Q&A: Michael Storper on "Keys to the City"

Q&A: Michael Storper on "Keys to the City"

Posted on

Fri, 09/20/2013 - 12:49pm

In advance of Urban Planning professor Michael Storper's book talk, this interview from September 2013 may shed light on the topics covered in "Keys to the City: How Economics, Institutions, Social Interaction, and Politics Shape Development."

UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs professor Michael Storper recently released a new book, titled Keys to the City.

In Keys to the City, Storper, an Urban Planning professor and one of the world's leading economic geographers, looks at why we should consider economic development issues within a regional context — at the level of the city-region — and why urban economies develop unequally. Storper identifies five contexts that shape urban economic development: economic, institutional, innovational, interactional, and political. The book explores how these contexts operate and how they interact, leading to developmental success in some regions and failure in others. Demonstrating that the global economy is increasingly driven by its major cities, the keys to the city are the keys to global development.

Storper took some time to discuss his new book, available for purchase now, and answer some questions about Keys to the City.

Question: Your latest book involves economics in developing a city, a topic you have written about previously. How is this new book different from some of your previous books?

Answer: In all my books, I have been interested in economic development. Knowing how economic development occurs and why it follows a certain pathway is complex and mysterious. In my previous books, such as The Regional World or The Capitalist Imperative, I focused on regions. In Worlds of Production, I focused on the institutions that make some economies function better than others. In this book, I focus on the metropolitan region (such as Southern California). I incorporate the revolution in urban and regional economics that has happened in the last fifteen years, and then I focus on the basic causes of why city-regions develop and why some do better than others.

Q: You identified four "keys" to the city: economic, institutional, innovational and interactional, and political. Did your research shape these contexts or did you knowingly explore these based upon your experience?

A: The four come from both research and practical experience. On the research side, each of them is developed in a separate area of academia. Because I have the good fortune to work in several different disciplines and fields, as well as several countries, I get to pick up on developments in these different research areas. I see myself as someone who bridges between separate, very specialized (and often isolated from one another) communities in social science.  When I apply the insights from these different fields to cities and regions that I study, I realize that all are useful, but they require a framework that can bring them together. That's what I try to do in this book: see the big picture, but in a rigorous scientific way. That's why I call them keys, because the theories and models are ways to unlock the different causes of development.

Q: Your book covers topics as diverse as land use, interpersonal communication and economic justice — quite a few "Keys to the City." What makes this multipronged approach necessary to understand what drives urbanism in today's economy?

A: As I say above, city-regions are shaped by many forces. Cutting-edge academic work necessarily has to look at very precise causes in very precise ways. But in doing so, it tends to become rather one-sided. This is not a criticism: it's how good social science works. But when we have something as complex as the city, these pieces need to be fitted back together again to provide the big picture. We have to be careful about how we do this, though, so it's not just vague mixture of them. In general, there's a big gap between urban research and urban practice, though. Policymakers and practitioners want simple, easily implemented ideas (and that can be shown off to the public). We academics go for truth, and truth is complex. What I have tried to do in the book is navigate a good middle ground between these tendencies, and remain academically rigorous but give the big picture, in a relatively accessible way. But I'm not selling any simple, latest fashionable idea for how to make cities work. I don't believe in that.

Q: Chapter 6 is titled "The Winner and Loser Regions." How did you determine what constitutes an urban region as a "winner" or as a "loser?"

A: As I said, my over-riding concern is development. Development and growth are not the same things.  Development makes human welfare improve. Human welfare is improved when an economy becomes more productive, when it does so relative to other places so that it can improve incomes, and when that wealth is distributed to a large swath of the population. So winner regions carry out these tasks, while loser regions don't.

Q: Some of your conclusions say that we need to be imaginative in urban and regional development. How do we go about doing that?

A: The hardest task in affecting economic development in a positive way is to deal with change. Change is not an option: in an economy that is open to trade with other places, and in a world of technological, organizational and life-style change, economies have to adapt. But the change is so complex that nobody can actually predict or plan where to go over, say, the next 20 years. So, being imaginative means developing collective ears and eyes that allow the economy to take in what's happening and allow people and firms and resources to flow into these areas, without knowing exactly what this means.  The key to this change is whether there are networks of people who are the change agents in the city's economy, and who can help transpose existing skills into new areas of endeavor, and who can pull people and their interests into the areas that are going to generate tomorrow's development. This is "collective imagination." By contrast, there are always many types of inertia that make change hard to bring about. So there's always a contest of vision, of imagination.

Q: How do you hope your book influences or affects people studying urban regions?

A: Well, I don't want to be presumptuous. My role as a researcher and theorist is to be faithful to theory and evidence and to bring it together in a way that helps people to think about change. It should also help them to see through ideas that do not hold water, and there are alot of them in the urban and regional development field. By this, I mean ideas that sometimes seem intuitively appealing but that turn out to be wrong when faced with the evidence. So my goal with this book, as with all my teaching, is to try and inspire a rigorous, critical perspective on urban development, so that practitioners can be better equipped to focus their efforts on the right tasks.

About the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Founded in 1994 and dedicated in 2011, the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs is a leading institution for research and scholarship in the areas of public policy, social welfare and urban planning. Based in the global metropolis of Los Angeles, UCLA Luskin develops creative solutions and innovative leaders that confront challenges in immigration, drug policy, prison reform, transportation, the environment, and other areas vital to the continued health and well-being of our global society.


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In this article from the archives, the Urban Planning professor answers questions about his latest book

In advance of Urban Planning professor Michael Storper's book talk, this interview from September 2013 may shed light on the topics covered in "Keys to the City: How Economics, Institutions, Social Interaction, and Politics Shape Development."