Research News

New book co-authored by UB sociologist explores how cities are changing

Houston skyline.

A new book by UB sociologist Kevin T. Smiley looks at urban trends in Houston (shown here) and Copenhagen, and the different outcomes in the two cities.


Published April 12, 2018 This content is archived.

“Sometimes we think about our cities more homogeneously than they actually are. ”
Kevin Smiley, assistant professor
Department of Sociology

Thinking critically about cities and the social mechanisms that underwrite them provides people with the power to influence the places where they live and work.

The possibility for change ultimately rests in recognizing the roots of the system and how each city is comprised of elements that include unique histories, spaces and policies, according to Kevin T. Smiley, assistant professor in UB’s Department of Sociology. Smiley is co-author of a new book, “Market Cities, People Cities: The Shape of our Urban Future” (NYU Press), with Michael Oluf Emerson, provost and professor of urban studies at North Park University in Chicago.

“We tell people a remarkable story in this book about the kinds of cities they might want to live in,” says Smiley, an expert in urban and environment sociology.

The book was born out of the authors’ time in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Houston, Texas.

Smiley was a graduate student at Rice University in Houston, where Emerson is a Kinder Fellow at Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. The authors were studying Houston, and when Emerson went to Copenhagen for additional research, Smiley joined him for a semester abroad that provided insights that helped give rise to the book.

“We were witnessing, in Houston, a lot of the same urban trends we knew to be characteristic of cities all across the world, but the outcomes in Copenhagen were dramatically different,” says Smiley. “We were struck by the differences, by the contrasts that greeted us in everyday life and in our analysis.

“Simply put, sometimes we think about our cities more homogeneously than they actually are.”

As Smiley and Emerson explain, cities manifest their differences in such a way that puts them into two distinct categories: market cities and people cities.

A free market approach characterizes the market city. It’s individualistic-minded in culture and thinking, with an open housing market and less commitment to the environment and greater social and economic inequalities.

A people city has collective-minded policies filtered through regional governance and structured tax systems. Inequalities are narrow and there exists a commitment toward keeping those inequalities attenuated.

Most cities fall somewhere in between those two types and are heading in one direction or the other, but Houston and Copenhagen represent two ends of a spectrum and by highlighting each of them, the authors say they’ve come as close to each end of the spectrum as possible.

“There is a fight for the soul of the city right now about whether to open it up more to markets or control those forces in favor of the people city model,” says Smiley. “All cities deal with the pangs of growing inequalities, but market cities and people cities deal with these issues in remarkably different ways.

“Houston is taking a free market approach to housing with the idea that by building more housing the sheer supply will help engender a more inexpensive and fair housing market,” he says. “But Copenhagen has a regulatory approach where it has rent controls for nine out every 10 city apartments combined with other initiatives to keep property values under control.”

Environmental concerns also reflect those different mindsets.

Both cities are taking steps to address climate change, but the approaches differ greatly.

“Houston’s municipal government is energetic about changing the functions of the government itself by building green, but the government is not regulating private industry,” Smiley says. “In Copenhagen, the government’s reach is far wider, not just within itself, but through its encouragement of residential and commercial environmental programs.”

But what approach is better? Are market cities or people cities better suited to address the future demands of global realities?

“We leave that to the reader,” Smiley says. “We use the last chapter of our book to highlight the challenges that are facing each type of city and how readers might think about the reforms necessary to meet those challenges.”