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Analysis of the Urban Regime Model

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2691 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Question: Outline what Clarence Stone and others mean when they write about ‘urban regimes’. Evaluate the degree to which the urban regime approach synthesises the most valuable dimensions of other approaches to understanding urban politics.

Word Count: 1939


The Urban Regime theory emerged in the 1980s, and gradually became one of the main theories in the study of urban politics. Urban Regime keeps evolving along with the time changing. Its establishment and development synthesize the advantages of many other theories. This article will discuss the basic argument of Stone and some other scholars of Urban Regime, and discuss the influence of elitism, pluralism, growth machine and urban governance theory on urban regime theory.

What is Urban Theory

Urban Regime Theory originated in the early 1980s  and was advanced by N.I. Fainstein, S.S. Fainstein, Stone and Elikin. It quickly became a representative theory of urban political and economic research. The definition of the urban regime is complex. Stone (1989: 4) viewed urban regime as “an informal yet relatively stable group with access to institutional resources that enable it to have a sustained role in making governing decisions”. Krasner argued that urban regime is “set of principles, rules, norms, and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given issue area” (Krasner, 1983: 2). In summary, despite the variations of definitions, scholars share the consensus on dynamic interactions and informal coalitions among multiple actors and mainly focus on their impacts on city development especially in terms of policy. 

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The urban regime has three main actors: political actor represented by government, economic actor represented by the business enterprise, and social actor represented by social organization and citizens. They all have different resources and cannot achieve the city development independently, thus, a form of coalition became necessary. Based on the coalition, they interact and cooperate with each other behind a negotiated agenda to achieve a set of policies. This system becomes what Stone called “Regime”. The regime is dynamic, informal, cooperative and relatively stable. By using alternative incentives, three actors integrate the interests, internalize the conflicts between them, and try to take the leading position in the policy process. They do not participate in the policy-making process in the same pattern, and their influences on the development policy are different across various cities. For example, in Atlanta, the social actor is quite weak. However, when the case came to San Francisco, social organizations play leading roles in city development process (Deleon, 1992). There is also a “mutual dependent” relationship between these actors which enable them to achieve far more as a group than they would if they remained as individuals (Stone, 1989: 4). The three main actors balance each other through the interaction and material exchange and try to achieve relative equality and efficiency in the development process.  

Influence of Elitism

The elitism of community power study started from the F.Hunter. He analyzes the power structure of the Atlanta community and argues that a small group of people in society have a centralized control of power that affects social development (Floyd, 1953). Although a particular elite group may be replaced by another elite at different times, the elite rules that sustain the exercise of power remain the same (Dunleavy, 1980). The Urban Regime theory learned from the elitism and stated that three major interest groups constituting the regime are all controlled by their respective elites. To some extent, the regime is a coalition of elites. As said by Gerry Stoker, “[f]or actors to be effective regime partners two characteristics seem especially appropriate: first possession of strategic knowledge of social transactions and a capacity to act on that knowledge; and second, control of resources that make one an attractive coalition partner” (1995, 60). The urban regime theorists also recognized the privileged position of business in the policy process. They acknowledge the significance of private actor and business support, because their investments and economic activities are crucial to maintain societal wealth and popular support for the government (Stoker& Mossberger, 1994). However, unlike elite theorists, regime theorists recognize that any group is unlikely to be able to exercise comprehensive control in a complex world. As Stone (1991: 9) argues: “[i]nstead of the power to govern being something that can be captured by an electoral victory, it is something created by bringing cooperating actors together, not as equal claimants, but open as unequal contributors to a shared set of purposes.” Urban regime theory then absorbs pluralist idea about power distribution.

Influence of Pluralism

American political scientist R.A. Dahl’s Who Governs? Democracy and power in the City. New Haven offers a pluralist approach to the issue of community power in 1961. Dahl found that in the important decision-making process of New Haven community, political power of the community is distracting, each group has its own power center, and local officials have their own independent status. Voters can participate in policy process through indirect elections. Among many actors, no one can monopolize the decision-making process except the mayor (Dahl, 2005). The community power of New Haven is a multi-faceted power structure centered on the mayor. However, pluralism also got many critics. For example, P.Bachrach and M.Baratz (1963) argued that power has “two faces”, and pluralist approach only focuses on decision making but neglects the non-decision making aspect.

The Urban Regime theory incorporates pluralist thoughts and the criticism. It illustrates that resources influencing urban politics are scattered, and not controlled by a few elites, as the elitists believe. Beyond the inclusion of local government and businesses, participants in regimes may vary, including neighborhood organizations or organizations representing middle-class African-Americans (Mossberger& Stoker, 2001). Moreover, according to Stone (1993), the regime is organism which mediates the relationship between popular control of the political process and private control of the economy.  However, unlike pluralists, regime analysts do not regard governments as likely to respond to groups on the basis of their electoral power or the intensity of their preferences. Rather, governments are driven to cooperate with those who hold resources essential to achieving a range of policy goals (Stoker& Mossberger, 1994). The urban regime also believes that urban regime could not be simply elitism or pluralism. The policy will be influenced by the political system, degree of government autonomy and the interaction with elite’s coalition. Some regime might be more elitism while others might me more pluralism.

Influence of Growth Machine Theory

Besides the debate between elitism and pluralism, the alternative approach of Growth Machine advanced by Molotch and Logan (Molotch, 1976; Logan and Molotch, 1987) also provides theoretical foundation for urban regime theory’s emergence. Just as Vogel and Swanson argued, the essence of the city is a machine that pursues the growth of wealth and the stakeholders in the city who use the exchange value of space to obtain wealth constitutes a ‘growth coalition’ (Vogel and Swanson, 1989).  Elgin has adopted the growth machine’s perspective in his urban regime theory to some extent (Dowding, 2001). He focus on the development of urban land, and argued that according to the differences role that development coalition, electoral politics, and government played in the land production in different periods, the urban regime could have different type: the Pluralist Regimes(1950s and 1960s), the Federalist regimes (1960s and 1970s), and the Privates regimes (1980s).

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Growth machine theory views the growth coalition as the main driving force of urban development. The urban regime has learned from this. Coalition building is also at the core of the regime approach. Regime theorists emphasize how the structure of society privileges the participation of certain interests in coalitions which brings some ideas from the growth machine (Stoker& Mossberger, 1994).  Stone argued that the focus in regime analysis is on the internal dynamics of coalition building, on “civic cooperation” (Stone, 1989: 5) or informal modes of coordination across institutional boundaries. He described the political power sought by regimes as the “power to” or the capacity to act, rather than “power over” others or social control Stone (1989: 229), and regimes could overcome problems of collective action and secure participation in the governing coalition through the distribution of selective incentives.

In addition, the theory of Growth Machine highlights the importance of development, which means the shift of power analysis from a static approach to a more dynamic and macro sight. The urban regime also takes this point and emphasizes on dynamic construction in the city development. Urban regime theorists argue that urban policy is not an outcome of interest distribution dominated by political elites or economic elites, but a result of multi-interests gambling. Power is no longer a social control model, but a force which could drive the development of the city and social production. With the incorporation of growth machine theorists’ ideas, urban regime theorists turn the question from ‘who governs’ to ‘How to govern’. However, unlike growth machine theorist, supporters of urban regime do not think regime is only about the growth. In different periods of urban development or different institutional backgrounds, urban regime could have a variety of orientations such as Maintenance regime, development regime and so on.

Influence of Urban Governance

Urban regime theory mainly focuses on urban politics in one specific city, especially in the early stage of its theoretical development. Theory building depends on testing and refining the concept through comparison with other cases, thus seldom touch the concept at the macro level (Mossberger & Stoker, 2001). However, with the development of globalization, the theoretical framework of regime constructed by early scholars represented by stone was criticized as lacking universality. Dowding criticized that urban regime theory only focused on the “middle range” concept rather than build a theoretical modal (Dowding, 1999). The rise of governance theory is later than that of urban regime, urban governance has been defined as “a concern with governing, achieving collective action in the realm of public affairs, in conditions where it is not possible to rest on recourse to the authority of the state” (Stoker, 2000:93). Some scholars argued that the juxtaposition of urban regime theory and urban governance theory is slightly misleading because the urban regime is a particular form of urban governance. (Pierre, 2014) However, when we evaluate the developmental process of Urban Regime, we can still find that urban governance theory has provides important references for this process.

Urban governance focuses on the feasibility of co-management by governments, NGOs, the private sector and individuals. In governance theory, coalitions across institutional boundaries tend to be less institutionalized compared with the governing coalition in urban regime theory. And importantly, when urban regimes ensure top political involvement, urban governance can be conducted with much less commitment and involvement of the political leadership or by the city administration more broadly(Pierre,2014), thus, urban governance theory is more encompassing than urban regime theory because the governance perspective draws on a broader definition of potential participants in governance. This provides a reference for the transformation of urban regime from the duality of “government-market” to the “government- market- society” structure.  Besides this, the governance theory has been used in the different field. Compare to the governance theory, the urban regime is much more localized, it also does not consider or conceptualize several of the societal transformations of the 1990s and early 2000s (Pierre, 2014). The debate between urban governance and urban regime theory has to push urban regime to consider border and comparative cases.


The urban regime model is based on the absorption and synthesis of community elitism, community pluralism, and the growth machine theory. The urban governance theory also provides many reference for further improvement of urban regime. Although urban regime still has some weakness such as the model is lack of universality, the urban regime theory is still in its process of evolution and redefinition.


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