All posts by arieae

The Rise of Progressive Cities in Asia in a Global Urban Age

The Rise of Progressive Cities in Asia in a Global Urban Age

Date & time
25 November 2014, 15:30 – 17:00 hrs

Leiden University. Academiegebouw, Room 02. Rapenburg 73, Leiden

The lecture
Asia’s rapid urban transition is adding a new level of governance below the level of the nation-state as cities are fast becoming the locus of public decision making over a broad array of concerns about human well-being and livelihoods, environmental sustainability, and social life. Cities are also becoming more socially and culturally diverse, magnifying issues of inclusion in a global age of rising inequalities and high levels of economic and political turbulence. In this context, even within the same national setting, local governments exhibit strikingly different capacities to contribute to human flourishing for all who reside in cities. More specifically, as political reform in Asia proceeds with elected local government appearing in previously authoritarian political settings, progressive urban governments are selectively rising from political coalitions that are able to go beyond populist platforms to successfully pursue policies of redistribution, inclusion and creative engagement of residents in the life of the city. This presentation explores 5 questions about the rise of progressive cities in Asia:

(1) what is a progressive city
(2) what are the drivers of the rise of progressive cities
(3) how are they formed in specific cases
(4) in what ways are they being effective (or not)
(5) what are their prospects for the future?

The speaker
Mike Douglass is Professor and Leader of the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at the Asia Research Institute 
and Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, where he teaches and does research on cities in Asia. He is Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning and former Director of the Globalization Research Center, University of Hawaii. His Ph.D. is in Urban Planning from UCLA. He has been a consultant on urban policy and planning for major international development and donor agencies as well as national and local governments in Asia. His current research focuses on three areas: the vernacular city, spaces of hope, and disaster governance in Asia. Recent books include: Globalization, the Rise of Civil Society and Civic Spaces in Pacific Asia CitiesConnected Cities: Histories, Hinterlands, Hierarchies and Networks, and Building Urban Communities: The Politics of Civic Space in Asia.


CityPossible III Film Festival


What is the possible city? For the third time, the CityPossible Film Festival brings together a collection of short films that allows us to imagine the breadth of possibilities to make better cities, showcasing stories of people who have joined together to resist the loss of their life-spaces and to remake the city through their own visions of what could be. With current urban development trajectories that encourage commercialization and unfettered capitalism pushing cities to become engines of growth rather than theatres of social life, meaningful communities are challenged to find space, time, and resources diverted to focus on lifestyle and consumption within placeless architectures. From the street corner to the metropolis, these films inspire us as we celebrate the human spirit through cinema.

6 November 2014, Thursday
6:00 – 10:00 pm
NTUC Auditorium, Level 7,
1 Marina Boulevard, Singapore 018989

Registration info and full program available here. 


 6:00 – 6:05 pm                   WELCOME AND INTRODUCTION
6:05 – 6:15 pm                   WELCOME REMARKS FROM YOUNG NTUC
6:15 – 8:00 pm                   PART I
Last Summer in Berlin Mitte | Alessandro Busa
The World’s Tallest Slum | Vocativ
New Housing for Bangkok Slum Residents | Next City
Georgetown: The Story of Becoming | Community Architects Network
A Loud Color | Brent Joseph
Do Not Blame the Sea | The Perennial Plate
Thailand’s Sea Gypsies | Giorgio Taraschi
Do Robots Have Souls? | Digital Global Mind
Valley of Dolls | Fritz Schumann
Kolor Kathmandu | Suraj Ratna Shakya
Hong Lim Park | Henry Mochida
Yang Ketu7uh | WatchDoc
8:00 – 8:20 pm                   INTERMISSION | Light snacks will be provided.
Blues 77 is Singapore’s newest beats and blues band. Formed among the guitars and gear available in Guitar 77Blues 77 plays an eclectic mix of beats and blues classics and originals echoing the roots sounds of 1960s Singapore and the world.Blues 77 is world music then and now. The special appearance will feature Kiang Lim (Straydogs-bass), James Tan (Straydogs-drums), Steve Ferzacca (University of Lethbridge, Canada)


8:20 – 9:30pm                    PART II
A Day in India | The Perennial Plate
A Pakhtun Memory | Yaminay Chaudhri
Surfing Possibility: India’s First Surfer Girl | BrownGirlSurf
For Udon and Country | The Perennial Plate
The New York Street Vendors | Samuel Enblom
Dhaka Stories: Calling Home | Shadman Alvi
Head Porters Become Business Women in Accra’s Slums | Next City
                                                Stand by Me: Playing for Change | Mark Johnson
Voices to be Heard | Henry Mochida
9:30 – 9:45 pm                   MEET THE FILMMAKER SESSION
Yaminay Chaudhri 
visual artist based in Karachi and New York
9:45 – 10:00 pm                 CLOSING REMARKS & INFORMAL DISCUSSIONS
10:00 pm                              END

Event: The Quotidian Anthropocene: Reconfiguring Environments in Urbanizing Asia

The Quotidian Anthropocene: 
Reconfiguring Environments in Urbanizing Asia
16-17 October 2014
Asia Research Institute Seminar Room, National University of Singapore
469 A Tower Block, Level 10, Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 259770 [
This workshop is jointly organized by the Science Technology and Society Cluster, and Asian UrbanismsCluster at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.
Asia’s urban transition has radically transformed the region’s societies and its ecologies. The evidence is everywhere: factories and concrete tarmac have replaced Bangkok’s wetlands; Japan’s coastal communities are surrounded by ever-growing seawalls; and in China, smog has become a major political concern. If we are indeed living in a period marked by the deep effects of humans on our environment, what many have called the Anthropocene, then such phenomena would seem to exemplify the stakes associated with these changes at their broadest levels. Yet, closer inspection reveals that such macro-level environmental changes are in fact enmeshed in micro-level social shifts, political contestations, and cultural transformations.

For individuals and communities living in Asia’s burgeoning mega-cities, growing provincial centers, and changing hinterlands, social and environmental rupture has become constant and routine, its logic embedded in everyday practices and emerging policies. In many parts of the region, 
disaster is no longer experienced as acute, isolated, untoward events; it is now the “new normal.” Even when not coping directly with an ongoing disaster’s impacts, many Asian communities are engaged in either pre-disaster preparation or post-disaster recovery. Moreover, state and non-state actors strategically invoke the memory, or threat, of changing environments in order to justify their own agendas, projects, and policies. Patterns of migration and resettlement, urban infrastructure development, capital investment, and social policy are co-produced along with these shifting environments, modifying social relations, exacerbating inequalities, and generating fierce political struggles. At stake in these conflicts are normative, pragmatic and theoretical questions about citizenship, about the shape and relations of the built and natural environments, about the respective roles of local and expert knowledge, and about the constitution of just and resilient communities, in an age of unprecedented transformation. The lived experience of such contestations, the disruption that provokes them, and the practices that produce that disruption, shows how the epochal Anthropocene is found in the normal, the routine, and the quotidian.

Quotidian Anthropocene: Reconfiguring Environments in Urbanizing Asia explores the quotidian processes associated with Asia’s changing environments by bringing together scholars from the Social Sciences and Humanities at a multi-disciplinary workshop. In exploring such topics together, we offer a window into the production and re-ordering of local, regional, and global ecologies. We consider how, even as seismic ecological rearrangements occur, human actors — including experts, authorities, and citizens — produce, feel, respond, and adapt to such changes.  We interrogate these issues from situated vantage points across Asia’s urban-rural matrix as a means of considering how the Anthropocene is tied to everyday life, and how past and present struggles are shaping our environmental futures. This workshop provides insight into how such political endeavors re-imagine the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, as well as the roles played by local and expert knowledge, in re-making the new Asian city and preparing it for life in this precarious era.
Please click here for the Program & Abstracts and do visit the link periodically for updates.
Admission is free, however, registration is required. Kindly register early as seats are available on a first come, first served basis. Please email Valerie at to indicate your interest to attend the talk.
Dr Eli Elinoff
Asia Research Institute & Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore 
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Dr Tyson Vaughan
Asia Research Institute & Tembusu College, National University of Singapore

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Is Cycling a Viable Way to Broaden the Benefits of Singapore’s Growth?

By Tharuka Prematillake Thibbotuwawa

 “Singapore is a great city to walk and play – if we have money”, said William Lim, a well-known architect in Singapore, during a short interview with me, recently.

The city’s rapid economic growth and development has translated into a city of high-rise buildings, casinos, theme parks, theaters, high-end shopping malls, and restaurants. It is orderly and clean and surrounded by landscaped gardens. It is also a city with more increasing numbers of car owners and an efficient but increasingly stressed public transport system. But, the question is, whether the benefits of these forms of urban growth are shared equally by everyone in Singapore? Out of many areas that Lim discussed pertaining to this question, this article looks at how cycling as an alternative urban transport mode could widen the range of people benefitting from Singapore’s growth.

According to Lim, Singapore’s economic growth and development seems to have mostly benefited “the more affluent class. Middle-income earners have not been successfully benefited from the growth. This is not just a Singapore case, but in all developed countries”. For the majority of people in Singapore, the aforementioned developments add vibrancy to the city but are changes that do little to help people meet their daily needs. In some cases, they have had the opposite effect by transforming public resources into private goods and making the city more expensive.

“For Singaporeans with family, it’s not so simple. Their budget is not so simple. You run the family, you pay for your mortgage, you pay for the children’s fees; so it’s not so simple to have what you need to have. I think the issue here is whether the increasing productivity has been translated into shorter working hours for everybody. Whether they have more space, have more time for friends and family- that is the issue,” added Lim. Hence, there is an urgency to address ways of improving the city to allow people time to spend with their loved ones. This should be part of the urban development process.

In Lim’s humble opinion, “it is a political decision to shorten the hours. It’s a political decision, [to] improve the transport. But, if you keep increasing the number of people in Singapore, the public transport is going to be difficult.” I believe the purpose of improving transport is to ensure a comfortable ride and shorter travel time and distances at an affordable price. Shorter travel time and distances would mean that people are able to travel to and fro to work and to school easily, giving them more time to spend with family and friends.

This made me wonder: is Singapore’s vibrancy and growth mainly for affluent, high-income groups and tourists? If so, what kinds of interventions might be possible to benefit the city as a whole?

In the recent past, there have been various developments in the Singapore’s public transport system that have had broad benefits, such as added bus and MRT services, wheelchair accessible buses, etc. Although, nothing comes for free these have made the city more accessible for everyone. “Your transport all seems to improve but you have to pay for it,” said Lim. In other words, the public will eventually need to pay more cash to maintain and improve the system. Moreover, developed roads, increase the demands placed on the city by increasing numbers of motorists, and the expansion of road infrastructure could mean that the public—including the majority of non-users—have to pay back sunk costs with their taxes or  through other fees. This is the case is most developed countries today.

Apart from these financial burdens, fuel leaks and carbon emissions add environmental pollution and health hazards to the list of broader impacts of transportation on the city’s livability. Furthermore, the travel distance has not been addressed. For instance, it takes approximately 2-hours for some people to travel to work and back home via public transport. Adding to this, at peak hours the system is already overcrowded. Hence, what other possibilities are there for the majority of public who do not own a vehicle? Is there a possibility to retrofit infrastructure to have an inclusive urban development plan that provides everyone a freedom of travel choice? Given the increasing costs of public transport it would be pragmatic to look at other viable alternative modes of transportation too.  How about cycling?

A Bike Friendly and People Friendly City

“Cycling has to be taught as a crucial thing. But you have to provide proper bicycle lanes” said Lim. He explained that reducing the number of car lanes and adding bicycle lanes would be an effective way to use the transport system to broadly improve the city. Currently, cycling is seen as recreational.  There are bicycle lanes off-street through park-connectors and trails in neighbourhood areas designed specifically for leisure. Can we modify the physical landscape of the city so that cycling becomes a viable alternative mode of transport for daily travel? To do this we need to rethink our infrastructure plans to make streets more accessible for cyclists to travel distances beyond their immediate neighbourhood without either delays or hazardous conditions. Cycling would be economically and environmentally beneficial. It would also have health benefits too. So, although cycling is often seen as a transport issue, building cycling into the fabric of the city would improve Singapore as a whole.

Bicycles are a low-cost mode of transport, which do not require any fuel consumption. Hence, they cause no environmental damage or health hazards through fuel emissions. Most importantly, increasing the city’s bikability would enable residents to have more physical activity leading to health benefits too. Furthermore, less car parks and road networks to accommodate automobiles would make land available for other purposes. This is benefit seems vital given the fact that land is already a scarce resource in Singapore. All of these benefits should be considered as part and parcel of making the city more livable not just more prosperous


However, if cycling is to become an alternative transport mode, it needs to be brought into the planning process in order to implement the necessary steps and to provide proper facilities. Lim mentioned that this would mean that “your office must have parking space for bicycles and you must have shower places for people to change. All this is fairly simply. It can be done. It has been done in other countries.” Lim added, “it’s not to get rid of cars, but you can give less privilege to the cars” so that the urban development process would not only include the top 10 percent but also the lower- and middle-income earners as well.

Having said all this, there are also various challenges in setting up a whole new alternative approach to transport. This would mean reimagining our existing roads and rearranging them to be shared with motorists and cyclists. It might also entail narrowing of motorists’ lanes, increasing traffic density (if not developed with careful planning), and potential conflicts between motorists and cyclists or between pedestrians and cyclists.

Nonetheless, Lim believes that many developed countries would not have adopted this transport mode if it was not worth the effort. Therefore, the best outcome might be to involve the public in urban development plans so as to identify potential issues and find solutions to them. The public should be given a role in taking part in the urban development planning from the initial stages all the way to implementation and post-implementation processes for future developments.

In Singapore, “the public opinion is becoming increasingly relevant. I think the government is slowly changing their position to include some in the government, some in the civil service and some in the academic circle. They have begun to make minor concessions of the public opinions. So certain changes are taking place on different issues”, said Lim.

In so doing, it ensures greater inclusivity of urban development processes that would result in improved productivity, development and sustainability.


-This blog post is written based on an interview with Mr William Lim on 22 July 2014.-

Publication Update: “Cities and their grassroutes”

Dr. Tim Bunnell and Dr. Peter Marolt have recently published an excellent commentary entitled, “Cities and their grassroutes” in the journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (vol 32 issue 3).  The piece is a revised and expanded version of their post on this blog entitled “From Grassroots to Grassroutes Urbanisms.”

The commentary in Environment and Planning D:  Society and Space (vol 32 issue 3) can be accessed here:

The open access version appears here:

Recommended Reading


Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture

In Radical Cities, Justin McGuirk travels across Latin America in search of activist architects, politicians and radical communities. From Chile to Brazil, and from Mexico to Argentina, McGuirk discovers people who have begun rebuilding and redesigning their environments in radically new ways. After decades of political and architectural failure, a new generation has returned to the problems of the city to address the poverty and inequality. This is a generation of activists, pragmatists and social idealists, and together they are testing new ideas that the rest of the world can learn from. An architect in Chile has designed a new form of social housing where only half of the house is built, allowing the owners to adapt the rest; Medellín, the murder capital of Colombia, has been transformed with innovative public architecture; squatters in Caracas have taken over a 45-story skyscraper, Torre David; and architect Jorge Mario Jáuregui has upgraded Rio’s favelas in exciting new ways.

Snaps from the Field: Paete

by Dr. Marco Garrido

I just came back from having done fieldwork in two small towns outside Metro Manila, Philippines. In my dissertation research, I had identified an acute class consciousness among Metro Manila’s urban poor. I wanted to see whether or not this sense of class was distinctive to Metro Manila (resulting, I argue, from its class segregation). It was, but that’s the subject of a future paper. Here, in keeping with the genre of a blog, I would rather share my impressions—and pictures—of one, particularly fascinating fieldsite, Paete.

Paete from atop
Paete from above
Paete street
Paete street

The town of Paete is tiny, relatively isolated, and poor. It has a population of about 23,000; it’s about 100 km away from Manila, nestled, as you can see, between mountains and a lake; and its local government derived merely US$179,226 from local sources in 2012 (thus subsisting mainly on infusions from the national government). And yet, because of the skill of its woodcarvers, the town has had an outsize global reach—for centuries.

The Spanish missionaries who discovered Paete in 1580 named the town after the Tagalog word for chisel (paet). The skill of its carvers was such that Europe soon began to import toys, furniture, and religious images made in Paete (one such toy was the yo-yo). Palaces acquired elaborately carved tables and chairs, and churches, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, exquisite images of saints and angels. Paete’s carvers were feted by royal courts and international competitions.

Workers at night
Workers at night
Master woodcarver
Master woodcarver

Their skill was the result of apprenticeship, often informal, of sitting at the feet of masters, literally, because these were their fathers and uncles. It came from simply being exposed to the craft as an everyday practice—a natural act—such that one mostly “absorbed” how it was done. Skill didn’t just have to do with the ability to physically transform the material; it also had to do with the capacity to imagine how the material might be transformed—to be able to discern, in other words, the possibilities it held. I remember being struck by a figure of the risen Christ fashioned out of driftwood. What was remarkable wasn’t that the artist had turned a lowly piece of driftwood into something else entirely, but that he had captured a process of one thing becoming something else. The Christ figure looked like it simply grew out of the driftwood; the grain of the wood becoming the folds of his robe and its branching his outstretched arms (I wish I took a picture!). Such skill was incubated in one place over a long time rather than produced by effective instruction and individual effort. It was learned by observing and engaging in practices that are a natural feature of Paete’s environment. Just walking around the town you see that everywhere people are fashioning something, carving wood or making papier mache dolls, even in the squatter areas where I interviewed. I asked one artist how he had learned his craft and he simply shrugged and said, “I just watched my father do it, and my brother, and then I started doing it myself.” Because skill consists of practices that are all but impossible to codify exactly, it can be hard to teach. One artist recalled asking his teacher how to sculpt a foot. After being puzzled for a moment, his teacher finally replied, “Well, just look at your own foot!

Making papier mache
Making papier mache

The great skill of its carvers begs the question of why, despite being a hub of globally renowned talent, Paete has remained poor.  In the 1950s the production of wooden clogs was an important source of Paete’s revenue, in the 1960s and 1970s wood handicrafts, in the 1980s and 1990s papier mache and resin products, and currently Paetenians working aboard cruise ships sculpting ice and vegetables. Paete’s dismal economic fortunes have a lot to do with the vicissitudes of global demand, of course, and with restrictions on logging, as well as insufficient government support and probably also with a lack of organization among local businesses.

A full explanation is beyond my reach; rather, I want to pursue one thread of an explanation—global competition—as a way of lamenting the commodification of skill. The skill of Paete’s carvers was recognized and a market emerged for its products, but this market came to be dominated by countries that could mass produce these products. They would simply buy the skills needed to replicate them. For example, Paetenians were hired to make molds for mass produced papier mache products and to teach Chinese workers how to carve generic products. Sure, these products were inferior in quality to Paete handicrafts but they were cheaper and easily available. And so the wooden clog industry was undercut by competition from Japanese manufacturers, and then the carving and papier mache industry by Chinese manufacturers. Now Paetenians are using their skills to make swans out of ice—impressive displays, to be sure, but knowing that the skill guiding the sculptor’s hand developed in so rarefied an environment—knowing how precious it is—how can we not feel a sense of waste that it’s now being used so cheaply to make products that are merely functional not beautiful, to make ornaments serving only to embellish the experience of luxury?

Christs in the kitchen
Christs in the kitchen
Amateur woodcarver
Amateur woodcarver