Comparative Urban Politics and Policy

Historically, urban politics has been considered a subfield of American politics.  In recent years, however, we have witnessed an outpouring of research by scholars of comparative politics focused on urban settings in the developing world. I am currently working on several projects intended to outline promising avenues for future research on comparative urban politics and to give this emerging field a sense of coherence and collective identity.  My efforts are centered on a book project examining the politics of urban policy in Latin America. Meanwhile, I am also writing articles on related themes. A first article, published in World Development, examines the legacy of institutional reforms affecting urban policy, focusing on the case of water and sanitation. A second article, focused on the drivers of policy sustainability, was recently published in Comparative Politics.  A third article, forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics, outlines ideal typical regimes for local public goods provision in cities of the developing world. In addition, I am writing review essays on comparative urban politics and co-editing a journal special issue on methodological innovation in comparative urban politics with Adam Auerbach and Adrienne LeBas.  


“Can Developing Countries both Decentralize and Depoliticize Urban Water Services?  Assessing the Legacy of the 1990s Reform Wave.” 2014. World Development. 46: 621-641. (with Veronica Herrera)

Over the past three decades, decentralization and reforms designed to insulate service providers from interference by elected officials (“insulating reforms”), such as corporatization and privatization, swept through the urban water and sanitation sector in developing countries. We argue that their rationales were contradictory; decentralization was intended to increase citizen participation and influence, whereas corporatization and privatization were intended to depoliticize management. We document the widespread pro- motion and adoption of these reforms, and conclude that decentralization made it difficult to insulate service provision in practice. We argue that studying how institutional reforms interact with one another can help explain reform consequences.

“Blame Avoidance and Policy Stability in Developing Democracies:  Security Policy in Buenos Aires.”  2016. Comparative Politics. 49(1): 23-46. (with Hernán Flom).

Democratization originally inspired hopes that new regimes would privilege human rights, yet progressive reforms to the criminal code have been modest and insufficient to stem dramatic increases in incarceration rates. At the same time, developing democracies have made little headway reforming their ineffective police forces. How can we explain the stability and enforcement of punitive criminal justice policies and the erosion of police reforms? We offer a novel theoretical explanation of these contrasting patterns through a comparative study of these two policy areas in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Incentives to avoid blame for salient crimes discourage politicians from repealing punitive criminal justice policies and incentivize judges to enforce them. Responsibility for failed police reforms, however, is harder to assign, giving the police and their allies opportunities to undermine them.

“Hybrid Regimes for Local Public Goods Provision: A Framework for Analysis.” Forthcoming, 2018.  Perspectives on Politics(with Vivian Bronsoler and Lana Salman) 

There is a growing recognition that the state is not the sole provider of “local public goods” such as water and education in the developing world. Mainstream approaches to the study of local public goods provision, however, have yet to incorporate these insights. This paper offers a descriptive typology of hybrid local public goods regimes, or systems in which both state and non-state actors contribute to provision. It emphasizes two dimensions: the type of state involvement (direct versus indirect provision), and the prevalence of non-sanctioned, private providers. The politics of producing local public goods, we argue, takes on distinct forms in each cell. The framework allows scholars to develop more accurate and precise explanations of variation in service quality and access, and choose more appropriate outcome measures. We illustrate the utility of this framework by analyzing distinct hybrid regimes for water and sanitation and mass transit in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

“Decentralization and Urban Governance: Evidence To-Date and Avenues for Future Research” (with Christopher Carter) (for journal special issue on decentralization edited by Jonathan Rodden and Erik Wibbels)  (under review)

As increasingly large shares of the developing world’s population come to live in cities, it is important to examine the effects of political, fiscal, and administrative decentralization on urban governance and service delivery. Relevant academic scholarship and policy research, we show, suggests that clientelism, populism, and local capture often persist following the establishment of municipal elections. However, conditions such as political competition, independent fiscal resources, and strong civil societies can facilitate more democratic outcomes following decentralization. Meanwhile, our review of literature on decentralization’s impact on two quintessentially “urban” services—land market regulation and urban water and sanitation—suggests that decentralization involves important trade-offs. On the one hand, decentralization can help citizens to pressure more effectively for inclusion and access, particularly in the presence of political competition and a robust civil society. On the other hand, it can make it more difficult for policymakers to address metropolitan-level or long run concerns regarding investments in basic infrastructure that are often not at the forefront of voters’ minds. We also highlight the need for primary data collection, suggest research design strategies that would allow for more rigorous empirical analyses, and highlight important topics that have received very little attention.

“Cities and Politics in the Developing World” (commissioned by The Annual Review of Political Science, under review)

The last fifteen years have witnessed an impressive outpouring of comparative politics research examining urban politics in the developing world. This article shows how this research advances our understanding of phenomena such as clientelism, law and order, and local public goods provision. Scholarship could be strengthened, however, through more careful attention to the urban nature of the politics examined. This article proposes two distinct ways in which urban politics can be conceptualized: politics taking place in urban agglomerations characterized by large, diverse populations settled at high densities; or politics taking place within the boundaries of city jurisdictions possessing legal powers and responsibilities distinct from those at other tiers of government or in rural areas. Adopting either of these conceptualizations illuminates new avenues for empirical work, theoretical innovation, and improved measurement. This article also shows that recent scholarship has neglected important, and fundamentally political, topics such as urban political economy, land markets, and urban environmental harms. Engaging with these areas would allow political scientists to revisit classic questions regarding the institutional influences upon economic growth, the politics of redistribution, and the determinants of collective action.


Together with Adam Auerbach, and Adrienne LeBas, and Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro, I am editing a journal special issue highlighting diverse methodological innovations evident in the growing body of work by political scientists on cities in the developing world.  Our aim is to excite greater interest in work on comparative urban politics, as well as help spur the diffusion of new methodological tools in the discipline more broadly.   I have co-authored a contribution as well, which focuses on the use of crowd-sourced data, and is described in more detail in the transparency reforms section of this website.  The special issue is currently under review.

The Politics of Urban Informality: Innovations in Theory and Research Design from the City’s Margins ” (overview essay for special issue, written with Adam Auerbach, Adrienne LeBas and Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro)

Contemporary urbanization in the Global South merits greater attention from scholars of comparative politics. Governance, associational life, and political behavior take on distinctive forms in the complex social and institutional environments created under rapid urbanization, particularly within informal settlements and informal labor markets. In this special issue, we examine forms of collective action and claims-making in these spaces. We also consider how the state assesses, maps, and responds to the demands of informal sector actors. We show how features of urban informal environments, such as a lack of property rights, population mobility, ethnic diversity, and convoluted forms of public service delivery, can change conventional understandings of citizen and state behavior. Tackling these questions requires innovative research strategies due to data scarcity and social and institutional complexity. Contributors to this symposium illustrate novel strategies for addressing these challenges, including the use of informal archives, worksite-based sampling, ethnographic survey design, enforcement process-tracing, and crowd-sourced data.