This article outlines essential concepts of the political economy approach of urban research and offers critical modifications and clarifications to some of its contentions concerning the functioning of cities as ‘strategic places’ of capital accumulation. The interrelations between contemporary capitalism and urban economic development are discussed at the scale of a transnationally extended urban system. Based on the general context of the global economic downturn, I focus on the role of cities in distinct circuits of capital, the switching of capital flows within the urban system and the different functional roles of cities within the world city network that interconnects cities both in the global North and South. I call into question the established focus of urban economic research on the role of cities as financial and service centres, arguing that cities might redirect their economic development trajectories towards ‘real economy’ activities, in contrast to relying on the disastrous development model of finance‐dominated capitalism.
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