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Enhancing urban autonomy: towards a new political project for cities

Bulkeley, H.; Luque-Ayala, A.; McFarlane, C.; MacLeod, G.

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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.


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.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jul 8, 2016
Online Publication Date Sep 27, 2016
Publication Date Mar 1, 2018
Deposit Date Jul 14, 2016
Publicly Available Date Jul 19, 2016
Journal Urban Studies
Print ISSN 0042-0980
Electronic ISSN 1360-063X
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 55
Issue 4
Pages 702-719


Accepted Journal Article (460 Kb)

Copyright Statement
Bulkeley, H. and Luque-Ayala, A. and McFarlane, C. and MacLeod, G. (2018) 'Enhancing urban autonomy : towards a new political project for cities.', Urban studies., 55 (4). pp. 702-719. Copyright © 2016 Urban Studies Journal Limited. Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications.

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