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Volume 37.3 May 2013 1091–9 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research
DOI:10.1111/1468-2427.12066

Neoliberal Urbanism Redux?


JAMIE PECK, NIK THEODORE and NEIL BRENNER

Abstract
Neoliberalization processes have been reshaping the landscapes of urban development
for more than three decades, but their forms and consequences continue to evolve
through an eclectic blend of failure and crisis, regulatory experimentation, and policy
transfer across places, territories and scales. The proliferation of familiar neoliberal
discourses and policy formulations in the aftermath of the 2007-09 world financial crisis
masks evidence of more deeply rooted transformations of policies, institutions and
spaces that continue to combatively remake terrains of urban development. Accordingly,
the critical intellectual project of deciphering the problematic of neoliberal urbanism
must continue to evolve. This essay outlines some of the methodological and
political challenges associated with (re)constructing a ⬘moving map⬘ of post-crisis
neoliberalization processes. We affirm a form of critical urban theory that adopts a
restlessly antagonistic stance towards orthodox urban formations and their dominant
ideologies, institutional arrangements and societal effects, tracking their endemic policy
failures and crisis tendencies while at the same time demarcating potential terrains for
heterodox, radical and/or insurgent theories and practices of emancipatory social
change.

Introduction
For three decades now, neoliberalism has defined the broad trajectory of urban
restructuring, never predetermining local outcomes on the ground as if some iron law,
but nevertheless profoundly shaping the ideological and operational parameters of
urbanization. This historical offensive has also reshaped the terrain confronted by
resistance movements, meaning that alternatives to market fundamentalism are now
refracted through a tendentially neoliberalized ideological and institutional landscape.
Despite the continued vibrancy of such alternatives, many have remained local(ized),
whether due to strategic choices, external pressures or supralocal repression. Meanwhile,
the political left’s article of faith, that neoliberalism must eventually succumb to its own
contradictions, has been tested to breaking point due to the project’s remarkable
adaptability — its Houdini-like ability not only to survive, but to gain further momentum
through the exploitation of crisis conditions for which it is often largely responsible.
Although the aftershocks continue 5 years after the Wall Street crash, the view from
2013 suggests that neoliberalism has once again risen from the ashes of crisis — this one
not only palpably close to the control centers of financialized capitalism, but also
manifestly of its own making. One might have thought that the mounting evidence of
serial policy failure, destructive social and ecological externalities, endemic inequalities,
exploding uneven spatial development, and continued vulnerability to financial and
regulatory crises, large and small, would by now have led to the undoing of this
singularly contradictory regulatory paradigm. But apparently not — at least not yet.
The quasi-Keynesian rescue mission that the panic itself brought on — supposedly

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1092 Debate

suspending the rules of neoliberalism to save the system from itself — may in retrospect
have done more to discredit, rather than recuperate, the economics of Lord Keynes. New
rounds of neoliberal medicine are now being administered, in alarmingly high doses, in
the context of a still highly volatile geo-economic (dis)order. Indeed, in the present
period of post-crisis recalibration, the ideological bandwidth of mainstream economic
policy debates appears to have been narrowed further. Across the interstate system,
orthodox neoliberal nostrums regarding the putative virtues of deficit reduction, austerity
programming, public-sector downsizing and growth restoration at any cost resound with
drumbeat monotony. And crucially the class interests that have been served so well over
the preceding decades of deepening neoliberalization — including the now infamous
‘one percent’, conservative politicians of many stripes, bankers and financiers — have
conspicuously instrumentalized the crisis to fortify their own positions, even as the
legitimacy of these maneuvers is much more openly questioned.
Following what has also become a familiar pattern, the urban dimensions of the
protracted crisis and its politicization have been especially pronounced (Smith, 2009;
Harvey, 2012), not least as a vital link in the subprime mortgage meltdown, a regulatory
space of renewed fiscal discipline, a terrain of deepening enclosure and dispossession,
and a roiling and creative site of protest. It must be said, however, that the medium-term
prognosis for cities looks depressingly familiar: more social-state retrenchment and
paternalist-penal state expansion, more privatization and deregulation, more subjection
of urban development decisions to market logics, a continued delinking of land-use
systems from relays of popular-democratic control and public accountability, more
courting of mobile events, investment and elite consumers, and a further subordination of
place and territory to speculative strategies of profit-making at the expense of use values,
social needs and public goods. This, in short, does not look like a substantial departure
from the regulatory terrain as mapped by the critical literature on neoliberal urbanism
(Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Leitner et al., 2007; Künkel and Mayer, 2012; Park et al.,
2012). Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
Notwithstanding the sobering evidence of some kind of neoliberal restoration, we reject
such an interpretation, though we do not go so far as to embrace the equally problematic
notion of post-neoliberalism, which briefly acquired some currency in the wake of the
2007–09 financial crisis (Peck et al., 2010). While neoliberalization tendencies are
certainly being perpetuated within and across urban landscapes, this circumstance should
not be mistaken for a mere makeover, or redux, of neoliberal urbanism. What may look like
business-as-usual neoliberalism, on an ideological level, can never be only that. Across the
global urban system, the widespread adoption of all-too-familiar neoliberal discourses and
policy formulations is connected to a more deeply rooted and creatively destructive
process of diachronic transformation — of policies, institutions and spaces — that is
mutating the landscapes of both urban development and urban governance. It follows,
therefore, that the critical intellectual project that has developed around the problematic of
neoliberal urbanism must evolve as well.
Spiraling between contextually specific analyses and broader methodological and
conceptual refinements, critical studies of neoliberalized urbanism have articulated a
powerful set of metanarratives and analytical orientations that should, in principle, equip
us to decipher the (il)logics of post-crisis urban restructuring and their consequences —
for institutions, spaces, policies, subjectivities and struggles. And yet, to achieve
this goal, such approaches cannot drift into normal-science incrementalism, as if the
collective task consisted simply of assembling an exhaustive catalog of affirmative cases,
in the form of a cartography of neoliberal hegemony conducted as if the socio-spatial
contours and effects of neoliberalization are fully known in advance. Rather, critical
urban scholarship must continue to confront the challenge of constructing a ‘moving
map’ of neoliberalization (Harvey, 2005: 88). In so doing, we believe, such work must
also continue to elaborate and fine-tune an epistemological and methodological stance
that is both analytically and politically disruptive, as it confronts the challenges of
tracking the variegated geographies of neoliberal hegemony.

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Hegemony in motion
What does it mean to state that neoliberalism is (still) hegemonic? Does it mean that the
dominant ideological paradigm reigns uncontested, suffocating all alternatives? Stuart
Hall, for one, would say not. While he recognizes that neoliberalism has achieved, and
retains, hegemonic status, Hall (2011: 727–8) is equally insistent that
No project achieves a position of permanent ‘hegemony.’ It is a process, not a state of being. No
victories are final. Hegemony has constantly to be ‘worked on,’ maintained, renewed and
revised. Excluded social forces, whose consent has not been won, whose interests have not
been taken into account, form the basis of counter-movements, resistance, alternative strategies
and visions . . . and the struggle over a hegemonic system starts anew.

If hegemonies are always in (re)construction, there can be no neoliberal replicating


machine, running on autopilot, no permanent socio-regulatory settlement, and no
guarantee that the rescheduling and displacement of crises and contradictions can
continue indefinitely.
It is hardly mere sophistry, therefore, to insist that the hegemonic process of
neoliberalization is both systemic and contextually embedded — it entails a worldwide
reorganization of regulatory arrangements; yet it can only be reproduced and advanced
through historically and geographically specific politico-institutional formations,
strategies and struggles. It follows that cities are not just relay stations for a singular,
unchanging, world-encompassing neoliberal project, but are better understood as
institutional forcefields positioned within (and continuously transformed through)
an always mutating and unevenly developed landscape of regulatory reform,
experimentation, circulation, failure, (re)consolidation and crisis. No less essential is
the evolving, relationally constituted positionality of cities with respect to geopolitical
and institutional hierarchies, centers of economic (mis)calculation and circuits of
transnational policy transfer. Cities, in other words, are not merely at the ‘receiving end’
of neoliberalization processes, imposed unilaterally from above. Even in a context in
which few cities are able to exert controlling influence over the trajectory of regulatory
change, processes of neoliberalization continue to be actively constituted (and contested)
across a planetary system of urban(izing) regions.
Furthermore, even if neoliberalizing hegemonies are characterized by totalizing forms
of market fundamentalism, they do not describe a total process. As a utopian ideology
married to a ‘flexible credo’ in the form of strategically adaptable and opportunistic
policy protocols, neoliberalism is destined to remain incomplete, even if its guiding
logics of boundless marketization and commodification are aggressively expansionist.
This means that, no matter how single-mindedly they are pursued, programs of
neoliberalization are doomed to coexist in fields of socio-institutional difference,
dwelling amongst their ideological others, more often than not antagonistically. Thus,
even as it organizes the leading fronts of market-driven regulatory transformation —
consistent with its character as a paradigm of restructuring, rather than as a condition or
end-state — neoliberalization is never found alone. There is always more going on than
neoliberalism; there are always other active sources and forces of regulatory change;
there are always countervailing interests, pressures and visions. As a necessarily
incomplete program, wherever it is found, neoliberalism is therefore a creature of
less-than-happy marriages, revealed in various states of contradictory yet constitutive
cohabitation with ‘other halves’, the result of contextually specific histories of
institutional organization and regulatory tinkering.
Consequently, the unevenly developed geographies of neoliberalization are not mere
variations around an emergent norm, but are inscribed into this form of social rule (Peck,
2010; 2013). This is the expression of path dependency, inherited socio-institutional
difference, and past social struggles and compromises, as revealed for instance in the
distinctive trajectories of neoliberalization in (post)Keynesian, (post)developmentalist
and (post)socialist cities (Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Stenning et al., 2010; Collier,

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2011; Webber, 2011; Park et al., 2012). It is in this context that the notion of variegated
neoliberalization acquires a distinctive meaning, connecting variant ‘local’ conjunctures
with the supralocal patterned movements of a hegemonic front (Brenner et al., 2010a).
If processes and projects of neoliberalization exist within local fields of difference, it
also must be said that they exist within transnational fields of power. There is evidence
of apparently organic, recurring connections with powerful interests — such as financial
and corporate factions, governmental and financial elites, dominant transnational
agencies and institutions — although these must be (re)established on a case-by-case
basis, not by blanket imposition. For this reason, there are few substitutes for
theoretically informed ethnographic approaches that use contextualized investigations to
illuminate the operations and projections of neoliberalization (see Goldman, 2005;
Fairbanks, 2012; Greenhouse, 2012). But neoliberalization is also a cross-case,
cross-institutional and cross-jurisdictional process, and as such is reproduced through
fields of power marked by infrastructural, capillary and hierarchical features (cf. Mann,
1984; Gill, 1995; Dezalay and Garth, 2002; Simmons et al., 2008). While there are good
reasons to be skeptical of one-sided impact models of neoliberalization, as well as of
diffusionist conceptions that postulate its linear expansion from the moment of
immaculate invention to that of global dominance (Bockman and Eyal, 2002; Hart, 2003;
Peck, 2010), it would be equally problematic to delink investigations of neoliberalism
from extra-local fields of power — which we have elsewhere characterized as the
‘context of context’ (Brenner et al., 2010a; 2010b). The reproduction of neoliberal
hegemony occurs through concrete historical conjunctures (Hilgers, 2011), but it also
occurs across these conjunctures (Peck and Theodore, 2012). The notion of variegated
neoliberalization, in this sense, stands as much more than a contingency-finding device;
it is centrally concerned with the reproduction of market rule as a multi-sited, unevenly
developed, relationally interpenetrating and more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts process,
under which ‘internal’ forms and ‘external’ relations are jointly constituted and
continually transformed in a contradictory mutually recursive dialectic (Brenner et al.,
2010a; 2010b; Peck, 2013).
Not only does this demand that attention be paid to the interaction and patterning
of neoliberalization processes across sites (see Peck and Theodore, 2012; Aalbers,
2013, this issue), it also stands as a warning against the adoption of simplified template
models of neoliberal urbanism, where these claim self-affirming status on the
basis of the recurring appearance of similar institutional forms and reform routines
across a diversity of cases. Under certain circumstances (e.g. creative-cities discourse),
this observation might be a starting point for analysis, but it should decidedly not be
confused with substantive explanation (‘Neoliberal urbanism strikes again!’). If the goal
is to explain, say, the privatization of urban infrastructure development in Chicago or
Johannesburg or Bangkok or Moscow, then to tag these policy outcomes as ‘neoliberal’
is no more than an initial analytical orientation (neoliberalism as a general classificatory
schema) on the path to understanding and explaining such phenomena in relation to both
contextually specific developments and more-than-local institutional, spatial and policy
transformations (neoliberalization as a cross-case process).
It is through the seemingly banal but always frustrated repetition of neoliberal
maneuvers that the hegemony of market rule is operationalized and (borrowing Stuart
Hall’s terminology) ‘remade’. To appropriate a favorite phrase from Antony Fisher, the
inventor of the free-market think-tank, who dedicated his life to propagating neoliberal
policymaking rationalities, ‘the echo is more important than the message’ (Peck, 2010:
135). There certainly is a sense in which the post-crisis world of urban policymaking
resembles an echo chamber, one in which so many of the same old formulations, from
creativity to clusters and competitiveness, continue to reverberate (see Oosterlynck and
Gonzalez, 2013, this issue; Rossi, 2013, this issue). But the shopworn shallowness of
such mainstream manifestations of urban policy, for all the Orwellian spinning of
‘innovation’ and ‘best practice’, itself demands explanation. If there is superficial
evidence of some kind of redux, then, this should not be an occasion for pre-emptive

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explanation, weakly tagged to an off-the-shelf static conception of ‘neoliberal urbanism’


(in the vein of ‘just another case of . . .’). What otherwise might be an occasion for
pragmatic resignation or poststructuralist ambivalence can be seen here in a different
light, as an opportunity for a deeper analytical and political problematization: why is
it that mainstream late neoliberal urban-policy formulations appear to be so tired, so
prosaic, so anemic, and yet still continue to represent the doxic ‘common sense’ of urban
policymakers around the world?
If the rate of neoliberal urban-policy innovation has indeed slowed (a marker of ‘late’
status, one might say) to the point of an incrementalist recycling of neo-Porterian,
neo-Floridian and (let it be said) neo-Castellsian formulations, then surely this reveals
something significant about the character of the program’s post-crisis hegemonic hold.
To recall the terms of Peter Hall’s (1993) exemplary analysis of the Keynesian rupture,
neoliberalism persists as a social ontology, as a meta-framing device and as an
overarching policy paradigm; but the game-changing paradigm-altering ‘third order’ of
policy change has not (yet) occurred. On the other hand, while there is evidence of
crisis-driven forms of first- and second-order policy change (respectively defined by Hall
as the recalibration of established policy instruments in a context of continuity in
underlying objectives, and as the adoption of new instruments of policy with the same
strategic orientation as earlier ones), these experimental maneuvers seem to be failing
to displace crisis pressures, let alone install sustainable patterns of post-crisis urban
development. Relative to the vacuity of mainstream urban policy at the present time
across North America, Europe and elsewhere, which might imply some depletion of the
creative capacities of neoliberalism, much of the new energy is coming from left-field
(e.g. the indignados, right-to-the-city movements), even as insurgents have yet to
reoccupy the urban-political terrain on a more permanent basis. The dead hand of
austerity measures continues to structure this terrain, though as a decidedly unpopular
program this would surely be more appropriately characterized as an indicator of brute
political force or domination, rather than consent or hegemony.

Critical urbanism, after the crisis


It would be unwise to extrapolate incautiously from what Don Kalb (2012: 318) has
characterized as a post-crisis ‘global mass upheaval in fragments’ to suggest that
redemptive potentially post-neoliberal patterns are crystallizing across recent flashpoints
of urban protest, from Madrid to Madison, and from Tahrir Square and the Arab
Spring to the daily eruptions of labor unrest across China. The very fact that
such popular-democratic mobilizations are being articulated ‘in fragments’, both
geographically and politically, attests to their disarticulated and still rather inchoate
character. Meanwhile, the combined forces of economic austerity and state repression
continue to circumscribe and (re)order this terrain, seriously impeding the scale-jumping
maneuvers that would be required among these dispersed sites of protest in order to
forge a broader and interurban anti-neoliberal front. Nonetheless, these signs of unrest
may still be indicative of a significant rebalancing (or perhaps an unbalancing) of
urban-political forces across quite diverse sites of political-economic contestation. The
unvarnished reassertion of state-assisted market rule after the Wall Street crash, more or
less from the top down, through austerity measures and debt-bondage nihilism, has
bluntly exposed neoliberalism’s coercive power relations and self-serving rules of the
game as never before.
As we have argued elsewhere, the dynamism of neoliberalization projects stems from
their combinatorial capacity to continually respond to endemic failures of policy vision,
design and implementation through a rapid succession of crisis-displacing strategies,
fast-policy adjustments, improvisations, workarounds and experimental reforms, often
through tactics that are stitched together eclectically across scales of governance

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(Theodore et al., 2011). Such a makeover of neoliberal urbanism is clearly occurring


in the wake of the 2007–09 financial crisis, which has seen the asymmetrical scale
politics of neoliberalization once again being recalibrated. Clearly, then, even if the
persistent churning of policies and crisis-displacement strategies within narrow
ideological parameters is all too familiar, these are new historical-geographical
conditions.
In concluding this essay, we highlight three analytical dimensions for investigating the
evolving expressions and pathways of neoliberal urbanism in the wake of the Wall Street
crash and the wave of austerity measures it has unleashed. This discussion builds upon
our previous periodization of post-1970s neoliberalization processes, and an associated
speculative outline of several possible scenarios for contemporary and future regulatory
reorganization (Brenner et al., 2010a; 2010b). Our concern here is to consider the ways
in which such an analytical orientation might inform investigations of the extremely
volatile formations of post-crisis neoliberal urbanism we have sketched in general terms
above.
A first analytical dimension centers on place-based investigations of how power
relations and regulatory ideologies, practices and institutions condition the evolution of
urban regions. It is crucial that investigations, even those that are mainly place-specific
and geographically discrete, are attuned to the multi-scalar and multi-sited nature of
neoliberal urbanism. Especially under conditions of spiraling economic crisis and
deepening austerity politics, evaluations of the sway that neoliberalism apparently has
over policy choices and repertoires in a given city-region cannot be detached from
the wider extra-local fields of policymaking, modeling and manipulation; from
considerations of the shifting institutional balance in (and discursive construction of)
policy experimentation and failure; and therefore of the relational positioning of revealed
‘local’ policy pathways, at the leading or bleeding edges, on the breaking waves or in
the backwaters. Interurban competition over jobs and investment, shared discourses
of growth and development, and the realities of increasing international economic
integration mean that even the most ‘local’ of studies must account for extra-local
influences, pressures and relationalities. This suggests the need for an always
more-than-urban understanding of the urban, extending to the analysis of specific hybrid
formations in connection, across places and scales. Just because neoliberalization does
not operate through mechanisms of unmediated cookie-cutter replication does not mean
that its local instantiations should be presented as autonomous ‘islands’ of practice.
Crucially, ‘alternatives’ too should be evaluated in and against these wider fields
of difference, not as separatist enclaves, somehow insulated from the pressures,
externalities and downdraughts of pervasive neoliberalization.
The interconnectedness of neoliberal projects prefigures a second analytical
dimension whose exploration is essential to understanding post-crisis urban governance
— namely the critical investigation of policies-in-motion across multiple sites, with a
focus on how regulatory practices and institutions achieve ‘model’ status, and circulate
and mutate between places and through distended policy networks. These concern
processes of neoliberalization as interurban phenomena, dependent upon circulatory
systems that connect cities as policymaking sites, and the concomitant movement of
techniques, discourses, models and actor-facilitators across interurban space (see Peck
and Theodore, 2010; McCann and Ward, 2011; Peck, 2012b). In recent decades, cities
have become increasingly important targets and proving grounds for neoliberal policy
experiments, in the process becoming incubators for, and generative nodes within, the
reproduction of neoliberal regimes themselves. While urban policy arenas never
resembled hermetically sealed laboratories, it can be said that they have now become
more porous than ever, as they are increasingly exposed to the influence of distant
experiments and traveling advocates, and more directly subject to the pervasive
‘soft’ influence of best-practice models. The porosity of policy fields has, in turn,
been associated with the serial reproduction and imperative adaptation of various
policy prototypes, punctuated by moments of failure and the accumulating drag of

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underperformance. City elites are confronted by intensifying pressures to act (and to be


seen to act) on urban problems, including localized poverty and unemployment, faltering
growth, environmental degradation and social inequality, and to do so in ways that
connect, pragmatically and presentationally, to dominant lines of policy development
and financing, even if the capacity to achieve meaningful leverage over these issues
routinely exceeds the scale of the urban. Urban policymaking has therefore become
‘over-responsibilized’, even as the limitations of prevailing modes of intervention
become increasingly evident. Under the threat of legitimation crisis, these conditions,
in turn, contribute to the speed-up and accelerated churn of regularly made-over,
relaunched and rebranded policies, helping to constitute a ready audience for new models
and putative ‘solutions’. This is an interurban condition.
These stressed conditions of urban-policy experimentation are sharply circumscribed
and dynamized by pressures arising from a third analytical dimension, those
macro-structural and macro-regulatory forces that shape the evolving ‘rules of the game’.
These include large-scale institutional ensembles, financial systems and monetary
arrangements, and international organizations that variously frame, formulate, finance
and sometimes even fulfill policy programs across diverse sites. The resulting rules of the
game impose powerful constraints on the scope of policy innovation and the repertoires
of realistic (and, indeed, imaginable) policy change, which in the wake of the financial
crisis have gravitated towards especially austere and instrumental rationalities:
downloading of regulatory, socioeconomic and environmental risks; devolution and
dumping of financial obligations; and further retrenchment of social-state commitments.
They are also embodied in the dull compulsion of supra-local competitive pressures and
techniques of fiscal discipline, which in turn shape the conditions of possibility for
policymaking at the urban scale, and which effectively establish the operational,
discursive and perceptive parameters of this process (see Leitner and Sheppard, 1998;
Blyth, 2008; Roy and Ong, 2011; Peck, 2012a; Theodore and Peck, 2012; Rolnik, 2013,
this issue). Under these conditions, competitive anxiety has become an entrenched
syndrome among urban elites, perversely prompting policymakers to deepen the degree
of reliance on the very same policy portfolio that was responsible for so much of the
predicament in the first place. Remaking hegemony under such conditions is a manifestly
challenging task, hence the fields of tension between recirculating neoliberal
formulation, urgently increased expectations (not to mention real needs) and the
lengthening track record of prosaic policy failures at the local scale.
From our point of view, the posture of critical urban theory must remain one
associated with a restlessly antagonistic stance towards orthodox urban formations and
their dominant ideologies, institutional arrangements, practices and societal effects. As a
critique of power and ideology, critical urban theory problematizes sites and sources of
social injustice. But more than mere description, this itself is an intervention, one that
aims to analyze the fissures and contradictions of urban formations in order to shape
insurgent theories and practices of emancipatory social change. Since it can never be
enough simply to interpret the world, studies of neoliberalism’s persistent present will
need to reclaim the radical aspirations of critical urban theory if they are to meaningfully
contribute to its transcendence. By the same token, if alternatives will have to be
constructed, in a sense, from the terrain of the neoliberalized now, then critical analyses
of the terrains of neoliberal power and practice surely have indispensible roles to play in
the formulation of heterodox forms of praxis. Even if the global crisis may have yet to
produce a systemic alternative to hegemonic forms of market rule, Neil Smith (2009)
may well have been right to suggest that neoliberalism was tumbling into an atrophic
phase, shorn of intellectual credibility and sapped of political momentum. As the power
plays of national and global elites are exposed for what they are, and as long-
metabolizing crises at the urban scale are unevenly met, at the same time, by a manifestly
vacuous policy orthodoxy and reanimated forms of street-level militancy, then perhaps
Smith (ibid.: 29) was also correct to declare that ‘the urban future is indeed radically
open again’.

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Jamie Peck (jamie.peck@ubc.ca), Department of Geography, University of British


Columbia, 1984 West Mall, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2, Canada, Nik Theodore
(theodore@uic.edu), Department of Urban Planning & Policy Program, University of
Illinois at Chicago 412 S. Peoria Street, Suite 215, MC 348, Chicago, Illinois 60607, USA
and Neil Brenner (nbrenner@gsd.harvard.edu), Graduate School of Design, Harvard
University, 48 Quincy Gund Hall, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.

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