The Urban Question: Reflections on Henri Lefebvre, Urban Theory and the Politics of scale


Since the classic work of Castells (1972), the ‘urban question’ has been a focal point for debate among critical urban researchers. Against the background of contemporary debates on globalization and urban restructuring, this article argues that the urban question is currently being redefined as a scale question. The first part of the essay reconstructs the diverse scalar assumptions that were implicit within earlier rounds of debate on the urban question and argues that, since the early 1990s, urban researchers have confronted questions of scale with an unprecedented methodological self‐reflexivity. Under contemporary conditions of ‘glocalization’ scholars are systematically rethinking the relations between urban spaces and supraurban processes of capital accumulation, political regulation and social struggle. The second part of the article explores the urban question as a scale question through the lens of Henri Lefebvre’s writings on space, scale and state power. The author argues that three aspects of Lefebvre’s work are particularly relevant to the task of reconceptualizing the urban question as a scale question in the current period: (1) his notion of an ‘implosion‐explosion’ of urbanization; (2) his theorization of state spatiality; and (3) his analysis of the politics of scale. The urban remains a fundamental arena of capitalist spatiality, but its social, political and economic dynamics hinge increasingly upon its relations to a wide range of supraurban geographical scales. Lefebvre’s approach to sociospatial theory provides a particularly useful source of methodological insights for decoding the scalar dimensions of the urban question in the current era of global, national and local restructuring.