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Durham University

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Publication details

Bulkeley, H., Luque-Ayala, A., McFarlane, C. & MacLeod, G. (2018). Enhancing urban autonomy: towards a new political project for cities. Urban Studies 55(4): 702-719.

Author(s) from Durham


As the 21st Century world assumes an increasingly urban landscape, the question of how definitive urban spaces are to be governed intensifies. At the heart of this debate lies a question about the degree and type of autonomy that towns and cities might have in shaping their economic, environmental, social and cultural geography. This paper aims to examine this question. Starting with the premise that the degree of autonomy any particular town or city has is inherently an empirical question – one which can only be conceptualised in relational terms vis-à-vis the distributed, networked and territorialised responsibilities and powers of the city and the nation-state and other zones of connection – we examine four different contexts where debates over autonomy have intensified in recent history (Brazil, UK, India and South Africa). Drawing on recent respective histories, we identify key elements and enablers in the making of urban autonomy: a characteristic that exists in a variety of guises and forms and creates a patchwork landscape of differentially powerful fragments. We reveal how, beyond its characteristic as a political ideal, autonomy surfaces as a practice that emerges from within specific sectors of particular societies and through their relationship with national and regional politics. Four alternative forms of urban autonomy are delineated: fragmented, coerced (or enclave), distributed and networked. We contend that the spatial templates for autonomy are not predetermined but can be enhanced in multiple different sites and forms of political space within the city. This enhancement appears essential for the integration and strengthening of capacities for sustainable and just forms of development throughout the urban.