John Friedman’s Theories of Economic Planning

John Friedman was one of the pioneers of urban planning department in a few American Universities including in UCLA. He recently passed away in June 2017 but had an indelible impact on Urban Planning in the States and worldwide. He was an Honorary and Emeritus professor in Canada and USA. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1955 and was well regarded for his authoritative contribution in planning theory. He was known for his philosophies in economic growth, development studies and industrial policy. In 1986 he became famous for his theory “World City Hypothesis” which draws on the industrialized cities of the 1980s and the lead towards post-industrialization. Although he was an urban planner, he cites major geographers and anthropologists who studied economic development such as David Harvey and Manuel Castells with their revolutionary concepts of urbanization.

According to Friedman, the concept of a city was “a product of specific social forces set in motion by capitalist relations of production. The class conflict became central to the new view of how cities evolved.” This was highly influenced by the advent of factories and labor based economies in the 19th Century. 

John Friedman - Urban Planner
John Friedmann, 91, was the father of urban planning at UCLA Source:

World Economy and Global Connections

When Friedman first conducted his research in urban planning, he focussed on economic planning and development. As evident, during the period of his research, industrialization was the prominent means of development in most cities in the West particularly UK and USA which were the basis of production through factories and manufacturing. Although this later became the case in China and India in the 20th Century, USA was making use of cheap labor from developing nations for their benefit and economic reasons. With the advent of Information Technology, industrialization reduced significantly and other forms of economic development including a knowledge-based society began to grow. However, Friedman mostly focuses on the initial production and labor market of industrialization. He suggested that industrialization will lead to other forms of benefits in a growing economic market which will lead to a global connection between cities including mobility of labor which is the concept behind ‘a world city’. 

Related: Jane Jacob’s vision for cities

The World City Hypothesis

In his framework of World City Hypothesis, Friedman indicates that the world is coming closer together closely breaking the political borders and social isolations between countries and cities. This is almost the case in today’s 21st Century of post-industrial era. But what Friedman suggests is that even in the industrial era the mobility between countries was widespread and common compared to previous decades. This gave birth to a more globalized economy and widespread social connections between countries. People throughout the world were speaking with each other and became more connected through the labor market and industrialization was also more widespread throughout many countries around the world.

This is better understood through Friedman’s own words in his research paper when he states: “The World City Hypothesis is about spatial organization of the new international division of labor. It helps us understand what happens in the major global cities of the world economy.” Here, he was referring to the close global connection between major cities around the world. This industrial era led to many changes in political situations and immigration laws. For instance, with trade agreements, more cities had an opportunity to connect through business models and different types of labor markets which lead to a ‘complex spatial hierarchy.’ As the USA was and is still the most influential country in the world as a leading economic force worldwide, Friedman’s work as a professor in the USA was very relevant not only theoretically but also practically in the growing change of economic structures.  One negative consequence that Friedman states in the World City Hypothesis is the ‘spatial and class polarization.’ Although people would assume that class structures would decrease with more globalized economies, Friedman indicates that with the commercialized economy, class structures would be polarized, causing many negative and positive impacts.

If this article has arisen your curiosity about this framework, you can read more about Friedman’s World City Hypothesis in his research paper, which is widely cited, in this link.


In conclusion, it is clear that John Friedman had a wide interest in economic planning and processes. Like David Harvey, he has contributed widely to the field of globalization and labor markets. This article mostly focuses on his popular model of World City Hypothesis that many people in today’s world might not be aware of, particularly urban planners. His hypothesis is still relevant in today’s society which is still divided into class and political structures. New economies are emerging that have given a rise to a higher middle class around the world, decreasing the previously predominant gap between the rich and the poor. Some of Friedman’s notable books are Planning in the Public Domain: From Knowledge to Action; Empowerment, the Politics of Alternative Development; and China’s Urban Transition.

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