Kaleidoscopic Indebtedness: Examining the Geographies of American Municipal Borrowing

Authors: Mark Davidson*, Clark University
Topics: Urban Geography, Political Geography, Economic Geography
Keywords: urban, debt, urban politics, entrepreneurialism, borrowing
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


For the last five decades or so, American cities have been engaged in an inter-urban competition. With higher levels of US government reforming their fiscal relationship with city government, American cities have needed to become financial entrepreneurs. One of the most significant consequences of this shift has been a growth of borrowing by city governments. Inflation adjusted average per capita municipal debt has grown from $3,705 in 1977 to $6,846 in 2015. At the national scale, the “neoliberal” system of urban governance has therefore been sustained by a continued growth of indebtedness. This paper examines the compositions and geographies of municipal debt across the United States. First, the various types of municipal debt issued in the United States are explored, showing that certain types of debt have been chiefly responsible for growing municipal indebtedness. Second, the geographical variability of municipal indebtedness across American cities is illustrated. Our argument is that there are multiple, overlapping geographies of indebtedness involving a range of risky financial instruments. These instruments combine and interact to produce a varied urban landscape of indebtedness. So, it becomes important to understand how the debt is stacked up, since cities with similar amounts of total debt can have very different exposures to financial risk. In conclusion, the paper reflects on how the illustrated complex compositions and geographies of municipal debt can inform existing conceptualizations of contemporary urban governance.

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