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White elephant urbanism and the temporal politics of elite capture

Authors: John Lauermann*, City University of New York
Topics: Urban Geography, Urban and Regional Planning
Keywords: urban political economy, elite capture, mega-projects, New York
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper analyzes the political economy of ‘white elephants’, grandiose infrastructure projects that are overbuilt, become prohibitively expensive to maintain, and fall into disrepair or abandonment. City leaders embrace these projects despite concerns over practicality and overwhelming evidence of planning risk. This paper examines why city leaders choose to pursue such risky projects in spite of historical evidence, political opposition, and common sense. I argue that white elephants often result from elite capture of the planning process, a capture facilitated by the complex temporalities of mega-projects. Elite interests are able to commandeer the planning process under cover provided by the temporal gaps between the planning stage (when utopian visions are grand and rarely contested), the implementation stage (when a growing sense of urgency to deliver creates a state of political exception), and the legacy stage (after the original boosters of a project have left office and political accountability is difficult to pursue). This is illustrated with a study of mega-project planning in New York City, exploring elite capture of major infrastructure projects in the city’s recent ‘luxury’ real estate construction boom. The paper contributes to debates on the urban political economy of infrastructure, comparing utopian visions to planning realities across projects’ temporal frames, and analyzing how elite capture shapes infrastructural path dependences.

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