Timothy Cobban's reply to Christopher Leo's comment "are there urban regimes in Canada?".
Subject: Urban renewal (Political aspects)
Urban renewal (Economic aspects)
Urban renewal (Case studies)
Urban economics (Political aspects)
Urban economics (Case studies)
Local government (Political aspects)
Local government (Economic aspects)
Local government (Case studies)
Local government (Ontario)
Author: Cobban, Timothy
Pub Date: 12/22/2003
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2003 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Winter, 2003 Source Volume: 12 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Computer Subject: State/local government software
Product: Product Code: 9107150 Urban Renewal Programs; 9300000 Local Government; 9200000 State & Local Government NAICS Code: 92512 Administration of Urban Planning and Community and Rural Development; 92 Public Administration
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Ontario Geographic Name: London, Ontario; London, Ontario; London, Ontario Geographic Code: 1CONT Ontario
Accession Number: 115498160
Full Text: Christopher Leo and I are in complete agreement that urban politics in Canada has not received the scholarly attention that it deserves, despite the importance of the subject for students of local government in Canada, and abroad. Evidently, we also agree that Paul Peterson's account of the political economy of local government decision-making is unhelpful for understanding how local political decisions are actually made, as Leo raises no objections to that portion of my overall argument. Our disagreements focus instead on my application of urban regime theory to development politics in London. Specifically, Leo objects that the conclusions I draw are overstated, that the evidence upon which those conclusions are based is both insufficient and misinterpreted, and that my treatment of urban regime theory is generally unsatisfactory. Of these three objections, I am genuinely puzzled by the first, concede a qualified version of the second, and outright reject the third, pointing instead to some conceptual confusion on Leo's part that may be the ultimate source of out disagreement. I briefly address each objection in turn.

Leo argues that my conclusions about the utility of regime theory in the Canadian context are hastily derived from my findings about its applicability to development politics in London, an objection that is independent of his expressed doubts about the validity of those findings. This objection is curious because nowhere do I state that my findings reject or invalidate urban regime theory as a theoretical approach for understanding local politics in Canadian cities, or, for that matter, in London. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is true: urban regime theory holds much promise for understanding local government decision-making in Canada. My argument that urban regime theory is of limited applicability to development politics in London, and my further suggestion that urban regime theory properly applied in other Canadian cities is unlikely to reveal actual urban regimes, is based on what I consider to be the theory's current insensitivity to the substantive differences between the political economy of local government policy-making in Canada and in the United States. These substantive differences--my admittedly preliminary list included the structure and organization of urban governments, the regulatory environment within which they operate, and the organization of financial institutions--alter the array of opportunities and incentives that local political actors and private interests face, and thus have important consequences for the types of governing arrangements that develop. Until these differences are adequately incorporated into the urban regime theory framework, and the effects of those variables on local political outcomes more fully theorized, the explanatory promise of urban regime theory in Canada will remain unrealized, for the most part.

Leo's second objection focuses on the evidence I present to support my claim that development politics in London was not the product of an urban regime--evidence he considers to be both insufficient and misinterpreted. For Leo, not only do I fail to establish the absence of an urban regime, the evidence I do provide actually suggests that a regime may have been uncovered had I only probed deeper with more intensive research techniques, guided by more appropriate questions. The basic intuition behind this criticism is sound: more evidence is preferable to less, and the more detailed and fine-grained it is, the better. But, as is often the case, the evidence presented was not all that was gathered, and had I included all of the information I obtained from newspaper reports, policy documents, and minutes of council meetings, Leo surely would have been disappointed, for it simply tells the same story at a finer level of detail.

To illustrate, Leo cites a number of examples where he suspects that a governing coalition or urban regime may have been detected had I inquired about the membership of the various groups and organizations involved in development policy-making. In particular, he mentions the 1993 Mayor's Task Force on Downtown Revitalization, the Board of Directors for the London Economic Development Corporation, and Advance London (the group of local business people that lobbied for a public-private economic development corporation).

Fortunately, I did obtain the membership lists for each of these organizations, and I have (re-)examined their membership lists and the interests those members represented. Only one person appears on the lists for all three groups: a senior executive at a prominent downtown insurance company. Obviously, this insurance company had a representative on all three groups, as did city council and the local university. Certain sectors of the local economy were also represented on all three groups: namely, real estate development and construction, post-secondary education, legal services, and life insurance. But, aside from the three organizations noted above, no other organization, association, or company had members on all three groups. Thus, although the membership lists for these three groups exceeded 70 persons collectively, only one person, three organizations, and four local economic sectors were represented on all three lists. Whatever this information suggests about development politics in London, it does not expose a stable, informal coalition of local public officials and private interests guiding local policy-making that would qualify as an urban regime.

All of this, however, may not satisfy Leo. Membership lists may not fully reveal all of the pertinent interests, affiliations, and activities of their members. Personal interviews, then, might be a more effective technique for identifying urban regimes, as Leo intimates in the final paragraph of his commentary. Although this seems plausible, interviews are not among the research methods used to establish urban regime theory. In what is widely recognized as the foundational study of urban regimes, Clarence Stone (1989) identifies the urban regime governing Atlanta through the use of secondary sources, newspaper reports, and policy documents--not through personal interviews. Leo, then, may be suggesting that urban regime theory itself rests on questionable methodological grounds, a point that I find as interesting as it is controversial, but presumably not the one that he is trying to make here. If Leo is suggesting instead that more intensive research techniques are required to detect urban regimes in Canadian cities, then he is tacitly conceding the implication of my argument that he finds most objectionable: The governing arrangements that exist in Canadian cities are not likely to be of the form and type classified as urban regimes in the United States.

Ultimately, our methodological disputes are probably symptomatic of a more fundamental disagreement about what exactly constitutes urban regime analysis. Regime theory, Leo informs us, is about coalitions, not urban regimes per se, and urban regimes are simply particularly dominant and enduring types of governing coalitions. Accordingly, my regime analysis of development politics in London was problematic from the outset: I searched for evidence of an urban regime instead of a governing coalition, and consequently overlooked much important coalition-building in the process. The difficulty with such an approach to urban regime analysis is that it differs significantly from Stone's, and it is Stone's model that is broadly accepted as the dominant one (Mossberger and Stoker 2001). For Stone, urban regimes are not a subset of governing coalitions; a governing coalition is the crucial and central component of an urban regime, the group of individuals that form its functioning core. By Stone's criteria, a governing coalition must be relatively stable (it cannot form and dissolve depending on the issue); it must have a cross-sectoral foundation (it must include representatives from both governmental and non-governmental organizations); and it must be informally governed internally (the relationships among coalition members must not be fully specified by formal government structures) (Stone 2001). Thus, however Leo defines the term 'governing coalition', it has a far more specific and concrete meaning for Stone, and there is no evidence that a stable, informal, and cross-sectoral governing coalition guided development policy-making in London.

That there is not a governing coalition operating in London does not, of course, mean that development politics in London is without coalition-building. Quite to the contrary, as Leo aptly points out. But the important question for urban regime theorists, then, is why this coalition-building did not result in the formation of an actual governing coalition, as regime theory predicts it should have. The answer to this question will not likely be round by stretching the concept of 'governing coalition' so that it applies to virtually all types of local governing arrangements, or by examining the internal dynamics of the various 'coalitions' vying for political influence. Any meaningful attempt to answer this question must begin instead with the recognition that coalition-building is influenced by the political-economic context in which it occurs, and that the model of coalition-building posited by urban regime theory is (presently) insensitive to the differences in this context in Canadian and American cities. The alternative is to assume that the institutional structure of urban governments, the regulatory environment within which they operate, and the organization of economic interests are all unimportant for the politics of coalition-building and local government policy-making. Such an assumption seems completely implausible.


Mossberger, K. and G. Stoker. 2001. The evolution of urban regime theory: the challenge of conceptualization. Urban Affairs Review 36 (6): 810-835.

Stone, C. 1989. Regime politics: governing Atlanta, 1946-1988. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Stone, C. 2001. The Atlanta experience re-examined: the link between agenda and regime change. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 25 (1): 20-34.

Timothy Cobban

Department of Political Science

University of Western Ontario
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