11.489 | Fall 2005 | Graduate

The Growth and Spatial Structure of Cities


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Course Objectives

This course gives students an empirically and theoretically grounded understanding of how and why cities grow, and conversely, what might lead to their decline. We consider urban growth (and decline) in both economic and spatial terms, and with respect to the latter, we are concerned with both urban form and function. Although analytically distinct, these dynamics are strongly inter-related. Thus a principle aim is to understand under what conditions, and why, the economic and spatial expansion of cities (i.e. inter-urban dynamics such as aggregate population growth, physical sprawl, etc.) will positively or negatively affect intra-urban dynamics – ranging from housing supply, employment opportunities, land use, and the overall supply and demand for manufacturing, service, and financial activities. In addition to focusing on the historically-given political and economic processes that mediate urban growth and decline, ranging from industrialization to globalization, this course pays special attention to the key actors and institutions responsible for guiding trajectories of urban growth or decline. In general terms, we build on the premise that deep knowledge of the structures and processes responsible for urban growth and decline is essential to building capacity in citizens and urban policy-makers who seek to stem or manage urban growth or decline. Stated differently, structural conditions matter in urban outcomes; but so do agency and creative action; and our aim here is to understand the most generative (and debilitating) combinations of structure and agency.

While the predominant focus of the readings is cities of the advanced capitalist world, the course seeks to provide theoretical and analytical tools for understanding the growth and spatial structure of cities in the newly industrializing world, for cities in prosperous regions and cities in dying regions. After laying out historical and analytical foundations of the study of urban growth, the course examines urban form and function under three different modes of economic organization:

  1. Initial and sustained industrialization
  2. During periods of de-industrialization and spatial de-centralization, and
  3. When industrialization as the main motor of the national economy is eclipsed by services, high technology, the communication and information “revolution,” and other more global forms of production.

Among other important urban developments, special attention is paid to the relationships between urban growth and regional or national development; the logic of downtown development (including urban renewal); urban decline; suburbanization; and sprawl.

Student Responsibilities

Students are expected to keep up with the weekly readings and to actively participate in class discussion. This is not a lecture course, but a seminar where critical examination of readings (and the ideas and theories they posit) is intended to serve as a basis for group discussion. While most readings have social scientific rather than policy aims (i.e. explanation rather than normative action), several directed sessions at the end of the class are focused on policy propositions and planning efforts to manage urban growth and decline. However, discussions of policy and planning action need not wait until the end of the course. I encourage students to apply their real world knowledge and experience to the topics at hand, to offer correctives and complexities when necessary, and to constantly engage the tension between theory and practical action.

Students will sign up to serve as discussion leaders for at least one session during the semester. Discussion leaders’ responsibilities will be to present two key discussion questions to class participants in advance of the course meeting (by 9 AM the day of class). Also, students are responsible for writing three memos over the course of the semester, one due in Month 1, one in Month 2, and one in Month 3, that reflect on the readings or topics discussed in the course. The main requirement is a final paper, due at the end of the fall term. Students are encouraged to focus on a real city or neighborhood that is being transformed by urban growth or decline, rather than discussing more general ideas like globalization and growth, internet economy and growth, etc. A prospectus for the final paper will be due before Ses #19.


Final grades for the class are determined as follows:

Final Paper 60%
Class Participation (Including Discussion Leader) 10%
Three Memos 10% (Each)

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2005
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples