Urban Studies Beyond State Agendas

This essay departs from a relatively modest scope – it responds to the prompt “What is urban studies in different world regions?” to ask “What is urban studies in the Netherlands?” While the Netherlands is not really a world region, we draw on this smaller case, not to make universal claims about urban studies, but to suggest that it resonates with other academic contexts. Focusing on the Dutch academic environment, we want to reflect on thematic emphases and silences within the field, relating these specifically to the politics of research funding.

While the topics and methodological approaches within Dutch urban studies are varied, strong research emphases have included housing, transport and mobility systems, sustainability (with a focus on climate change adaptation), labor markets, and migration and ethnic diversity. Many researchers focusing on these topics are quite critical of government policies, pointing for instance to the urban inequalities that result from national and municipal housing policies. Examples include strong criticism of the “Rotterdamwet”, a local law that prohibits low-income individuals from moving to the city, as well as Amsterdam’s state-led gentrification policy. Despite this critical angle, urban studies has tended to be dominated by an institutional approach that takes state actors and government policy as its main field of engagement.

This institutional emphasis has its roots in relatively close working relationships between government ministries and planning agencies with the academic world. It has been strengthened by shifts within the Dutch research funding structure  , where universities are now increasingly dependent on flexible grant-based funding managed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). These competitive grants, in turn, are increasingly organized through a so-called “top sector” policy, focusing on dominant national economic sectors and requiring applicants to be public-private consortia. Other funding is earmarked to address “urgent societal problems”, including programs such as “Resilient Societies” or “Smart, Livable Cities.” “Open” research funding has been shrinking rapidly, and “valorization” (economic and societal impact) remains an important assessment criterion within the remaining programs. Given the near-total absence of national funding bodies outside of the NWO, the only important source of no-strings-attached research funding are ERC individual grants.

Viewed positively, urban researchers have little to complain about – there is no doubt that the Dutch government, and many social and corporate partners, take urban research very seriously. There is a broadly shared view that a wide range of urban issues are of urgent national concern, and that funding should be allocated to understanding and addressing these issues. From a more negative perspective, as the urban research agenda is defined nationally, in accordance with dominant political and economic interests, we suggest that the institutional closeness of urban studies has narrowed the scope of the field. As noted, there is certainly some latitude for criticism, but there is still a tendency for scholars (including ourselves) to “color within the lines”. We may often critique rather than support policy, but we tend to not stray far beyond the contours of the urban experience as these are prioritized by institutional actors.

There is as good as no research engaging with Dutch cities as postcolonial, and hardly any meaningful discussion of race in cities. There is no research on informal political systems or urban spirituality (only Islam is considered to be an urban issue). No one is studying urban joy. There are no explorations of posthumanist urbanism or experiments in interspecies urban ethnography. There is overall relatively little out-of-bounds conceptualization, very few “kooky” topics, and a limited questioning of the categories, assumptions and epistemologies that underlie governmental priorities.

A truly critical urban studies should be able to trouble dominant epistemologies, to redefine established understandings of what constitutes an “urban problem”, and to imagine “the city” and “the political” otherwise. This requires us to look beyond state agendas, even when these are central to the funding system and institutionalized in the wider academic structure.


Rivke Jaffe and Jelke Bosma

IJURR Editorial Statements

IJURR Editorial
Julie-Anne Boudreau, Matthew Gandy and Maria Kaika (2015) Volume 39.1

Reflections on the Academic and Economic Environment
Julie-Anne Boudreau and Maria Kaika (2013) Volume 37.6

IJURR: An Editorial Statement
Jeremy Seekings and Roger Keil (2009) Volume 22.3

The Origins of the Foundation for Urban and Regional Studies, or the Advantages of Owning the Title and Having Charitable Status in the Running of Journals
Chris Pickvance (1998) Volume 22.4

IJURR: Policy Statement
Patrick Le Galès, Susan Fainstein and Linda McDowell (1998) Volume 22.1

IJURR: looking back twenty-one years later
Michael Harloe, Enzo Mingione, Chris Pickvance and Edmond Preteceille (1998) Volume 22.1

Founding Editorial Statement
Michael Harloe (1977) Volume 1.1


This is an open access essay under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.