Review: ‘Managing the City Economy: Challenges and strategies in developing countries’

Author(s) Le-Yin Zhang
Publisher Routledge
Year 2015

This book is a most welcome contribution to those active in teaching and researching economic change in cities, as well as those designing and implementing strategies and programmes intended to impact on these urban environments. It will also hold interest for those active in organisations and institutions beyond academia and state policy making organs, in that it can assist them with generating insights into both historical and contemporary processes that impact cities of both the developed and developing world.

The book serves as something akin to a reader traversing a range of material in what is generally an accessible and engaging manner that demonstrates the author’s intimate knowledge of the subject matter. Dr. Le-Yin Zhang favours a structuralist approach, in both understanding cities and the economic processes affecting them. However, the book also gives considerable attention to other frameworks. This allows the reader to consider Zhang’s suggestions in light of competing ideas, and thus makes for an engaging read.

Zhang sets out to not only to help the reader understand the “character and dynamics of the city economy” (p. xvii), including its interaction with international processes, but also explores a wide range of approaches to “managing the city economy.” Part 1 attends to matters of context, setting out arguments about cities in processes of ongoing developing country urbanisation and global economic change. Interestingly, the second chapter also seeks to set out some ethical foundations for development and suggests an approach which tries to balance efficiency, equity and social justice and sustainability. It is argued that “this generation should leave their cities in a better state for future generations than how we find them” (p. 39). This normative imperative might jar somewhat with the views of other authors on developing country cities, for example those of AbdouMaliq Simone (1999; 2004)[1] on the social and cultural contexts of cities or Jennifer Robinson’s (2006)[2] urge for the embracing of the idea of an “ordinary” city. However, Zhang is not necessarily suggesting a process of mimicry, but rather that developing country cities “learn lessons from more developed cities’ past success and mistakes” (p. xix).

Parts 3 to 5 are very much about this “pragmatic and critical learning from theories and past experiences” (p. xix) that Zhang suggests should inform agendas for those interested in “managing city economies.” The sections traverse matters of industry structure and sector/industry-level analysis that are central to the structural transformation the author argues for. It is in appreciating the dynamics associated with cities and their journeys, from a reliance on primary production through to later dominance of secondary and then tertiary activities, that Zhang places considerable emphasis. Whilst the overwhelming thrust of these sections is around these economic development processes, Part 4 provides some follow-up to the ethics of development discussed in Chapter 2. Here a case is set our for a development agenda that attends to “cross-cutting” issues such as “Tackling urban poverty” (Chapter 11), “Exploiting a low-carbon transition” (Chapter 12), and also the somewhat ominously titled, “Dealing with the informal urban economy” (Chapter 13).

Zhang then seeks to show that in managing a long-term transition city actors, particularly those in government, can and must effectively integrate their state-led interventions with more traditional preoccupations of local governments such as municipal finance and infrastructure. The book concludes with something of a clarion call for city managers “with a sense of duty” to “look out for their growth sectors, to help consolidate mature industries that are capable of providing a large number of relatively well-paying ‘decent’ jobs, and to adopt a long-term, responsible stance towards planning, people and infrastructure development” (p. 280).

However, despite the solid case made by the author, and the clearly presented insights, there are aspects of the book that some readers might take issue with. For example, the argument made in Chapter 13 that the informal economy, despite its size in many developing country cities, offers little in the way of any useful foundations for successful economic structural change. This suggests Zhang’s avowed pragmatism is perhaps infused with a modernizing agenda that could be interpreted by city managers, already often unsympathetic to the urban poor and their informal livelihoods, to renew their regular attempts to displace informal workers with ‘efficiency’ driven infrastructure geared to some real, or even imagined, city-wide economic return. In this regard, it is somewhat ironic that one of the examples of sound public investment leadership referred to by Zhang, namely the Dube TradePort (p. 154) in the eThekwini Municipality (Durban, South Africa), was developed against the backdrop of accelerated investment for the 2010 FIFA World Cup football tournament. This investment included a concrete (although ultimately failed) attempt by the local state to evict thousands of market and street traders in the Durban inner-city in order to make way for new transport infrastructure and a shopping mall.

Furthermore, this example also suggests that Zhang’s potential heroes, the “city managers”, whom she describes as, “not only city planners and policy makers, but also intelligence gatherers, information decipherers, translators and interpreters of emerging exogenous pressures …” (p. 98), might also be other things in addition to, or instead of, the implied noble and enlightened technicians. Experience and academic research suggests that both developed and developing country city managers can often be something closer to Machiavellian princes, often participating actively in trying to sidestep, crush or help coalesce political constituencies in the flux of urban life. Over and above this, they often lack the autonomy from national states that the author cites Petrella (1991) as reporting on (p. 17). This leaves many cities with high degrees of contestation, not only of authority of one sort or another, but also around the goals of development set out in Chapter 2.

Despite these and other concerns, this book stands out as something of a unique contribution in that it makes a bold and generally successful attempt to bring a discussion of concepts and theory to an audience more used to treatment of these issues as little more than an interesting aside. In a world where practitioner-oriented popular material often eschews anything other than a superficial treatment of concepts and of structural processes, the book provides a timely reminder, to increasingly ambitious city actors, to take stock of factors beyond the superficial in their planning and development agendas associated with economic development.


Glen Robbins is an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Built Environment and Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and specialist consultant focusing on regional and local economic development, infrastructure planning and financing and trade and industrial policy.  Previously he headed up the Economic Development and City Enterprises functions in the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality (Durban).  Glen Robbins serves as a Commissioner on the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Planning Commission and the eThekwini Metropolitan City Planning Commission.  He has an M. Phil in Development Studies from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.  At present he is busy with a PhD at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam. 


[1] AbdouMaliq Simone, 1999. Thinking About African Urban Management in an Era of Globalisation. African Sociological Review, 3 (2), pages 69-98; 2004. For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.

[2] Jennifer Robinson, 2006. Ordinary Cities: Between modernity and development. Routledge, Abingdon & New York.

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