What is critical urban theory?

Neil Brenner, "What is critical urban theory?" in CITY, 13, 2–3, 2009, 198-207.

What is critical urban theory? While this phrase is often used in a descriptive sense, to characterize the tradition of post-1968 leftist or radical urban studies, I argue that it also has determinate social–theoretical content. To this end, building on the work of several Frankfurt School social philosophers, this paper interprets critical theory with reference to four, mutually interconnected elements—its theoretical character; its reflexivity; its critique of instrumental reason; and its emphasis on the disjuncture between the actual and the possible. On this basis, a brief concluding section considers the status of urban questions within critical social theory. In the early 21st century, I argue, each of the four key elements within critical social theory requires sustained engagement with contemporary patterns of capitalist urbanization. Under conditions of increasingly generalized, worldwide urbanization, the project of critical social theory and that of critical urban theory have been intertwined as never before.


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