cities in despair like New Orleans and Detroit cannot be rectified by planners alone. Cities need inclusive regimes that have transparent agendas, a plethora of resources, and goals focused on social justice. Planners can help shape metropolitan regions by building inclusive regimes. More specifically, planners can incorporate stakeholders, mediate conflicts, and implement policies (Orfield 2002; Boarnet 2005).


Bauroth, Nicholas. 1998. “Regime Approaches to Obscenity Policy: 1960s-1980s” Journal of Urban Affairs 20:395-417.

Boarnet, Marlon et al. 2005. “Emerging Planning Challenges in Retail: The Case of WalMart” Journal of the American Planning Association 71:4 (433-449).

Burns, Peter and Matthew Thomas. 2006. “The Failure of the Nonregime: How Katrina Exposed New Orleans as a Regimeless City” Urban Affairs Review 41 (March):517-527.

Halebsky, Stephen. 2004. “Superstores and the Politics of Retail Development” City and Community 3 (June):115-134.

Mayer, Heike and Paul Knox. 2006. “Slow Cities: sustainable places in a fast world” Journal of Urban Affairs 28:4 (321-334).

Orfield, Myron. 2002. American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality. Pp.1-4; 173-187.Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Sugrue, Thomas. 1996. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in PostWar Detroit. Pp. 3-14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thomas, June Manning. 1997. Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press). Introduction and Chapter 8.


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