Infrastructural Statecraft and the Rise of Just-in-Time Urbanism

By Boris Vormann, Freie Universität Berlin

Containerization has led international trade to triple since the mid-1970s. This massive expansion and deepening of exchange networks would have been unthinkable without the construction of material transportation infrastructures in the world’s metropolitan agglomerations. From the relocation of New York City’s port activities to New Jersey to the construction of entire logistics cities such as Nanhui New City in China: For flows of containerized cargo to circulate around the globe in ever longer and more complex supply chains, logistics hubs needed to be built in new geostrategic locations, city rivers needed to be dredged and bridges heightened. Sediment by infrastructural sediment, the urban logistics landscapes of today are reminders of our economies’ dependence on the seamless circulation of resources and commodities.


Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, 2004.

Urbanists have for a long time overlooked this very material side of urbanization due, in part, to a pronounced interest in the financialization of capitalism—not so much in its changing patterns of production and consumption. Blocking many an urbanist’s view from the physical enabling structures of globalization, this dominant view has been complicit in making the postindustrial, smart city and its promises for the good life appear plausible and just. On the redeveloped waterfronts of Hamburg, Sydney, and Capetown, the sustainable city of the future indeed seems within reach.

And still, the rise of globally integrated production networks has been intricately linked to the transformation of economic geographies: just-in-time production has recreated the city in its image. As commodities ranging from cars to orange juice to modular homes are shipped from their point of production to the point of sale, they pass through and depend on the urban hubs and bottlenecks of international trade, in turn reshaping the physical layout and the multiscalar governance logics of global- and mega-cities.

Although context matters, the agenda behind the restructuring of urban logistics hubs has been the same around the world: to facilitate the frictionless circulation of global trade flows. In my last book I examine how changing production networks have shaped socio-spatial arrangements and urban imaginaries of North America’s global logistics cities since the collapse of the Fordist era. New York City, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Montréal serve as case studies in that book to better understand how logistics infrastructures have been relocated to accommodate new flows of goods and people after the mid-1970s, how this has led to a postindustrial reinvention of cities—and how, at the same time, social, environmental, and security costs of global production networks have been shifted to the public and its weakest constituencies.

One of the book’s main arguments is that the imaginaries of urban progress staged on the post-industrial waterfronts of these cities—Vancouver’s Canada Place on Burrard Inlet shown below being just one example among many—belie the very unsustainable processes that are actually necessary to produce and maintain these sites. These more hidden processes are spatially and politically detached from city life, but they are its indispensable support structures. Roberts Bank Terminal 2, built on an artificial island some 30 kilometers southwest of Vancouver’s post-industrial waterfront, is one of the most illustrative example of this seeming disconnect between physical trade and postindustrial urbanism that has become a defining feature of metropolitan areas around the world.


Canada Place on Burrard Inlet, Vancouver. Photo by Boris Vormann

What struck me when I completed the book was that, despite dominant free market rhetoric in urban planning and development discourses, the state continued to play a pivotal role on various levels of government in producing this type of frictionless, just-in-time urbanism. The state remains the key actor in attracting flows, securing investments and mitigating market failure in today’s metropolises and along their outward supply chains. Yet, we know little about how states create and sustain coherent sets of large-scale urban transportation infrastructures—and how in turn these infrastructural regimes shape economies, political institutions, and urbanization patterns. Social scientists and urbanists do not systematically understand the multi-scalar politics of these regimes and hardly begin to grasp the social and political implications of global production networks. Above all, there is a lack of empirical and theoretical knowledge of the political actors and institutions that have made material globalization possible.

Even though debates on both the role of the state in globalization and on urban infrastructures have seen renewed interest in past years, these fields rarely communicate, creating considerable lacunae in the ways we interpret globalization and urbanization. Rewards for research that integrated these two fields would be high. In fact, to rethink globalization and urbanization processes through the lens of persistent state work, so pivotal in building and maintaining the infrastructures of growing commodity circuits, could help students of globalization and urbanization kill two birds with one stone.

First, contributing to state theory and comparative research on federalism and multi-level governance, such a project would complicate commonly held views on globalization and the vanishing state, by shifting the view back from the free market to the nation-state and its capacities, legitimations, and interventions. Departing from more traditional accounts of the effects of globalization and financialization on state structures, such a project would recenter its focus on the production of physical trade networks. The analytical lens that urban logistics infrastructures provide could create a unified horizon of intelligibility for social scientists, allowing for cross-national and historical comparisons.

While there has been recent rejuvenation of older debates in state theory that points out that the declining state is more a normative inclination than an empirical observation (see e.g. Mariana Mazzucato’s outstanding work on the entrepreneurial state), overall arguments for state persistence and state transformation remain piecemeal. Those who argue that the state persists, tend to overemphasize continuity in the global political economy. They would make claims about the intervention of the state that are no doubt valid, but that provide us with a relatively static understanding of statecraft under globalization. Their emphasis on denationalization, finance capital, and the military has provided a fertile ground for rethinking the state, but it does not imply a coherent analytic frame of state patterns of intervention that is so urgently lacking in both more historically institutionalist and neoliberal accounts of the state. The state politics of circulation typologized through what I have begun to call infrastructural statecraft provides precisely such a heuristic. And it offers a blueprint for re-thinking urbanization and its variegated histories.

Second, then, this type of research would make an important intervention in the fields of urban history and urban political economy. Most of the large-scale transportation infrastructures that make globalization possible are located in or close to today’s major city-regions. They have been built in different rounds of investment, catering in turn to the needs of the steamship era, the automobile, and the container ship. Conceptually, these infrastructural regimes are not entirely new to the field. They can be traced through the literature on long waves and technological innovation and are also reflected in the periodizations used in transportation geography. These conceptual parallels across research fields and traditions need to be brought together to help us identify and pinpoint sets of co-dependent material infrastructures that are the backbone of economic regimes for a given period of time and that have inscribed the logics of logistics in urban space.

Urban studies has recently been reoriented in important ways, as more social scientists have begun to shift their attention from global cities as the financial command and control centers to infrastructures as the support systems of modern large-scale social organization (e.g., Calhoun, Sennett and Shapira 2013; Burchardt and Höhne 2015). As such, some authors have pointed out the limitations of much of the dominant research traditions in urban studies that focus only on the local scale, fixated narrowly on the face-to-face interactions it facilitates among individuals.


Costs of Global Trade: Diesel Pollution from Trucks and Ships. Photo by Boris Vormann.

The understanding of urbanization proposed here takes the analysis to a different scale. Transportation infrastructures integrate social relations and political institutions at multiple scales and across national territories, such that urbanization processes extend well beyond the city proper. The suggested research program mounts critiques formulated in the debate on planetary urbanization by spelling out how the intricate dynamics of urbanization and globalization processes materialize beyond symbolic interaction and performance on the local scale, and how they are both articulated and produced through state action.

State work differs according to historical context, of course. Think, for instance of the imperial phase of US nation-building during the progressive era, where the federal state built the Panama Canal and leveraged both the capital investments and the colonial costs necessary to build transpacific trade networks. These initial costs and imperial projects differ much from the work of the state in Research and Development (R&D) during the Cold War era which facilitated the containerization of trade, or the more opaque work of the state in the 21st century, where public-private partnerships, subnational and city-regional infrastructural alliances as well as systematic policies of non-regulation of environmental pollution and labor standards complicate our understanding of patterns of state intervention.

The attempt of fathoming these multiple dimensions of infrastructural statecraft will require the contribution of many. But this work can build on research in critical logistics to add a state-theoretical perspective to a burgeoning field that lacks such a vantage point, despite its promising early attempts to link urbanization and global production networks. This perspective would help us explain variation in patterns and formulas for infrastructure investments over time and North South-divides and thereby open up such questions to broader concerns of urban historians who seek to understand differing urbanization patterns in a longue durée perspective.

By breaking down the barriers between these thriving fields and thus pushing beyond the best insights they offer, such research will help formulate a critical vocabulary that will open paths to further interdisciplinary work on the role of key infrastructural states in making global trade possible on dizzyingly expanding scales. The combined research field it seeks to open will not only give back to the fields it draws from and provide us with a systematic understanding of past patterns of urbanization and its political actors beyond the city, but will also lay some conceptual groundwork for thinking about democracy in the decisions to build the roads we travel in the future.


Boris Vormann is a professor in urban political economy and political science at Freie Universität’s John-F.-Kennedy Institute for North American Studies and an associated researcher at the Chaire de Recherche du Canada en Études Québécoises et Canadiennes (CRÉQC), Université du Québec à Montréal. His most recent books are Global Port Cities in North America: Urbanization Processes and Global Production Networks from Routledge (2015) and a handbook on politics and policy in the United States for a German-speaking audience (Springer VS, 2016). Vormann received the 2015 Fulbright American Studies Award from the German Fulbright Commission and the German Association for American Studies. His current project examines the role of the state in building the urban infrastructures of expanding global trade networks.

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