Philanthropy and the City

What is the role of philanthropic institutions in the future of cities?

At the turn of the 2020s it would hard not to argue that, from a wide range of viewpoints, philanthropy has shaped fundamentally much of our so-called ‘Urban Age’. On an international scale, many major city-based initiatives in the spotlight for the likes of climate change, resilience, culture or migration have been tightly intertwined with the intervention and support of philanthropic institutions. But what is the relations between philanthropy and cities?

This project focuses on the role of philanthropic institutions and High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) in (re)casting the future of cities through a substantial economic, political and cultural imprint, which has vastly gone underestimated in scholarship and much practice. We are interested, in particular, on the geographies the business of ‘giving’, and its underlying trends. This implies a two-fold intertwined agenda that necessarily needs to link an understanding of the business of philanthropy more in general, looking at institutional presence, shifts and variation across the world (beyond Anglo-centrism), but also at the tangible impact of wealthy individuals and families, to better appreciate how philanthropy is shaping the contemporary political economy in and of cities – and thus key questions of sustainability, equality and governance. The project takes place across three intertwined lines of inquiry.

Philanthropy and cities beyond the West

There is certainly no shortage of literature on philanthropy. Yet often this story is recounted by also sidelining the prominent and perhaps little-understood role of non-Western philanthropic institutions. This is even more the case when it comes to the role of philanthropy in cities which, if already limited in its literature and tangible analysis, has rarely engage with the place of wealthy philanthropic organizations and HNWI in, for instance, the Middle East, South and South-East Asia or Latin America all but scrupulously discussed. At the same time, philanthropic entities that do not conform to Western organisational set ups, as well as family philanthropies in the likes of Hong Kong, India and Singapore, and many high net worth individuals in the Global South, have been carved important roles in urban development the world over. This strand of the project aims to rebalance the global geography of ‘urban’ philanthropy and engage a variety of institutions from different geographical backgrounds to understand how philanthropy can contribute to a socially inclusive transformative agenda for cities.

Philanthropy and urban governance

On a local scale, individual gifts, personal donations and philanthropic enterprises have been casting and recasting the shape of material and social development in many cities the world over. Yet again the evidence available to detail how internationally philanthropy is shaping cities internationally. Critically, international gifts, investments and grants by philanthropies and HNWI been important drivers of change in the way many cities operate: numerous foundation have become key ‘partners’ in shaping major urban policymaking processes locally but also in supporting, as well as feeding directly into global agenda-setting processes like the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on climate change. So, what is the impact of philanthropy on the way cities are governed today? This strand of the project puts a particular emphasis on the shifts and influence of philanthropy on both local and international spheres of urban governance.

Arts-based philanthropy and urban development

One of the ‘urban’ aspects of philanthropy that has received less attention from scholars is the role of HNWI in the cultural economy of cities. For this purpose, we are looking at the ways in which HNWI have been driving the cultural agenda of cities within the context of new forms of philanthropy and urban governance. Through an interdisciplinary approach, this research seeks to make an important contribution to current debates in cultural geography and museum studies, and to help fill a significant knowledge gap in the fields of urban geography and urban studies, particularly in our understanding of the dynamics of private investments in cultural institutions and the political economy of cities.

Recent outputs

Fuentenebro, P. and Acuto, M. (2021) ‘The gifted city: Setting a research agenda for philanthropy and urban governance’, Urban Studies. 16 July 2021.

Fuentenebro, P. (2020).  Will philanthropy save us all? Rethinking urban philanthropy in a time of crisis. Geoforum.

Project team

Person Position Phone Email
Michele Acuto Centre Director
Pablo Fuentenebro Alonso Postdoctoral Research Fellow in International Urban Politics