The Post-Fordist City

W F Lever. Handbook of Urban Studies. Editor: Ronan Paddison. Sage Publications. 2001. 

The rationale for the rapid growth of industrial towns and cities in Europe and North America was the comparative advantage of scale economies. The widespread application of steam-power, rather than the earlier waterpower, facilitated the development of large-scale industrial plants such as steelworks and shipyards. These large plants required the assembly of large labour forces, much of them drawn from rural areas, or from immigration in the case of North America, and the rates of population growth were rapid, often 10 per cent per year at peak growth rates. The implementation of Fordist regimes, based on Taylorist ideas of labour specialization, scientific management and the optimal use of time, extended the process of factory growth into assembly-line production systems for the manufacture of consumer goods such as automobiles. Although more capital-intense, these production systems still required large quantities of labour. Fordism, however, was substantially more than a system of production, in that it came to describe a whole economic and social system. In Lipietz’s (1989) formulation the Fordist regime of accumulation was based in the final analysis on the idea of mass production, mass consumption and a Keynesian system of state regulation (Friedmann, 1995).

The key economic features of Fordism include production systems based on monopolistic or oligopolistic capitalism increasing concentration of capital, growth in output and worker productivity, especially in consumer products, and an expansion of demand for, and supply of private and public services. It assumes almost full employment, although there is a transition from employment in manufacturing to employment in services from the mid-1960s; more of the employed workforce is female, and there is an increasing skill division of labour. The replacement of human capital by fixed capital in manufacturing increasingly separates the workforce into a primary and secondary labour forces. Mass consumption becomes increasingly predominant, especially in standardized household durables such as electrical goods and automobiles. Production enjoys economies of scale in the form of mass production, which is functionally decentralized and often multinationally organized and controlled (Pacione, 1997; Wallace, 1990).

This Fordist economic system is paralleled by a socio-institutional structure with a collectivistic character (Mandel, 1980). This social structure is organized mainly by occupation, but with a tendency towards homogenization and experiencing income conversion. Within the labour market, the increased use of trade unions and collective bargaining brings increasing income conversion. Politics are closely aligned with occupation and organized labour, and the regional and class dimensions are important. The degree of state intervention is Keynesian-Liberal collectivist in character, with markets regulated against problems such as monopolistic price fixing, levels of demand maintained by public expenditure and the expansion of the welfare state. In terms of the space economy, pronounced regional specializations of early industrialization become overlaid by new spatial divisions of labour based on functional decentralization and specialization: regional unemployment disparities remain relatively stable, although industrial and economic structures may converge (Gordon, 1980; Martin, 1988).

In urban terms, Fordism could be equated with the success of large cities and large city systems. The predominant modes of production required locations in large cities, not just as the homes of large industrial workforces but as the providers of the most advantageous sets of externalities. Large cities meant large local markets and an extensive array of advanced producer services, including data processing, financial and legal services, education, personal and ancillary services, access to political decision-makers. As the world economy globalized, the large cities remained the key locations in corporate structures and on informational networks (Clark, 1996). The success of Fordist production systems was equated with the success of large cities as economies, and debates on ‘the urban problem’ revolved around the most effective ways of slowing their growth, which was causing congestion, high space costs, high labour costs, system capacity problems in transport and services and environmental-ecological problems. The policy response in Europe and to a lesser extent in North America, was to filter out some of the growth to smaller urban places and lagging regions through land use planning, licensing of economic development, space controls and population movement (Hall, 1988).


This paradigm of continuous growth and development within a global economy in ways favourable to the expansion of the largest cities, however, was not sustainable. Fordism came to be replaced by post-fordism, with some scholars arguing that the transition was automatic, inevitable, or path-dependent (Bonefield and Holloway, 1991; Clarke, 1990; Rustin, 1989) while others have argued that there has been no sharp distinctive break between the two stages (Lovering, 1991; Sayer, 1989). Nevertheless, there has been a transition to post-fordism. Sternberg (1993) lists some eight characteristics of post-fordist, or postmodern, economies and societies. First, there is a high value placed on knowledge or information within the process of wealth creation. Secondly, the postmodernist trend will extend consumerism into all areas of private and social life, including aesthetics, art, leisure and pleasure. Thirdly, it is characterized by global interdependence on production, finance, distribution, migration and trade. Fourthly, Sternberg identifies a new mercantilism in which national coalitions between industry, government and labour seek to develop strategic comparative advantage as a basis for national prosperity. Fifthly the growth of multinational enterprises and financial institutions run by a new class of global executives and professionals will shape consumption and production patterns. Sixthly, flexible specialization, characterized by new principles of production, specialist units of production, decentralized management and versatile technologies and workforces, will become the new system of production. Seventhly, new social movements will come into being, humanizing capital with greater concerns for ethnic groups, for women and for the environment. Lastly, there is increasing rejection of the technocracy and consumerism which so characterized Fordism, and the growth of communitarian, social and religious values and traditions by way of replacement.

Whilst most observers recognize these elements of the post-fordist world, there are three theoretical positions at the core of the post-fordist debate. These are the regulation approach, the neo-Schumpeterian approach and the flexible specialization approach. Each has developed a separate explanation of the process by which the era of Fordist mass production is being replaced by new systems (Amin, 1994). The regulation approach was pioneered in France in the 1970s and refined in the 1980s by political economists trying to explain the dynamics of long-term, 50-year, cycles of economic stability and change (Aglietta, 1979; Lipietz, 1985). The objective was to develop a theoretical framework that could explain the apparent inconsistency between capitalism’s inherent tendency towards instability, crisis and change and its ability to stabilize around a set of institutions, rules and norms (regulations) to secure a relatively long period of economic stability. There was concern that the recession of the 1970s was not just another lull within a recurrent cycle but a more generalized crisis of the institutional structures which had organized the post-war global economy. It was important, the regulationists argued, to recognize the historical processes that underpinned economic change. Two key concepts at the heart of regulation approach are the ‘regime of accumulation’ and the ‘mode of regulation.’ The regime of accumulation refers to a set of regularities at the level of the macroeconomy which facilitates a coherent process of capital accumulation, including the organization of production and work, relationships and forms of exchange between sectors, common rules of economic management and norms of income-sharing (wages, profits) and norms of consumption in the market place. The mode of regulation refers to the institutional framework (laws, contracts, etc.) and a nexus of cultural habits which secure capitalist reproduction, and comprise laws, state policy, political practices, industrial codes, governance and social expectations (Nielson, 1991). Fordism is therefore a distinctive type of labour process involving large plants, mass production, scale economies, rising incomes linked to productivity and mass consumption. The slow-down and successive recession of the 1980s and 1990s are seen as the ‘crisis of Fordism.’ Critics of the regulationist arguments for Fordism and post-fordism have argued that the dominant Fordist mode of production is not ubiquitous, that there are several national variants of the paradigm and that the regulation approach tends to generate a systemic functionalist and logical coherence to history which it in fact does not possess (Clarke, 1988; Hirst and Zeithin, 1991).

The neo-Schumpeterian view of Fordism and post-fordism stems from Kondratiev’s work on long-wave (50-year) cycles of growth, of an alternation between boom and recession, in capitalist economies. Schumpeter extended this work by identifying the key role of path-breaking entrepreneurs whose innovations led to new technological paradigms. For Freeman and Perez (1988), the successful transition from one long wave to another is dependent upon ‘quantum leaps’ in industrial productivity achieved by the diffusion of major innovations throughout the macro-economy These technical innovations, however, need to be matched by socio-institutional innovations. In neo-Schumpeterian analysis, the passing of the age of mass production, termed the fourth Kondratieff or long wave, is claimed to have been underpinned by electro-mechanical technologies, the products of mass consumption industries and oil and petrochemicals as the basic sources of cheap energy. In common with the regulationist school, it identifies standardization, massification, scale economies, oligopolistic competition and mass consumption of cheap goods as the distinctive features of the fourth Kondratiev arranged around vertically integrated, hierarchical corporations. In terms of the socio-institutional context, the neo-Schumpeterian view focuses on state policy—for education, housing, welfare and Keynesian interventions into the macroeconomy Post-fordism begins to come about with the competitive failure of oligopolistic structures in maturing technologies. Productivity gains are reduced as wages and prices rise. The major problem or crisis occurs as new techno-economic paradigms come into increasing conflict with the enduring socio-institutional structures of the fourth Kondratieff. The benefits of innovation are slow to diffuse as inertia due to the reluctance of management and labour, political inertia and legislative drag impede the spread of new ideas (Nielson, 1991).

The flexible specialization approach draws a sharp distinction between mass production involving the use of special purpose, product-specific machines operated by semi-skilled workers to produce standardized goods and flexible specialization, or craft production, in which skilled workers produce a variety of customized goods (Piore and Sabel, 1984). The two systems are thought to co-exist, but at different points in history one system comes to predominate over the other. With the crisis of recession from the 1970s, the problem of declining profits, growing uncertainty emanating from the breakdown of postwar economic systems such as the Bretton Woods agreements, and the threat to mass production represented by rejection of standardized products, the flexible specialization model offers a better understanding of post-fordism at the present time. The rise of non-specialist and highly flexible manufacturing and design and flexible work practices characterize the new system, which favours small-batch production without losing large-scale economies. Thus, the Fordist emphasis on large plants and large corporations gives way to the small and medium-sized enterprise which in its turn may not require location in large urban centres accommodating large workforces (Amin and Robins, 1990; Harrison, 1994; Leborgue and Lipietz, 1992). Criticism of the flexible specialization approach has focused on its duality, which it is argued caricaturized the two extremes of mass production and flexible specialization, failing to recognize the heterogeneous nature of both systems. Piore and Sabel (1984) have also been criticized for their naivety in assuming that much of industrial product can be generated in a craft paradigm, when elements of Fordism are too deeply embedded to be replaced to such an extent.

The key constituents of the post-fordist city therefore stem from economic changes which have seen the reduction in importance of scale economies and hence the need for large plants, in large cities. This has been accompanied by the growth of the small enterprise sector, requiring less labour employed more flexibly, and the transition from employment in manufacturing to employment in services. Higher levels of information, managerial changes such as just-in-time systems, and disintegration of vertical production ‘filieres’ or chains of production in single or multiple establishments will impact on the urban hierarchy in different ways. The Fordist town was characterized by strongly agglomerative processes, the standardization and industrialization of construction, the nuclearization of the family and far-reaching processes of social disintegration. Supported by the large-scale use of the car, extreme spatial-functional differentiations developed, characterized by suburbanism, the formation of satellite towns, the depopulation of the inner cities, the loss of smaller industrial and service enterprises, and the growth of hypermarkets and trading estates. Life in the nuclear family, standardized labour, television and cars became the basis of a new model of life and consumption and structured urban space. The ‘incongeniality’ of the standardized towns, whose spaces were differentiated according to function, became a central issue for critical urban sociology. State and local government supported this process through traffic development, housing policies and subsidies. Serious social conflicts were caused by the process by which residential areas near the city were turned into slums, often by planning blight or uncertainty, as a preliminary step towards commercial use for predominantly tertiary functions, by the loss of infrastructure, the downgrading of local public services and the expulsion of the population from deep-rooted residential areas and the drastic reduction of the quality of life (Esser and Hirsch, 1994). The crisis of Fordism rapidly or simultaneously became the crisis of the Fordist city.

Post-Fordist Economies and the Urban Hierarchy

Fordist globalization based on multinational enterprises, which often had more power than the national economies which hosted them, together with the international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Single European Market and the North American Free Trade Association, are often argued to have reduced the power of national governments. However, the crisis of Fordism has enabled regions and urban regions to take greater control over their economies. Some, such as Sabel (1989), have argued that this represents a return to the nineteenth-century pattern of flexible specialization in specific sectors, which predominated in local urban economies: Lyons for silk, Sheffield for cutlery and St Etienne for cast iron hardware and arms, for example. New urban and regional economies have emerged in which small and medium-sized enterprises are networked by flows of goods and services in a model based on collaboration rather than competition. The network is sufficiently flexible to achieve scale economies without the diseconomies of large plant inflexibilities. Locationally such an industrial network may be positioned on a network of small and medium-sized towns. Again, the intention is to achieve agglomerative or locationalization economies without the agglomerative diseconomies of congestion, high rents, high efficiency wages and urban problems such as crime (Scott, 1988). Earlier models might have taken the form of the Black Country in the English Midlands, where a complex of metal producing and metal products formed over about a dozen urban centres, and the Ruhrgebiet in Germany where a similar coal-steel-metalworking complex developed over about 20 towns.

In the post-fordist era, the first and best-known case was that of the Third Italy, identified by Bagnasco (1977) and so called because it contrasted with the poor, agricultural South and the old heavy-industrial North focused on Genoa, Turin and Milan. It is a string of industrial districts extending from the Venetian provinces in the north through Bologna and Florence to Ancona in the south, producing a wide range of goods, many of which have a high fashion or design content. These include knitwear (Carpi), special machinery (Parma, Bologna), ceramics (Sassuolo), textiles (Como, Prato), mechanical pumps and shoes (both Modena) and musical implements (Ancona). This networked development, however, is now spreading into southern and northern Italy, with new industrial districts in Turin (robotics) and the Canavese region of Piedmont (computers and software), around Milan in Lombardy (furniture and machine tools) and around Bari (textiles) (Leone, 1994).

Other examples of new industrial districts with poly-nuclear urban structures are to be found elsewhere in Europe. Jutland in Denmark has recently developed a network of textile, clothing, furniture, machine tool and even shipbuilding firms as a countermagnet to the overconcentration of economic activity in Copenhagen. In Germany, the Land of Baden-Wurttemberg has a number of textile, clothing, textile machinery, machine tool, electrical machinery and automobile component districts. In Scotland, the emergence of ‘Silicon Glen’ may be seen as the development of a new industrial space in which the smaller urban centres such as the New Towns (East Kilbride, Glenrothes and Livingston) and older towns such as Dunfermline have become the major foci, whereas the major urban centres such as Glasgow have not succeeded in attracting the industry. This, in a sense, typifies issues of flexible production systems in which locations that have no long history of Fordist or pre-fordist industry with its adversarial labour relations are preferred to the older industrial cities and towns (Pike and Sengenberger, 1992).

In the United States the two best-known high-technology industrial districts are the centre of semi-conductor production in Silicon Valley, south-east of San Francisco, and the concentration of mini-computer producers along Route 128 circling Boston (Saxenian, 1985). A third area of industrial networking appears to be developing in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, based on the film, television, video and music recording industries, but also including aerospace and automobiles. An interesting feature of this industrial district is the fact that it has spread over the border into Mexico where production occurs in ‘maquilladores’—US-owned plants in low labour-cost Mexico (Storper and Christopherson, 1986).

If post-fordism equates with small units of production located in smaller urban centres, then what of the large units of production in the 1990s? As early as the 1970s evidence was emerging that the location of large Fordist plants in large urban centres, or at their peripheries, was no longer the most profitable locus of production. The advantage of access to large workforces, large local markets and the range of positive externalities was being offset by the growth of diseconomies such as high wages, traffic congestion, negative externalities and high rents. Researchers such as Tyler, Moore and Rhodes (1984) by the 1980s were able to demonstrate that profit rates in manufacturing were inversely correlated with urban size, and in the case of London were positively correlated with linear distance from the centre of London measured along the motorways that radiated from the city. Researchers such as Massey and Meegan (1979, 1982) were able to show that as the ‘crisis of Fordism’ hit manufacturing firms in Britain and Europe, they were most likely to remove their excess capacity in the largest cities—often where the capital vintage was oldest—and refocus production, usually with substantial labour reductions, in smaller urban places.

The consequence of these processes in terms of the urban hierarchy has been described as the urban-rural shift (Keeble et al., 1983). Thus, within Europe in the 1970s the highly urbanized regions’ share of manufacturing output fell by 1.7 per cent, that of the urbanized regions fell by 0.3 per cent, that of the less urbanized regions grew by 0.9 per cent and that of the rural regions grew by 1.1 per cent. In terms of gross value-added the relative share shifts were -2.9 per cent, +0.2 per cent and +1.1 per cent and +1.6 per cent. The same relationship holds at the nationally disaggregated level, as well as the European-wide level. Thus in Germany the figures were -1.8 per cent, +0.3 per cent and +0.6 per cent and +0.9 per cent, and in France they were -1.6 per cent, -0.6 percent, +1.1 per cent and + 1.1 per cent. In locational terms this means that urban regions such as the Paris Basin and the Ruhr performed poorly and rural/small urban centre regions such as Brittany, the Auvergne and Thuringia performed well. A comparison between employment change and output change shows how productivity improved much more markedly in the rural and small urban centres than it did in the large cities.

Although much of the analysis indicating the movement of output and employment to smaller urban centres has focused on the manufacturing sectors, there is evidence to believe that the same processes hold good in services, although analyses of output necessarily relate to tradable services (Daniels, 1993). Whilst sectors such as retailing may have concentrated upon large units, in the form of hypermarkets on out-of-town sites, other sectors such as insurance, and leisure and recreation, have seen a dispersal to small urban centres in small units linked in some cases by advanced telecommunications. In the 1990s, however, post-fordist consumerism has become refocused on inner city and city centre developments which offer wide choice and greater specialization in retailing, entertainment and culture. The balance of these two trends, however, mirrors the urban-rural shift of manufacturing. In the United Kingdom, for example, employees in retailing between 1981 and 1991 fell by 6.6 per cent in London and by 5.4 per cent in the other principal cities, whereas in other cities it rose by 5.5 per cent, in older towns it rose by 16.4 percent and in smaller towns and rural areas it rose by 25.5 per cent (Townsend et al., 1996).

Whilst industry and services have relocated themselves across the urban hierarchy, and indeed within cities between the core and the periphery, in post-fordist systems, the demand for labour has been similarly adjusted. Flexible systems of production in both manufacturing and services have had several impacts on the construction of labour demand. The most obvious single effect has been growing polarization within the urban labour force. This duality is most clearly expressed as a widening gulf between a stable core of high-waged workers (typically white/male/educated) and an unstable periphery of low-waged workers (typically female/black/poorly qualified) (Piore, 1980). The core-periphery divide within the labour market reflects the division within the post-fordist production system between core producers and their periphery of subcontractors, franchisees, suppliers and surplus/periodic/seasonal capacity. Workers in the latter sector are likely to find employment uncertain, periodic and subject to marked swings between labour surplus and overly tight labour demand. The uncertainties experienced by workers in the secondary labour market are not only reflected in their economic circumstances but have implications for their position in the housing market as they are unlikely to be mortgagable, fixing them within the private or social rental sector. There are also correlates between occupying a position in the secondary labour market and poorer health, poorer access to services such as education and leisure, and less political voice. Such groupings are now often termed the underclass in the US and the socially excluded in Europe.

Whilst much of the theory pertaining to the separation of primary and secondary labour markets has been developed in the context of the manufacturing sector, similar distractions may be found in the service sector. Here, the primary labour force comprises those workers engaged in high-level information transfers such as corporate managers, educationalists, administrators, financial and legal service workers and strategic information processors. The secondary labour market in services comprises routinized information processors such as keyers and call centre staff and personal service sector workers. In terms of location within the post-fordist city many of the latter still occupy Fordist locations at the city edge or on out-of-town sites such as retail parks, whereas many of the former remain, despite changes in information technology, located close to the city centre (Budd and Whimster, 1992). The exception would be the growth of inner city employment associated with the development of urban economies based on the leisure, consumption and culture industries, either as a long-term process or in the form of hallmark, one-off, events.

Theorists have rejected the view that Fordism and post-fordism are separated by a sharp break (Elam, 1990) and now tend to regard them as a continuous process. In terms of the city, however, the break is more sharp. Fordism, certainly in its latter stages, has been equated with suburbanization and decentralization, whereas post-fordism is often invoked as a cause of recentralization and reurbanization.

Post-Fordist City Politics

Under Fordist systems of production, larger and larger units of production made it increasingly difficult for the local state, and even national government, to control economic development. At the national level, governments found their attempts to manage the macroeconomy through interest rates, the exchange values of currencies and public sector borrowing could be frustrated by the large-scale hypermobility of capital (Leyshon, 1992). The more recent trend, over the past two decades, however, has seen greater opportunity for local government and other locally based institutions to play a role in economic development. Whilst under Fordism local modes of regulation played a minor and subordinate role in assuring the coherence of the overall regime, when the central state and other large-scale modes of regulation played the crucial roles, efforts to respond to the crises of Fordism have involved a shift in the division of labour. The specific local conditions of production and reproduction required by globally mobile capital cannot be orchestrated by the central state. Hence local political organizations, their skills in negotiating with supraregional and multinational capital, and the effectiveness with which they tailor the particular set of local conditions of production have become decisive factors in shaping a city’s economic profile as well as its place in the international urban hierarchy.

The greater autonomy of the local state has been termed a ‘perforated sovereignty’ (Mayer, 1994), by which nation states become more exposed to trans-sovereign contracts by local agencies, not always democratically elected and accountable. Regional and local forces become more active in advancing their locational policy strategies orientated directly to the world market and many observers see this as contributing to the greater salience of the local state and to the ‘hollowing-out’ of the nation state. Ironically, as Page (1993) points out, this greater local salience has at times occurred when there has been a clear intention on the part of the national government to reduce the power of local government, as in the case of Britain in the 1980s and early 1990s. In other cases, however, such as France and Spain, the enhanced powers enjoyed at the local regional and urban scale have been willingly conferred by the central state as part of a deliberate policy of decentralization (Jessop, 1994).

This phase of the post-fordist local politics dates, according to some, from the economic crises of the late 1970s, when the macroeconomic shocks caused by sharp increases in the price of crude oil forced central governments to reduce their levels of grant finance to local government, who in turn were left with diminished resources with which to tackle increasing unemployment and deprivation. Local authorities were thereafter more likely to engage in anti-unemployment policies and local labour market interventions such as planning agreements, the use of local authority reserves such as pension funds to support local industry, and procurement policies aimed at the local economy. Paralleling these direct interventions were less direct approaches, such as programmes of urban marketing designed to enhance a city’s image in the hope of attracting inward-investment, the development of tourism (both business and leisure) and cities competing for hallmark events to provide a one-off financial boost or to upgrade infrastructure and to enhance the quality of life. In European cities, these less direct approaches are typified by the boost given to Barcelona’s economy by its hosting of the 1992 Olympic Games, the improvement of Glasgow’s image achieved by its designation of European City of Culture in 1990, and the growth associated with the EuroLille project in the Nord-Pas de Calais (Logan and Swanstrom 1990: Stöhr, 1990). Some local authorities and city councils seem to be aware of the increasingly polarized occupational and class structure of their local economies and attempt to counteract the attendant social disintegration with consciously chosen strategies to stimulate growth and to target job creation on particular sectors of the labour market such as the long-term unemployed of former manual workers. From case studies, it is possible to demonstrate that some urban leaders who were engaged in local economic development activities were often far from certain as to how exactly an improvement in the course of urban development might be brought about, except in agreeing that ‘industry and employment matters should be important’ (Cochrane, 1992: 122). Gradually these activities have consolidated into a more systematic economic development policy strategy oriented explicitly to fostering growth, which in its turn is supposed to create employment, although policies to foster efficiency and competitiveness may not always have this desired effect (Lever, 1997).

This increased level of local economic intervention is expressed not merely in the quantitative growth of local government spending for economic development, but, and often more importantly, in qualitatively different approaches to economic intervention which seek to make use of indigenous skills and entrepreneurship, which emphasize innovation and new technologies, and which involve partners from outside the public sector in the organization of conditions for local economic development. Traditionally, local authority actions have been aimed at attracting mobile capital through incentives such as financial and tax breaks, infrastructural provision or assistance with site selection. A shift in the approach to local economic development has now emerged. Subsidies are now targeted towards industries promising innovation and growth; more public resources are focused on stimulating research and development, consulting and the transfer of technology, as well as on constructing alliances with universities, polytechnics, chambers of trade and commerce, and labour unions. The planning and preparation of land has now become of great strategic significance, especially in the larger cities, which may be administratively underbounded and heavily reliant on the redevelopment of ‘brownfield’ land (Bennett et al., 1990; Cooke and Imrie, 1989).

The focus now has been switched to creating ‘milieux innovatrices’ (Aydalot, 1994), which encourage new firm formation. Such milieux require to be information-rich, with a benign fiscal regime and good external and agglomerative economies. In addition to publicizing the virtues of the local business climate, local authorities are likely to stress the quality of life, the availability of good services (especially education) and good image. Finally, new development strategies frequently include employment strategies which involve the third or alternative ‘not-for-profit’ sector.

These attempts to engender local economic development have had the effect of gradually breaking down the traditional sharp distinction between different policy areas. This is especially true in the case of labour market and social policy areas but also in educational, cultural and environmental policies. These have all become more integrated with local economic development measures. In addition, the new efforts have led to institutional changes: new departments and inter-agency networks have been created within the administration and new institutions that contribute in significant ways to shaping local politics have been established outside the local authority (for example, urban development corporations, training and enterprise councils, technology centres, growth alliances, local business fora and roundtables). What has been described as institutional thickness has emerged as a measure of this overlay of agencies, some public, some private (McLeod, 1997). ‘Thicker rafts’ of institutions are felt to be more flexible and more responsive to the needs of inward investors of existing businesses, and to contribute to the emergence of the ‘entrepreneurial city.’

This greater economic autonomy of post-fordist cities has been described as ‘delinking’ from the national economy and the state. Over time, perhaps as a consequence of post-fordism, the rate of economic change of city regions has increasingly diverged from the national rate of growth (or decline) (Lever, 1997) of their host state. This delinking is generally expected to be positive; in other words, entrepreneurial and dynamic cities will outperform their relevant national economies, and cities such as Barcelona, Rotterdam, Munich and Turin in Europe are cited as examples. The reality is, however, that the pursuit of distinctive local economic policies may cause an urban economy to lag significantly behind the national performance: examples from Europe in 1986–96 include Marseilles, Hamburg and Amsterdam.

A second aspect of the politics of post-fordist cities which is distinctive is the restructuring and subordination of social consumption or welfare. The pressures exerted by economic restructuring and mass unemployment and by shrinking subsidies from central government, and the prioritization of the economic development function have forced local authorities to reduce their commitment to one of the formerly central functions of local state politics, namely the provision of social consumption goods and welfare services. Not only has local government spending for social consumption declined as a proportion of overall expenditure but a qualitative restructuring has taken place involving an increase in the importance of non-stable (private and not-for-profit voluntary sector) organizations or quangos. In several policy fields where the state used to be the sole provider of a service, non-governmental agencies have been created or private markets have emerged. Sometimes these now involve more cooperation with neighbourhood-level initiatives or other social movements (Evers, 1991). On the positive side, these movements are seen as having the virtues of greater efficiency and of greater community responsibility and involvement. Negatively, however, as in the case of Great Britain, they can be seen as an attempt by central government to disempower local authorities, often controlled by a political party different from that of central government under the guise of making local government more accountable to the local electorate. In some cases the set of urban welfare policies have been collapsed into a single programme (for example, the Single Regeneration Budget), grants from which are awarded on a competitive basis, rather than one of objective need. The criterion for success in such competition may be the ability of such schemes to attract private capital, and they thus are linked to the economic success of a local area.

This means that social welfare measures and assistance which need to be relatively universal and guaranteed by the national welfare state (but delivered by the local state) are now an arena of conflict and are implemented in a fragmented fashion. This movement away from service provision by elected authorities to an ‘enabling’ role by which services are offered by voluntary sector agencies, the private sector and others has generated ‘growth coalitions.’ The range of services now offered outwith local government but formerly in its control is large and extends from school catering and policing to the provision of subsidized housing and refuse disposal. These new public-private-voluntary forms of cooperation in the area of social consumption are part of the structural changes in the repertoire of municipal action in the post-fordist city. Whether the local struggles and bargaining processes result in more egalitarian and accountable models responsible to broad local needs, nor in division models enforcing processes of polarization, marginalization and social exclusion, one of the certain new characteristics of the emerging local ‘welfare state’ that distinguishes post-fordist cities from the past is its role in enabling negotiation with outside actors.

Post-Fordist Urban Culture

The mass production systems of Fordism can be equated with mass consumption. Fordist techniques made available goods and services in large quantities at prices which fell in real terms whilst offering higher wages to households whose consumption patterns since the 1940s were increasingly shaped by the desire to own mass housing, electrical goods, cars, furniture and sports equipment. Mass produced food, often pre-prepared, sold through decreasing numbers of large retailers, grew in importance as larger numbers of females entered, or re-entered employment. Even services were subject to the same pattern, in the form of mass package holidays and branded eating experiences such as McDonald’s.

Socioculturally, post-fordism can be argued to represent a rejection of mass consumption. Improved education and more sophisticated advertising, some of it relating to the informationalizing of retailing, has led to more selective and discerning patterns of consumption. Mass production for many in the post-industrial city was rejected in favour of patterns of consumption that involved goods and services which were distinctive, bespoke and, in the case of goods, had high levels of design and craft embedded in them. The emphasis swung to clothing, footwear, furniture and jewellery, which were produced in small batches, or individually. Mass services were supplanted by much more customized offerings in the form of esoteric restaurants, often with obscure ethnic origins, customized or small group holidays, and more individualistic leisure activities. Even goods such as cars, the stereotypical products of Fordist systems, used new techniques such as Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) to break up long production runs by producing ‘limited editions’ marginally different one from another.

At the urban scale, while the mass production of suburban housing for owner occupance continues, and would appear to be the majority choice for most nuclear families in the child-rearing stage of the life cycle (Lever and Champion, 1998) new types of households and the new economic order are generating a greater variety of residential communities and a new spatial structure. Authors such as Harvey (1982, 1989) and Christopherson (1994) have drawn attention to the relationship between the new international division of labour and the spatial restructuring of the city. Business and financial service activities have become concentrated in a small number of countries and urban centres whilst manufacturing has moved to low wage-cost countries, removing the demand for blue collar workers in the cities of the developed world. Sassen (1994) has described the ‘hollowing out’ of city economies with growing social polarization which, in its turn, exacerbates polarities in the housing market and in residential districts. Most studies have stressed the extent to which high income households have been able to displace inner city working-class communities through gentrification and the residential conversion of formerly non-residential buildings such as dockside warehouses to obtain housing close to CBD jobs. To protect themselves from the more serious social pathologies of crime, assault and invasion high-income communities are now becoming gated communities, with surveillance and security services, a reflection of the growing polarization (Christopherson, 1994; Judd, 1994; Marcuse, 1995). A further manifestation of the desire for protection from a polarizing society is the (largely North American) creation of residential communities of specific populations, particularly the elderly, where the encroachment of non-conforming populations would immediately be obvious.

It is not only the international business class who are creating special inner city communities using their high incomes to protect themselves. An interesting study of international administrators within the European Community (Papadopoulos, 1997) describes how Eurocrats in Brussels have been able to acquire particular residential neighbourhoods for their use by driving out poorer households.

Much of the work on polarization in post-fordist cities has examined processes within the residential housing market, but there are parallel studies of the privatization of formerly public spaces by high income households to exclude ‘undesirable populations’—the poor, the homeless, young children and teenagers. Perhaps the best example of this type of development is the enclosed shopping mall in North America and increasingly in Europe. Loukaitou-Sideris (1993), in a study of privately controlled public space in Los Angeles, describes how such spaces are inwardly orientated, with high enclosing walls, blank facades, distanced from the public street and with obscured street level access. These public open spaces are effectively discontinued from the surrounding city. Activities therein are severely restricted, lacking children’s playspace for example! All the spaces are aimed at a specific clientele, the workers in the vicinity and shoppers, thus allowing the owners of adjacent commercial space to capture a particular segment of the market and to orient other marketing strategies to that segment.

The exclusion of populations from areas formerly open to the public is usually justified on commercial grounds. Excluding ‘undesirable’ individuals and activities is felt to guarantee higher levels of investment in job creation by removing the risk of problems such as theft, arson, damage and assault, which would in turn alienate customers, clients and visitors. This reworking of public and private spaces in North American, and increasingly also European, cities is a matter of stimulating consumption. Business improvement districts, such as midtown Manhattan, reflect the intervention of private companies in what they regard as a context where a purely public service, such as cleansing, police, urban design or transportation, has failed.


The post-fordist city is less easy to define or describe than the Fordist city. Fordist cities from the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century were quite a homogeneous group, with scale economies predominant, mass production and consumption, and a clear socio-economic hierarchy. Post-fordist cities, on the other hand, are a more heterogeneous set. They are, however, characterized by smaller scales, by greater internal heterogeneity and polarization. To an extent, individualism has replaced communitarianizm and state socialism. It suited the political moves of the right-wing national governments of the 1980s to emphasize entrepreneurialism and self-reliance, and to erode the supportive mechanisms of city governments. Ironically, one of the consequences, at the urban and at the enterprise level, of this increased emphasis on self-reliance has been the emergence of partnership and collaboration, rather than enhanced competition, as the paradigm within the relationships are conducted.