Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

What's a Small City Mayor to Do When Things Fall Apart? Normative Limits in Modern Urban Theory

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

What's a Small City Mayor to Do When Things Fall Apart? Normative Limits in Modern Urban Theory

Article excerpt


Urban theories are built upon an understanding garnered from studying larger cities and major metropolitan areas. In this article, we examine use a case study that focuses on the political and managerial challenges faced by a smaller metropolitan area under conditions of rapid growth and demographic change. The case provides a foil for the normative components of urban theory and we offer a contrast between prescription and the insights provided by the case.


Too often, cities are treated as if they were nation-states. What is known about the politics of nations ... can be applied to the politics of cities within them ... Cities are little political systems, or miniature republics, or national politics writ small enough to be studied with ease (Peterson 1981, p. 1)

Shifts in theoretical dominance are often driven by necessity. A theory that appears to be well-suited for explaining how things work may be forced into retreat by that unassuming case of one, the case that refutes a central tenet (or two) of prevailing doctrine. In order for the case of one to exercise such power in convincing fashion, it must be well-suited for the limits established by theory. But what about theories that cover cases that are inherently heterogeneic? Theories of urban politics and governance are both explicitly drawn from and implicitly targeted towards cities of scale. Nonetheless, urban theories on politics and governance are meant to apply to a vast array of entities: cities, metropolitan areas, towns, special districts, and so on.

At some level, all cities share similar characteristics. They are governed by elected representatives, they have distinct geographical boundaries, they have certain powers to secure revenues and regulate land usage, and they are recognized as legal entities by the state (Zimmerman 1992, p. 164-165). While these similarities mask considerable variation, researchers have justified the development of theory from cities of scale, primarily arguing that such an approach makes sense since only large cities possess all those components that make an environment urban. But the consequences of these theoretical limits can be substantial. Those who reside outside of a large metropolis develop an arguably skewed view of what is appropriate behavior for city officials seeking answers to questions of governance. More importantly, such limits may not become apparent until "things fall apart" (Achebe 1959).

In this article, we will seek to make the case that smaller cities, which we define as those with fewer than 250,000 residents, warrant attention and prompt a re-examination of the prevailing theories that guide our expectations of city politics. We will examine the normative components of two bodies of current theory that are pertinent to city government: economic development, including growth politics, and community development, including social capital. Using these two literatures as a guide, we will demonstrate the difficulties that arise in the application of theory to inform practice when theory is premised on a case history of leviathans in city government. We will then examine a compelling case from northwest Arkansas. Here we follow the rise of pro-growth government, the pursuit of coalitions to create a sense of civic ownership and pride, and the challenge posed when race politics undermines a governing regime. We will conclude with some potential revisions to the tenets outlined in the two bodies of theory.


The case for smaller cities as valid topics of study within the public administration and policy literature has been made but bears review. Rubin's and Rubin's (1987) examination of cities of 5,000 and up who pursue pro-growth strategies, Pagano's and Bowman's (1995) investigation of urban development in mid-sized cities, and Svara's (1994) call for new models of leadership in local governments each utilize the richness of the local government landscape on a smaller scale to prompt fresh ways of thinking about city governance. …

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