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21 | 2020
Commodity flows and urban spaces

Guest editors: Elke Beyer, Anke Hagemann, and Philipp Misselwitz

Contemporary production of urban space is increasingly shaped by the circulation of people, information, money and goods across the planet. Urbanization cannot be adequately understood without considering the relatedness of places on multiple scales, but surprisingly,  the interaction of urban spaces with global systems of manufacturing and distributing goods has remained understudied in relational urban research. Addressing this theoretical and empirical knowledge gap, the Special Feature collates new research and theory contributions exploring interdependencies between the manufacturing and circulation of commodities and transformations of urban space. Our aim is to initiate a critical conceptual debate on urban research from the vantage point of commodity flows and transnational production networks.

As industrial production for global markets is dispersed to an ever higher degree across various geographies, it causes steadily expanding physical movements of materials and goods. Spatial divisions of labour, fragmented production relations and selective connectivity have triggered complex spatial transformation processes and, thus, need to be understood as crucial driving forces of global urbanisation dynamics. They are manifest in most diverse architectural and infrastructural arrangements and the arrival of new spatial typologies, from small sweatshops and trading hubs in informally built-up areas to sprawling industrial districts in peri-urban regions, to the gated enclaves of export processing zones or logistics hubs. How the actual sites, routes and transnational spatialities of global commodity production and distribution are constituted, poses many challenging and yet understudied questions for urban research that this Special Feature engages with: What kind of places do commodities traverse in their making? How can urban research engage with the multiplicity and geographical fragmentation of interrelated production sites? How are local urbanisation dynamics and urban forms shaped by the manufacturing and circulation of goods – and how do specific places in turn affect these processes? Which actors initiate and stabilise the positioning of specific localities in global production networks? What kind of new local-global arrangements, practices and forms of agency are being formed and how do they influence design, planning, and governance processes? How do they affect local contestations around issues of equity and social cohesion? Ultimately, how can the wider urban impacts of global commodity production and circulation be captured conceptually and empirically?

Geographers, economists and sociologists have proposed various approaches to explore the fragmented and dispersed nature of production and circulation. An extensive literature based on Global Commodity Chains (GCC), Global Value Chains (GVC) and Global Production Networks (GPN) frameworks studies value creation and power relationships in complex firm networks. Research in the field of cultural geography and anthropology on Commodity Circuits and Material Culture proposes to ‘follow the things’ (Appadurai 1986, 5) and their meaning across diverse cultural contexts and urban locations. Only few attempts have been made to link the study of commodity flows and urban research. Scholars have identified potential common ground between the literatures of Global Commodity Chains and World City Networks (Parnreiter 2003, Brown et al. 2010), between Global Commodity Chains and transnational urban research (Krätke et al. 2012, Parnreiter 2012), between ‘follow-the-thing’-approaches and small-scale urban ethnography (Knowles 2014, Belguidoum and Pliez 2015), or between translocal commodity circulation and spatial urban analyses (LeCavalier 2016, Hagemann 2015). Systematic analysis, however, of how commodity circulation affects the built environment and urban transformation processes has been highlighted as a theoretical and empirical knowledge gap by various researchers (Krätke et al. 2012, Kelly 2013, Phelps 2017, Kleibert and Horner 2018). Thus, a key objective of this Special Feature is to address global commodity flows and production networks as a new perspective in the study of urban spaces.

The Special Feature introduces a cross-disciplinary spectrum of theoretical positions and current empirical research from emerging scholars from different fields of geography, urban studies, architecture and planning. Contributions address how very diverse urban and peri-urban production settings and logistics spaces across the planet interact with the processing and movement of commodities from manufacturing to distribution and recycling. They focus on the relationship between global commodity circulation and the built environment as a significant expansion and enrichment of previous research debates. This perspective substantiates a multi-local and multi-scalar perception of places usually considered separately, and guides our view to overlooked places and inconspicuous urban impacts of globalization (Articulo 12|2015). By mapping the urban spaces and multiple actors of transnational economies the authors contribute to a better understanding how these economies may reconfigure and reproduce processes of uneven development (Werner 2016). Moreover, they illustrate how multi-local research along evolving production networks responds in a ground-breaking way to the challenge of a conceptually new comparative urban research “across divergent urban experiences” (Robinson 2011), as well as across conventional distinctions of urban centres and non-urban hinterlands (Brenner and Schmid 2015). Thus, the Special Feature provides much needed groundwork for research beyond disciplinary limitations, elaborating and bringing together innovative conceptual frameworks for bridging the gap between the literatures on commodity flows and urban studies.


Appadurai A. (ed.) 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Belguidoum S, Pliez O. 2015. Yiwu: The Creation of a Global Market Town in China. Articulo – Journal of Urban Research 12.

Brenner N, Schmid C. 2015. Towards a New Epistemology of the Urban? City 19 (2–3): 151-182.

Brown E, Derudder B, Parnreiter C, Pelupessy W, Taylor PJ, Witlox F. 2010. World City Networks and Global Commodity Chains: Towards a world-systems’ integration. Global Networks 10 (1) 12-34.

Hagemann A. 2015. From Flagship Store to Factory: Tracing the Spaces of Transnational Clothing Production in Istanbul. Articulo – Journal of Urban Research 12.

Kelly PF 2013. Production Networks, Place and Development: Thinking through Global Production Networks in Cavite, Philippines. Geoforum 44: 82-92.

Kleibert JM, Horner R. 2018. Geographies of Global Production Networks, In R Kloosterman, V Mamadouh, P Terhorst (eds.) Handbook on Geographies of Globalization. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing: 222-234.

Knowles C. 2014. Flip-Flop: A Journey Through Globalisation’s Backroads. London, PlutoPress.

Krätke, S., Wildner, K., and Lanz, S. (2012): The Transnationality of Cities: Concepts, Dimensions and Research Fields. An Introduction. In: Transnationalism and Urbanism. New York u.a.: Routledge, 1–30

LeCavalier, J. (2016): The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press

Parnreiter, C. (2003): Global City Formation in Latin America: Socioeconomic and Spatial Transformations in Mexico City and Santiago de Chile. GaWC Research Bulletin 103,

Parnreiter, C. (2012): Conceptualizing Transnational Urban Spaces: Multicentered Agency, Placeless Organizational Logics, and the Built Enviroment. In: S. Krätke, K. Wildner, and S. Lanz (eds.): Transnationalism and Urbanism. New York u.a.: Routledge, 91–110

Phelps, N. (2017): Interplaces: An Economic Geography of the Inter-urban and International Economies. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Robinson, J. (2011): Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35/1, 1–23

Werner, M. (2016): Global Production Networks and Uneven Development: Exploring geographies of devaluation, disinvestment, and exclusion. Geography Compass, 10/11, 457–469

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