Conceptual approaches to service provision in cities throughout history

Michael Smith, Timothy Dennehy, April Kamp-Whittaker, Benjamin W. Stanley, Barbara L. Stark, Abigail York

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


All cities, from the distant past to the present, provide services for their residents, but the nature and level of urban services vary widely, as do the providers. How are we to understand this variation? We examine the major theoretical and conceptual approaches to urban services, and find that none is sufficiently comprehensive to explain patterns of service provision in all types of cities: public choice theory, co-production, critical theory, urban political ecology, collective action theory, and social integration. We use two premodern cities – Zanzibar and Tikal – to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of these theories. A major challenge is to account for both central administrative control of services and more generative, bottom-up service provision.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1574-1590
Number of pages17
JournalUrban Studies
Issue number8
StatePublished - Jun 2015


  • collective action
  • comparative urbanism
  • inequality
  • public choice
  • urban services

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Urban Studies


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