Nick R. Smith is a scholar of urban transformation and planning. His work explores the city as an institution and planning as a process of institution building. Combining the perspectives of new institutional economics, development anthropology, and urban sociology, Smith investigates how urbanization inscribes the “rules of the game” into the space of the city. Using a combination of ethnography, spatial analysis, and archival research, he primarily pursues these processes through investigations of peri-urban villages—contexts of instability, liminality, and rapid change where new forms of urbanization are produced and contested.
Over the past decade, Smith’s work has focused on peri-urban China, where he has conducted extensive research on the development and planning of village communities. Based on this research, he is currently preparing a manuscript, entitled “Urban Furnace: The Making of a Chinese City,” which investigates an epochal shift in Chinese urban policy that aims for the near-total urbanization of China’s territory and population. The book argues that this radical new policy constitutes an unprecedented expansion of party-state power and an existential threat to China’s villages. For decades, social justice in rural China has been based on the egalitarian redistribution of rights and resources within each village. The new urbanization program promises to rewrite this social contract, uprooting existing village institutions and ensuring perpetual dependence on the redistributive justice of the party-state. But the reshuffling of urban-rural relations also creates openings for village actors to contest the party-state’s hegemony. The book investigates these differing visions for the just ordering of Chinese society as they intersect in the urbanization of an experimental village in Chongqing.
In his current research, Smith is investigating Shekou, one of the first industrial zones to be established during China’s post-1978 reform era. Used as a laboratory for testing and adapting international approaches to urban development and governance, Shekou offers an opportunity to understand the origins and logics of widespread Chinese development and planning practices. Shekou's history suggests that China's rapid urbanization may be rooted in China's short-lived efforts at political liberalization in the early 1980s rather than the economic liberalization of the late 1980s and 1990s. Smith is also developing new comparative research on village responses to rapid socio-spatial transformation in East and Southeast Asia.
Smith is currently Assistant Professor of Urban Studies at Yale-NUS College, an autonomous liberal arts college within the National University of Singapore. At Yale-NUS, he teaches a variety of courses in Urban Studies and the Common Curriculum, including Urbanization in China, Urban Theory, Urban Studio, Key Debates in Urban Planning and Policy, Community Development, and Modern Social Thought.
Smith received his A.B. (East Asian Studies), A.M. (Architecture), and Ph.D. (Urban Planning) from Harvard University. He has also held visiting positions at Oxford University (Oxford China Centre), Chongqing University (Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning), and Renmin University (History). Smith’s work has been supported by the National Science Foundation (USA), the Fulbright Scholarship, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Kaifeng Foundation, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, the Ministry of Education (PRC), and the Ministry of Science and Technology (PRC). He is the current recipient of the JY Pillay Fellowship. In 2011 and 2012, Smith served as Secretary of the International Association for China Planning. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Urban China Research Network.