Exploring America's Water Crisis: Austerity Urbanism and Narratives of the Financialization of Black-Majority Cities

  • Sarah Phinney

Student thesis: Phd


Exploring America's Water Crisis: Austerity Urbanism and Narratives of the Financialization of Black-Majority Cities, investigates the relationship between municipal finance, governance, and uneven racialized development across and within U.S cities. Through a comparative analysis of Baltimore, Detroit, and St. Louis, I employ qualitative methods to examine how the emergence of financialized austerity urbanism as a mode of governance magnifies racialized patterns of uneven development, particularly regarding the United States' ageing urban water and sewerage systems. The project combines qualitative methods of household narrative interviews, semi-structured expert interviews, and participant observation to explore each city's effort to finance a court-ordered Environmental Protection Agency consent decree on their abating infrastructure. My qualitative analysis demonstrates that Black-majority U.S cities have become more reliant on the financialization of debt to finance water and sewer infrastructure following the decline of federal funding beginning in 1977 and deregulation of large parts of the financial industry in 2000. One of the consequences of this is that Black-majority cities employ disciplinary financial rules and routines around debt collection when issuing loans in the bond market, a process which has led to infrastructure inequalities through mass water shut offs. Field research reveals that Black-majority cities under austerity encounter complex financial arrangements in their search for infrastructural funding that has produced a crisis of water affordability and water insecurity. In this dissertation, I also show the innerworkings of the racialization of municipal finance through the speculative financing tools each city uses, the politics of municipal bond market around debt collection practices and the everyday experiences of water and sewerage disparities. In doing so, I present emerging ways in which financialized austerity governance is rearticulating racial hierarchies in the form of infrastructure inequalities. Austerity urbanism, I argue, is motivated by logics of financialization -- which is both a mode of accumulation, and significantly, works through urban geographies of racial capitalism. My research demonstrates an important comparative approach for working across and through the fields of urban studies, political economy, and geographies of race and racialization.
Date of Award31 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorCristina Temenos (Supervisor) & Kevin Ward (Supervisor)


  • austerity urbanism
  • financialization
  • infrastructures
  • racial capitalism

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