Current Issue

Volume 43, 6

How best to introduce a virtual special issue of Urban Geography on the theme of urban policy mobilities? Carefully, I suggest!In the early 2000s a relatively small number of contributions emerged out of human geography, studying welfare reform in the UK and the US and how something called “policy” appeared and reappeared in national and urban contexts (Theodore and Peck 1999; Peck 2001).This work was unlike previous studies of policy in human geography, dating back to the 1960s.Eschewing technical evaluations, it questioned the taken-for-granted assumptions in political science over how something called “policy” moved from one location to another. The ontological underpinnings of “transfer” seemed to jar with the conceptualizations of space commonplace in much of human geography.Instead, the beginnings of an alternative approach to the study of “policy” began to be outlined.Slowly but surely. Only with the benefit of hindsight, though, were these contributions understood as foundational.

What subsequently emerged over the next 20 years or so was a new approach to understanding the arriving at and making up of policy. This drew upon pre-existing contributions out of anthropology, architecture, history, human geography, planning, social policy, and sociology. Those bits of these disciplines where there was already work into aspects of the policy-making process have been brought together, both to challenge existing ways of conceptualising and studying the approach dominant in political science and to begin to develop an alternative framework. Not at once, of course, but in an ad-hoc, often incoherent and incremental manner. This is a loose framework though, an intellectual home for those drawing upon what at first glance seem incommensurable ontologies. For example, those working with Actor Network Theory (ANT), Science and Technology Studies (STS), as well as political economy, post-colonialism, and post-structuralism have shaped the field. Heterogeneous might be an understatement.

As the number of contributions using the term “policy mobilities” has increased (McCann 2011; Peck 2011), so too have those concepts and themes that give the field shape and structure. In addition to questioning the definitional basics of “policy”, the notions of absence/presence, failure/success, and mobility/movement have been subject to scrutiny. Mostly using qualitative research methods, such as archives, ethnography and semi-structured interviews, we have witnessed a still growing body of work on different areas of policy, from crime to drugs, economic development to education, governance to housing, infrastructure to planning, and transport to welfare.Most recently, those working on issues of critical development studies have turned to using the field’s concepts and language. “Peak” policy mobilities still seems some way off.

As part of this wider field, a strand of work specifically on urban policy mobilities has emerged, drawing upon examples from cities around the world. It has highlighted how best and good practice “models” in areas such as eco cities, smart cities and sustainable cities have emerged (Crivello 2015; Chang 2017).These have been circulated, analysed, interpreted, mediated and translated between different locations. Various digital and material infrastructures have emerged to support this work.Notions of inter-urban comparison, exchange and referencing have been used to open up for scrutiny the political nature of global urban policymaking. In this context, over the last two decades, Urban Geography has been home to a small but a growing number of papers.And, most recently, a special issue was published in the journal. This focused on the notion of “failure” and how it has been understood in urban policy mobility studies to date.

The papers selected for this virtual special issue likely say as much about me as about the wider field! Nevertheless, I want to highlight four features that run across the papers. The first, is the emergence of an increasingly nuanced and open understanding of “time” in the making of urban policy mobilities.Many of these papers reject, either directly or indirectly, the additive and linear mode of conceiving time across the different policy stages. Rather, urban policy mobilities are conceived as non-linear and rhizomatic, elements added, subtracted and then added. Emphasis is placed on the incremental, incomplete and open-ended nature of urban policy mobilities. The second feature, is the more than material (or more than representational?) dimension to urban policy mobilities. Much of the earlier work emphasised and focused on material dimensions. That might say as much about the ontological orientations of those in the field as, say, the importance of the affective, atmospheric, and emotional elements that have tended to be downplayed. Yet, as is clear in many of the papers, the bringing forth of certain policies involves a variety of types of affective and emotional work. To be believable and credible “Success” (and its relational “Other”, “failure”) rest on a sense of something that is irreducible to data or evidence, facts or figures. The third feature of these papers is the diverse urban geographies at work in their examples of policy mobilities. There persists a sense that it is cities in the global North that tend to generate policies more likely to travel.However, there is evidence that this is slowly changing. The fourth feature of these papers underscores one of my earlier points. That is, they reinforce the widespread use of urban policy mobilities across a wide range of areas. As a lens onto the making of urban policy – at least pre-COVID-19 – its generality and versatility has seen the uptake and usage of the urban policy mobilities framework in a growing list of areas.Quite whether we have reached the point of decreasing conceptual and methodological returns based on further empirical studies, remains to be seen. What is more certain is that in Urban Geography, and the wider field with which the journal shares its name, the contribution of urban policy mobilities has been lasting and significant.


I-C Chang (2017) Failure matters: reassembling eco-urbanism in a globalizing China, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 49:8, 1719-1742

Crivello S (2015) Urban policy mobilities: the case of Turin as a smart city, European Planning Studies, 23:5, 909-921

McCann E (2011) Urban policy mobilities and global circuits of knowledge: towards a research agenda, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 101:1, 107-130

Peck J (2001) Workfare states, Guilford Press: New York

Peck J (2011) Geographies of policy: from transfer-diffusion to mobility-mutation, Progress in Human Geography, 34:6, 773-79

Theodore N and Peck J (1999) Welfare-to-work: national problems, local solutions? Critical Social Policy,19:4, 485-510

Baker T and McCann E (2020) Beyond failure: the generative effects of unsuccessful proposals for Supervised Drug Consumption Sites (SCS) in Melbourne, Australia, Urban Geography, 41:9, 1179-1197, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2018.1500254

Bok R (2020) The relational co-production of “success” and “failure,” or the politics of anxiety of exporting urban “models” elsewhere, Urban Geography, 41:9, 1218-1239, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2020.1802932

Boren T and Young C (2021) Policy mobilities as informal processes: evidence from “creative city” policy-making in Gdańsk and Stockholm, Urban Geography, 42:4, 551-569, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2020.1735197

Bunnell T and Das D (2010) Urban Pulse—A Geography of Serial Seduction: Urban Policy Transfer from Kuala Lumpur to Hyderabad, Urban Geography, 31:3, 277-284, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.31.3.277

Cleave E, Arku G, Sadler R and Gilliland J (2017) Is it sound policy or fast policy? Practitioners’ perspectives on the role of place branding in local economic development, Urban Geography, 38:8, 1133-1157, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2016.1191793

Cook I and Ward K (2012) Relational Comparisons: The Assembling of Cleveland's Waterfront Plan, Urban Geography, 33:6, 774-795, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.774

Curran W and Hanson S (2005) Getting Globalized: Urban Policy and Industrial Displacement in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Urban Geography, 26:6, 461-482, DOI: 10.2747/0272-3638.26.6.461

Davidson M (2020) Going bust two ways? Epistemic communities and the study of urban policy failure, Urban Geography, 41:9, 1119-1138, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2019.1621122

Fox Graham K (2014) Mechanisms of mutation: policy mobilities and the Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone, Urban Geography, 35:8, 1171-1195, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2014.960166

Guironnet A (2019) Cities on the global real estate marketplace: urban development policy and the circulation of financial standards in two French localities, Urban Geography, 40:10, 1527-1547, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2019.1627807

Hsu J-y and Hsu Y-h (2013) State Transformation, Policy Learning, and Exclusive Displacement in the Process of Urban Redevelopment in Taiwan, Urban Geography, 34:5, 677-698, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2013.778581

Kennedy S (2016) Urban policy mobilities, argumentation and the case of the model city, Urban Geography, 37:1, 96-116, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2015.1055932

Liu X (2107) “Contested policy mobility”: the creative transformation and temporary use of brownfields in Redtory, Guangzhou, Urban Geography, 38:6, 884-902, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2016.1178882

McCann E (2013) Policy Boosterism, Policy Mobilities, and the Extrospective City, Urban Geography, 34:1, 5-29, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2013.778627

Michel B (2013) A Global Solution to Local Urban Crises? Comparing Discourses on Business Improvement Districts in Cape Town and Hamburg, Urban Geography, 34:7, 1011-1030, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2013.799337

Moore S, Raco M and Clifford B (2018) The 2012 Olympic Learning Legacy Agenda – the intentionalities of mobility for a new London model, Urban Geography, 39:2, 214-235, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2017.1300754

Moore-Cherry N and Bonnin C (2020) Playing with time in Moore Street, Dublin: Urban redevelopment, temporal politics and the governance of space-time, Urban Geography, 41:9, 1198-1217, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2018.1429767

Moser S, Côté-Roy L and Issahaku Korah P (2021) The uncharted foreign actors, investments, and urban models in African new city building, Urban Geography, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2021.1916698

Nciri A and Levenda A (2020) Urban policy (im)mobilities and refractory policy lessons: experimenting with the sustainability fix, Urban Geography, 41:9, 1158-1178, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2019.1575154

Sigler T (2013) Relational Cities: Doha, Panama City, and Dubai as 21st Century EntrepÔts, Urban Geography, 34:5, 612-633, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2013.778572

Swanson K (2013) Zero Tolerance in Latin America: Punitive Paradox in Urban Policy Mobilities, Urban Geography, 34:7, 972-988, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2013.799369

Temenos C and Lauermann J (2020) The urban politics of policy failure, Urban Geography, 41:9, 1109-1118, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2020.1827194

Tulumello S and Iapaolo F (2022) Policing the future, disrupting urban policy today. Predictive policing, smart city, and urban policy in Memphis (TN), Urban Geography, 43:3, 448-469, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2021.1887634

Wells K (2020) Policy-failing: a repealed right to shelter, Urban Geography, 41:9, 1139-1157, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2019.1598733

Wood A (2014) Moving policy: global and local characters circulating bus rapid transit through South African cities, Urban Geography, 35:8, 1238-1254, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2014.954459