All posts by Peter

Event: Cyber-Urban Connections

by Peter Marolt

Conceptualizing Cyber-urban Connections in Asia and the Middle East
ARI Conference, 23-24 January 2014
Convenors: Asha Rathina Pandi and Peter Marolt

Cyber-Urban Connections s

The surge of protests and mass movements we witness across the globe are intricately connected and facilitated by the Internet, but often also occupy politically potent spaces in the city where they gain political leverage for pursuing reform. Connecting these two elements remains inadequately studied. The many conferences aimed at understanding the role of new and social media as tools of protest tend to remain in networks of cyberspace, and urban studies have also lagged in linking urban space with cyberspace.

Our conference theme thus emerged to conceptualize the connection between the cyber and the urban. As individuals live in a networked society, with one foot in the virtual and the other in the material world, an understanding of the changes and transformations in society ought to include an interrogation of the interdependencies between online and offline domains. How does cyber-activism translate into the production of urban spaces, and, conversely, how does (lack of) access to urban spaces reflect back to online mobilizations?

We have brought together young scholars and leading experts from inter- and multidisciplinary backgrounds to better understand and re-theorize the ways in which the ‘cyber-urban’ connections in urban Asia and the Middle East affect people, networks, and social and built environments (click here for full description and programme). Vibrant discussions have yielded many insights, on the specificities and commonalities of case studies in various countries in Asia (including but not limited to China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines and Singapore) and the Middle East (including Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia), but also on how to better conceptualize cyber-urban connections.

Keynote speaker Merlyna Lim (currently a Visiting Research Scholar at Princeton University) opened the conference by mapping out the spatial dynamics of contemporary social movements. The first day of the conference was loosely based on paper presentations that speak to the social movement literature, while the second day focused on other cyber-urban connections. The two morning sessions were opening up conceptual avenues of thought, and the afternoon sessions would then provide empirical profusions. It turned out that this made for vibrant participation and discussions throughout the two days. Each session comprised three speakers (except for one session comprising four), and would address in turn new ways of seeing digital materialities; protest sites; movement narratives & interdependencies; grounding the cyber and augmenting space; protest forms; and other forms of mediated resistances.

Together, we have gone far beyond the questions posited at the outset, and have come away with a strong desire to further deepen our understandings of both the origins (roots) and processes (routes) that precede or lead to highly visible urban protests. These issues remain understudied yet highly important conceptually. Together with Merlyna Lim, whom we involved in selecting the papers for this conference, we thus decided to pursue an edited book with a renowned university publisher. Addressing the reflexivity of cyber and urban spaces, both empirically and theoretically, the volume’s general focus will be on investigating the origins (roots) and processes (routes) that undergird contemporary social movements in particular and the cyber-urban in general.

Thank you all for your interest and participation!

Event: ASIA TRENDS 2013 (5 Nov @ Nat Lib)


‘Male Modernity’, Puritanism, and the Southeast Asian City

SPEAKER : Professor Anthony Reid, The Australian National University

DISCUSSANT : Professor Jane M. Jacobs, Yale-NUS College, Singapore

CHAIRPERSON : Professor Mike Douglass, National University of Singapore

When?  Tuesday 5 November 2013, 7:00 – 8:30pm

Where?  National Library Building, The Pod Level 16

Modernity did not so much privatize religion and secularize the city as it altered the nature of religious expression. There are some parallels in terms of mentalité between rapidly urbanizing industrial Europe in the 19th and early 20th century, and rapidly urbanizing Southeast Asian ones a century later. In both the newly urban lower middle classes appeared to seek both individual salvation and respectability in puritanical and patriarchal forms. This type of moralistic public piety lost its hold in Europe in the First World War, and was definitely over in the 1960s, but only hit its stride in Southeast Asian cities at about that time. This lecture will review the encounter in the late 19th and early 20th centuries between pre-modern Southeast Asia’s unusually balanced gender pattern and an exceptionally male, puritan, and alien model of modernity in government, business and religion. Although irresistible for western-educated Southeast Asian men, this offered a very poor fit for women accustomed to dominant roles in business. Southeast Asians were therefore judged to have failed the test of modernizing economically in the colonial era. Only the rapid urbanization after 1950 brought a similar dynamic to Southeast Asia as that which had accompanied Europe’s industrial transition a century earlier. We should not be surprised that patriarchy and puritanism then also became marks of piety and respectability in Southeast Asia. The fascinating question would be whether Southeast Asia could nevertheless retain its relatively balanced gender pattern in face of these pressures.


Anthony Reid is a New Zealand-born historian of Southeast Asia. His doctoral work at Cambridge University examined the contest for power in northern Sumatra, Indonesia in the late 19th century, and he extended this study into a book The Blood of the People on the national and social revolutions in that region 1945-49. He is most famous for his two volume book, The Age of Commerce, developed during his time at the Australian National University in Canberra. His later work includes a return to Sumatra where he strongly advocated a historical basis for the separate identity of Aceh. Professor Reid was Professor of Southeast Asia history at University of Malaya (1965–1970) and Australian National University (1970–1999). He became the founding director of the Southeast Asia Center, University of California, Los Angeles, 1999–2002, and then the founding director of Asia Research Institute (ARI) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), 2002-2007. He was Professor of Southeast Asian History and Research Leader at NUS from 2007-2009. Currently, Professor Reid is Professor (Emeritus) at The Australian National University.
Jane M. Jacobs is Professor of Urban Studies at Yale-NUS College of the Liberal Arts, Singapore. She trained as a Human Geographer and researches, publishes and teaches in the fields of urban studies, postcolonial studies, and qualitative urban methods. Professor Jacobs did her undergraduate and Masters training at the University of Adelaide, Australia. While at University of Adelaide she also worked on a national survey of tourist impact on Aboriginal rock art sites. She was awarded her PhD from University College London, where she examined heritage and community based opposition to large-scale urban redevelopment in a rapidly transforming City of London.

Jane Jacobs has taught at UCL, The University of Melbourne and The University of Edinburgh. While in Melbourne she was a founding member of the Institute of Postcolonial Studies and served a term as its Director. Professor Jacobs’ early research was on indigenous rights, and specifically land rights and cultural property activism and identity politics in settler Australia. She published widely in this area, including the co-authored book Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation (1998). On occasions she still publishes on indigenous-settler relations and indigenous activism. The main focus of her current research is urban studies. She has published on the postcolonial politics of cities, including her monograph Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City (1996) and her co-edited book Cities of Difference (1998). Most recently her work has focussed on trans/nationalism and high-rise housing knowledges and infrastructures (; comparative urbanism and the relationship between architecture and society. This has resulted in various published papers as well as the co-authored book Architecture Must (MIT Press, Spring 2014) and Architecture and Geography (Routledge, 2014). She shares her name with a very famous, but now dead, urban scholar (the Jane Jacobs who authored, among other things, Death and Life of Great American Cities) and so has become an expert in professional disambiguation.

Admission is free, however, registration is required. Kindly register early as seats are available on a first come, first served basis. We would greatly appreciate if you write to Sharon via email your name, email, organisation/affiliation and contact number.

This event is organized by the ARI’s Asian Urbanisms Cluster.

We hope to see you there. Please see here for further information, or download our ARItrends flyer.

Publication: Decentralized Governance and Urban Change in Asia

Forthcoming Special Issue (Pacific Affairs):

Decentralized Governance and Urban Change in Asia

Guest Editors: Michelle Ann Miller and Tim Bunnell

This special issue explores the dynamics between decentralized governance and urban transformation in Asia. The case studies in this collection move beyond an examination of local urban dynamics as simply a product of decentralizing reforms (even if they have been directly affected by such reforms) and concentrate on institution-building, problem solving, participation and contestation in decentralized urban contexts. The contributors to this special issue came together at the Conference on Decentralization and Urban Transformation in Asia, held at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, on 10-11 March 2011. They considered important questions about the interplay between decentralized governance and the urban in contemporary Asian contexts. How has decentralization changed the role and functions of local administrations in Asian cities? In what ways have these processes empowered local communities – and particularly socio-economically marginal segments of the population – to shape the city in order to better reflect their needs and aspirations? To what extent have the processes and structures of decentralization empowered cities to emerge as new centres of policy innovation and best practice in responding to localized challenges? Does this portend for the travel of Asian city models of good governance within and beyond the region? What networks of inter-city cooperation have been forged between cities inside and across national borders as a consequence of decentralization? And, how has decentralization reconfigured relations between cities and their immediate neighbouring jurisdictions in terms of changing urban-to-urban and rural-to-urban networks? In addressing these questions, each of the contributors to this special issue focuses on a different dimension of the interplay between decentralized governance and urban transformation in six Asian countries: India, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Please visit the Pacific Affairs website for further information.

Recommended Reading: Tokyo Vernacular (by Jordan Sand)

Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects

by Jordan Sand (Author)

University of California Press
A Philip E. Lilienthal Book in Asian Studies

Preserved buildings and historic districts, museums and reconstructions have become an important part of the landscape of cities around the world. Beginning in the 1970s, Tokyo participated in this trend. However, repeated destruction and rapid redevelopment left the city with little building stock of recognized historical value. Late twentieth-century Tokyo thus presents an illuminating case of the emergence of a new sense of history in the city’s physical environment, since it required both a shift in perceptions of value and a search for history in the margins and interstices of a rapidly modernizing cityscape. Scholarship to date has tended to view historicism in the postindustrial context as either a genuine response to loss, or as a cynical commodification of the past. The historical process of Tokyo’s historicization suggests other interpretations. Moving from the politics of the public square to the invention of neighborhood community, to oddities found and appropriated in the streets, to the consecration of everyday scenes and artifacts as heritage in museums, Tokyo Vernacular traces the rediscovery of the past—sometimes in unlikely forms—in a city with few traditional landmarks. Tokyo’s rediscovered past was mobilized as part of a new politics of the everyday after the failure of mass politics in the 1960s. Rather than conceiving the city as national center and claiming public space as national citizens, the post-1960s generation came to value the local places and things that embodied the vernacular language of the city, and to seek what could be claimed as common property outside the spaces of corporate capitalism and the state.

Jordan Sand teaches Japanese history at Georgetown University and has written widely on urbanism and material culture in East Asia.

AUC at the 8th International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS), Macau

Mike Douglass, AUC Cluster Leader, and Kong Chong Ho, Vice Dean of Research at FASS, organized a panel at the 24-27 June 2013 ICAS 8 conference in Macau. The theme of the panel was “Localizing Cosmopolis in a Global Age: The City at the Grass Roots in East & Southeast Asia.”  Papers presented drew from research in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Manila, Surabaya, Hanoi, and Singapore.

The ICAS organization interviewed Mike Douglass to gain an understanding of how his presentation on “From Globopolis to Cosmopolis – Remaking the City from the Grassroots” provided an overview of the panel.

Here is the brief interview:

The topic of urban transition is a significant one considering mass urbanization is increasingly both a regional and worldwide trend. What does your panel aim to discuss?

Our panel focuses on theories and experiences in accommodating the increasing social and cultural diversity accompanying Asia’s urban transition. Its concerns are about how people are able to confront marginalization, exclusion, and inequality through grassroots mobilizations and the production of alternative urban spaces.

You use a couple of interesting terms to describe cities. What does the word “Globopolis” mean?

Globopolis is a term that I put forth to characterize the cities emerging in Asia over the past 20-30 years.  Although variations are significant, they have commonalities that concern us: high and rising inequality, privatization public spaces and corporatization of public institutions, and diminishing opportunities for associational and public life. These cities are being drawn into an ideological shift from the idea of the city as a theatre of social life to a city as a hyper-competitive engine of economic growth and generator of wealth for a creative class. They increasingly depend on migrant and temporary workers who form a flexibly disposable labor force. The results are the elimination of the vernacular city of neighborhoods and communities produced with and by residents in favor of a city of the world’s tallest buildings, mega-global business hubs, vast gated housing enclaves, shopping malls, chain stores and repetitive franchise logos, and the simulacra of city marketing that has little to do with local histories. This is Globopolis. We see it emerging even in the poorest and most remote places in Asia today.

And “Cosmopolis”?

Cosmopolis is used as a term to distinguish the emergent Globopolis from the possibility of a city region, a Cosmopolis, that values diversity, accommodates the stranger on an equal footing with citizens, and has a plenitude of spaces where people can engage in associational life. It is a public city that is sustained through institutions and spaces for participatory decisionmaking, including peaceful contestations. Cosmopolitan cities are those in which people of all walks of life can assert their differences and negotiate them with others and in relation to government and private economic interests. Its culture accepts an idea of inclusion that goes beyond citizenship defined by the nation-state by extending the right to the city to everyone who comes to it. These defining characteristics might be idealistic, we know, but then we can say that Globopolis is a utopian fantasy that is founded on deeply flawed assumptions about its own viability as well as about human flourishing.

You focus on experiences from cities East and Southeast Asia in particular. Why so?

If you mean why not include all of Asia, we have no overarching reason other than the happenstance that our panelists have a long history of collaboration together in these parts of Asia. If you mean why would we focus on Asia more generally, a principal reason would be the context of the urban transition taking place across Asia that is exceptionally compressed in time and is occurring at a particular historical moment of globalization that differentiates it from earlier urban transitions in other world regions in Europe and Latin America as well as in contemporary Africa and the Middle East.  The transition in Asia entails a thorough remaking of cities and social relations in them. However, we are aware of the limitations of differentiating experiences at such a high regional scale. Variations in Asia are substantial, and cities in Asia do share commonalities with cities in other parts of the world. The important point is that we give attention to contextualizing the larger theme of our panel on diversity.

What elements are necessary to achieve more socially just cities?

Social justice is an on-going process, not just an end that can be achieved once and for all.  As such, we need to create openings in institutional and space-forming processes to allow for and peacefully negotiate among contesting voices and their claims about what constitutes social justice.  In summary form, this means that the city must be constituted as a polis of public discourse and decisionmaking over the production and uses of urban space. Such a city will depend on fostering an urban culture of inclusion and accommodation of differences that would hold the conviviality of associational life to be intrinsic to the idea of the good city.

Cluster Achievements

Our cluster leader Mike Douglass has put together a colourful powerpoint on our cluster activities and achievements. Some excerpts:

The Cluster has three research streams — Disaster Governance, Spaces of Hope, and The Vernacular City.

Flyers of our first two CityPossible Film festivals (many more to come):

Aggregated lists of Cluster members’ achievements:

Some pointers on the way forward…

You can download the complete PPT file here.

Further information can be found on ARI’s Asian Urbanisms Cluster website. In particular, please take note of current research projects and upcoming cluster events.

Asian Urbanisms Cluster Meeting & Lunch (Wed 7 August 2013)

Thank you again to all who joined us for our cluster meeting at Bar Bar Black Sheep, Cluny Court.

Present: Mike Douglass (cluster leader), Nausheen Anwar, Tim Bunnell, Stephen Cairns, Marco Garrido, Kong Chong Ho, Yumin Joo, Peter Marolt, Michelle Miller, Rita Padawangi, Tharuka Prematillake (research assistant), Asha Rathina-Pandi, David Strand.

After welcoming the cluster members, Mike Douglass introduced the cluster’s three main research themes: Vernacular City, Disaster Governance, and Spaces of Hope. He also shared that the recent City Possible film festival was a big success, and that future festivals might include other venues to screen the films. Mike also shared the following activities:

1)  Attempting to get a tier 2 grant. Principal investigators for this would be Graig and Mike.

2)  Applications for post-doc and (senior) research fellow positions will be closed on 1 September. Afterwards, Mike will shortlist the applicants and will have a meeting with the cluster members to discuss and make decisions.

3)  In January one post-doc is expected to join the cluster from Japan. He will also assist in the upcoming conference on Disaster Governance in November 2013.

4)  Mike also mentioned that he is currently involved in some action-oriented work in Hanoi. As a result of this project, the government has stopped destroying public markets, and park users now have a voice in park planning.

The cluster members then introduced their own current research foci in turn:

Nausheen Anwar shared that she is mainly working on 2 projects:

1)  A book project for which she is preparing a book proposal, currently titled ‘Mobility, Place and Politics in Globalizing Karachi’. The book focuses on issues of migration, political brokerage, and the role of the state in planning/city making, etc.

2)  Nausheen is also the Principal Investigator of a 26-months long project funded by the International Development Research Centre and Department for International Development under the Safe and Inclusive Cities program. Her project is titled “Gender and Violence in Urban Pakistan,” and is focused on two cities: Karachi and Islamabad. The main thrust of the project is on the discursive drivers of violence, its linkages with gender and infrastructure (sanitation, water, health, transportation).  The project secured funding of Canadian $500,000 in March 2013.

Nausheen is also working on a project titled “Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema” which connects with the cluster’s broader Spaces of Hope theme. In this she is a Co-Principal Investigator. Nausheen has received SGD $5,000 from ARI and US$25,0000 from the United States Institute of Peace for this project. The project is based in Karachi and focuses on three different, ethnically and religiously heterogeneous, low-income neighbourhoods. It aims at consolidating mobile video footages taken by people on their cell phones.  The first phase was launched in June and will continue until early January 2014.  Some delays are expected due to Karachi’s law and order situation.

Stephen Cairns is currently exploring the incredible environment he is living in for a project on Protection in Urban Planning. It is a 1-to-1 prototype building project based in Jakarta and Batam.

Kong-Chong Ho is currently working on two projects. One is with HDB and the other is on livability, sustainability and spaces encountered.

David Strand recently conducted a seminar titled A” Walk in the Park: Singapore’s Green Corridor in Light of Manhattan’s High Line.” He mentioned that this project is not yet completed. Currently he is trying to make contacts with relevant people for interviews in order to understand what happened to the green corridor between 2010 until now.

Michelle Miller is currently working on two main cluster events:

1)  International conference on Disaster Governance: the Urban Transition in Asia, 7-8 November 2013.

2)  International workshop on Flooding in Urban Asia, 20 January 2014. This will be co-sponsored by the Pacific Affairs journal.

The two events are intended to widen the spectrum of networks. Michelle also mentioned that the Australian National University is planning to sign a MoU with ARI to work on disaster networks in Asia. China’s Nanjing University also intends to collaborate in the future. Mike emphasized that the word ‘governance’ is used to include civil society and suggested that the projects  are intended to bridge the humanities and social sciences.

Michelle is also continuing her work on the following projects: Decentering Nation (with Tim Bunnell), and Situating Decentralization in an Urban Milieu.

Asha Rathina-Pandi mentioned that her dissertation was on the impact of blogs and media on political activities in Malaysia. At ARI she intends to work on publications regarding the fall of the Malaysian political party and do more work on physical (urban) space. Asha will be presenting a paper on linkages between physical and online spaces for the conference titled “Conceptualizing Cyber-Urban Connections in Asia and the Middle East” which will be held in January 2014.

Yumin Joo is an assistant professor at the LKY School of Public Policy and only recently joined ARI as an associate. Her interest is on urbanization in Asia and focuses mainly on a) urbanization (mega events), to understand what they do for secondary cities; b) (together with LKY school colleagues) Asia’s Global Cities: Mayors, Networks, and Global Status,” which compares three global cities, namely, Tokyo, Seoul and Bangkok; and c) housing policies of Korea and Singapore.

Rita Padawangi mentioned that she co-organized a workshop with Tim Bunnell and Mike Douglass on Geographies of Aspiration, held in July 2013. This was organized by ARI and the Cities Research Cluster at FASS in NUS. The purpose was to better understand how cities are constituted through geographically extended relations. Rita is planning to have a conference in July next year. She mentioned that she would now focus on publications pertaining to the cluster’s Vernacular City theme.

Tim Bunnell will be co-organizing a workshop on Friendship and the Convivial City in September. It aims at initiating a research agenda around the social and spatial configurations of friendship, which have implications for urban dwellers’ experiences of city life, and in opening up potentialities for new ways of living together with diversity. Tim is also completing his book manuscript entitled, “From World City to the World in One City: Liverpool through Malay Lives” for the IJURR-Wiley-Blackwell book series on Studies in Urban and Social Change. He is also working on a research project (Ministry of Education, Tier 2) on “Aspirations, Urban Governance and the Remaking of Asian Cities.” Tim is the principal investigator of it and his own research is conducted in the city of Solo, Central Java, Indonesia.

Peter Marolt is currently working on a couple of projects. They include a (second) co-edited volume on Online China: locating society in online spaces (for Routledge); an edited book project on Global Insurgencies (with Mike and Rita); collaborating on the Urban Aspirations research project (PI: Tim Bunnell); an upcoming conference on “Conceptualizing Cyber-Urban Connections in Asia and the Middle East” (with Asha). Peter is also working on a book manuscript titled Cyber China: making space for change.

Marco Garrido’s work focuses on the impact of emerging patterns of spatial inequality in Metro Manila on class relations and the political views of the urban poor and middle class. He intends to connect a spatial configuration of class interspersion with political polarization – specifically, the resurgence of populism on the one hand and, on the other, the rise of a reformist politics.

The convivial lunch meeting ended at 2.30pm.

Notes of meeting recorded by: Tharuka Prematillake

Film Festival : CityPossible II

The CityPossible II Film Festival

Date:  02 Jul 2013
Time:  18:00 – 21:30
Venue:  The Substation Theatre, 45 Armenian St, Singapore 179936
Organisers:  Dr PADAWANGI Rita, Prof DOUGLASS Michael
Download Files: Program and Sypnosis

This event is co-organised by FASS Cities Research Cluster, Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA), ARI Asian Urbanisms Cluster, and the Future Cities Lab.

The CityPossible Film Festival is back for the second time in Singapore! We continue to ask the question: What is the possible city?

Current urban development trajectories encourage commercialisation to extract profit from various layers of the increasingly urban society. Meaningful communities are challenged to find space, time, and resources when they are diverted to focus on lifestyle and consumption within placeless architectures. Unfettered capitalism pushes cities to become engines of growth rather than theatres of social life. The CityPossible Film Festival brings together the 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. From the street corner to the metropolis, these films inspire us as we celebrate the human spirit through cinema.

This is held in conjunction with the Workshop on “Asian Urbanisms in Theory and Practice: The Future of the Vernacular City” on 1-2 July 2013.

Admission is free, please register your interest with Ms Rachel Devi Amtzis (, if you’d like to attend, and indicate your name, email, designation, organization and contact number.

Please note that seats are available on a first-come-first served basis and we will not be able to allow entry once the theatre is full.

Workshop Convenors:
Prof Mike Douglass
Asia Research Institute and Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore
Dr Rita Padawangi
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

Please visit this link or the SubStation website for more information on the above film festival.

Conference : The Future of the Vernacular City

Asian Urbanisms in Theory and Practice: The Future of the Vernacular City

Date:  01 Jul 2013 – 02 Jul 2013
Venue:  ValueLab, Future Cities Laboratory, CREATE Building 6th Floor, U Town NUS @ Kent Ridge
Organisers:  Dr PADAWANGI Rita, Prof DOUGLASS Michael, Dr BUNNELL Tim

Co-organised by the FASS Cities Research Cluster, Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA), ARI Asian Urbanisms Cluster, and the Future Cities Lab

This workshop will bring together scholars in the region to assert the relevance of urban theories in practice, followed by a special focus on the vernacular city. This workshop will work towards developing an urban theory that is grounded in the complexities, diversities, and richness of cities, particularly in Asia. The separation between social and cultural emphasis in urban theories and the practicality of financial and economic considerations in urban policies is problematic and needs to be addressed. This workshop taps into the resources and the network of the Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA) that has recently started working on building urban knowledge in Asia (April 2012). In particular, this workshop will address the following three themes:

1. The Idea of the City
What is the city? The disconnect between urban theory and urban policies stems from different visions of what constitutes the city, what the city should be, and how it should function. This theme will come up with an epistemological approach to cities by looking at how knowledge of Asian cities is acquired and shaped, and by whom. The conscious move to represent Asian cities will provide updates to and will reshape urban theories to increase their relevance to broader sets of urban realities.

2. Cities by and for the People
The focus on economic growth in many developing cities has often left behind the people dimension. There have been efforts to promote participatory approaches, but eventually these approaches are secondary to financial considerations. To reassert the importance of the city as a social and cultural reality, there needs to be a thorough examination of urban residents’ opportunities and challenges in shaping Asian cities. Residents’ participation can be through various levels of participation in decision-making processes or hands-on actions in building their own spaces in the city. The objective is to integrate the theoretical importance of civil societies in determining their urban realities. This highlights the people’s role of in crafting urban places in the form of action, decision-making and policies in the actuality of Asian cities.

3. The Future of Cities
This theme will address the critical issues that define urban life and the future of urbanisation in Asia. The discourse on future cities has been much dominated by technological imaginations and utopias that confines humanities and social sciences approaches in projecting the future of cities to empirical statistics. However, technological developments are dependent upon how those technologies are socially derived, politically framed, and culturally accepted. It is important to revive the importance of urban theory to construct a holistic view of the future of cities that addresses the built environment, infrastructures, and the socio-cultural fabric.

Please visit this link or this link for more information on the above workshop.

From grassroots to grassroutes urbanisms

From grassroots to grassroutes urbanisms

by Tim Bunnell

It is 30 years since the publication of the book which established ‘grassroots’ as a key term in urban studies. In The City and the Grassroots, Manuel Castells used the term to refer to a long history of western cities as fertile ground for political agency. Grassroots captures how urban activisms are nurtured from the ground up, drawing strength from place-based political memories and solidarities.

There is no doubting the enduring importance of this botanical metaphor for studies of local urban politics. However, a closer look at processes through which grasses actually reproduce may also be useful for conceptualizing rather different geographies of urban activism. Grass plants reproduce in two distinct ways. Asexual reproduction occurs through stems that grow sideways, either just below the surface of the ground (rhizomes) or just above it (stolons). In keeping with conventional understandings of grassroots in urban studies, parent plants nurture new ones in situ until they are strong enough to survive on their own.

Sexual reproduction in grass, in contrast, involves the propagation of new plants in sites that are not necessarily spatially contiguous with parent plants. Fertilization occurs when male anthers and pollen heads are spread by wind or by animals and deposited onto the stamens of female flowers to produce seeds. In addition, mature seeds can themselves be transferred by animals or wind before finding the right soil conditions for growth. The new plant is then nurtured in place, but has its origins in historical events that may have taken place elsewhere.

Geographical patterns associated with the sexual reproduction of grass lend themselves to conceptualization of urban activism beyond local grassroots. Following the insights of Doreen Massey, in particular, there is now more than two decades of scholarship which examines the urban in relational rather than locally- or territorially-bounded ways. Urban activism and social movements can certainly be grounded in particular places but they can also often be understood relationally – think, for example, about the potential significance of movements of people and ideas from elsewhere. Building in part on the work of Massey, the geographer David Featherstone documented a long history of how political movements in one location have emerged in conversation with agitations elsewhere. In this way, resistance to contemporary neoliberal globalization, for example, may be understood in terms of translocal ‘maps of grievance’ and even ‘counter-global networks’ rather than as merely local (or localized).

Such mappings of what might be termed grassroutes, rather than grassroots, urbanisms inform the research project on ‘Aspirations, urban governance and the remaking of Asian cities’.[i] Our focus on urban aspirations emerges not from Featherstone, Massey or even Castells but, rather, from the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. In a relatively overlooked essay published in 2004, Appadurai cast aspiration as a cultural capacity which privileged groups typically have more opportunity to exercise and practice than do subaltern groups. Importantly for our project, however, Appadurai also shows how aspirational capacities may be enlarged through material and imaginative engagement with elsewhere (in particular, the poor women with whom he worked were able to imagine new ways of being and becoming as a result of their participation interlocal urban exchanges organized by the Mumbai-centred Slum/Shackdwellers International network).

This aspect of Appadurai’s work signals the need to attend to the more-than-local routes of urban imaginations and political action. In part, this means bringing into view the constitutive historical ‘outside’ of ostensibly local urban activism. Perhaps more significantly, there is the suggestion of possibilities for progressive projects to travel. Grassroots remains an important term for the local territorial framing of urban activism. But extending the botanical metaphor, ‘grassroutes’ speak to relational geographies through which the seeds of new urbanisms may be propagated elsewhere.

Update: An expanded and revised (open access) version of this post has now been published in vol 32 issue 3 of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.

[i] This involves five members of the Asian Urbanisms research cluster, as well as six other collaborators in the departments of Geography and Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS.

The CityPossible Film Festival

In conjunction with our conference, we have organized a film fest. The screening will take place on Tuesday 4 December from 6 to 10pm, at the SubStation in Singapore.

Our point of departure was: What is the possible city? Today the vision of a city is all too often filled with promotions of placeless architecture at inhuman scales and landscapes of nowhere that relentlessly diminish the public city as it gives way to privatized zones of franchised consumption and corporate management. The CityPossible FilmFestival brings together the 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. From the street corner to the metropolis, these films inspire us as we celebrate the human spirit through cinema.

List of films (film programme available here):

by Mike DiGregorio (25 min)

by Shashi Ghosh Gupta(8:19 min)

by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh (3 min)

by Justin McGuirk (2 min)

by Zeynep Uygun (14 mins)

by Beatrice Dina (1:30 min)

by Tanguy Malibert & Quentin Largouët (5 mins)

by Mike Aristomenopoulos (7:30 min)

by Michael Douglass and Henry Mochida (26 min)

by Maple Razsa and Pacho Velez (54 min)

Admission is free.

Dialogic Conference on Global Insurgencies: (re)making the Public City in Asia

On 3 and 4 December we are running our long-planned dialogic conference on Global Insurgencies – Remaking the Public City in Asia.

Brief description:

In Asia and beyond, we are witnessing a sea change of the idea of the city that is fundamentally altering prospects for a shared urban future. In contrast to the long held idea of the city as a form of collective social life with governance for the common good and industries and markets in service of social needs, we now see the city portrayed as an “urban sector” that is an “engine of growth” with government in service of a corporate economy as maker of wealth that is highly uneven in its distribution of income and assets. Driven by corporate interests, governments around the world are willingly or unwittingly propagating this narrative and its urban intentions by selling off vital public spaces and facilitating the construction of ever larger privatized zones for business complexes, exclusionary living and consumption. Vernacular architecture, historic sites, lower and middle-class neighbourhoods and local commercial spaces are lost in this corporatization process.

This dialogic conference aims to bring together new and established scholars to discuss and integrate empirical findings and conceptual understandings of the ways in which corporatization and insurgencies invoke the remaking of the public city. These invocations go in two main directions, and we welcome papers that—while remaining sensitive to emplaced specificities in Asia—speak to at least one of these two key issues:

1) Corporate Capture and Undermining of the Public City

How does the corporate economy appropriate, control and alter urban space? How does the privatization of urban public space affect civil society across Asia in general, and the social construction of insurgent spaces in particular? What does this mean for conceptualizations of social learning or collective action for socio-political or institutional change?

2) Projects to Remake the Public City

How do diverse civil society groupings across Asia respond to the intersections of corporate and government power as they are manifested in the production and control of urban space? What kinds of alternative projects are appearing from the grassroots to counter the hegemony of the corporatization of city life and economy? How do these projects claim public spaces and re-image life spaces and the meaning of place? How do we discover and analyze such alternative “spaces of hope”? As they tend to be small-scale, are they destined to be ephemeral or can they scale up to larger and sustainable contributions to remaking the public city?

As we live in a world in which physical space and cyberspace have become interdependent and inseparable dimensions of political consciousness and activity, we encourage participants to reflect on how various actors utilize the Internet and social media to propel – or hinder – the remaking of the public city through the production of urban spaces as well as bringing forth contributions to participatory governance. We also invite elaborations on how diversely originated, often small-scale and local aspirations, initiatives, movements, or institutions might inform urban planning, policy, and governance.


Conference Convenors:

Prof Mike Douglass
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

Dr Peter Marolt
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

Dr Rita Padawangi
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

The programme is available here.

This Dialogic Conference is co-organized by the Asia Research Institute and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS.

Hello world!

The Asian Urbanisms cluster explores Asia’s diverse urban experiences historically, contemporaneously, and toward the future.  It seeks to contribute to theory and applied research on the reflexivity of society-space relationships in the built environment and city life from local to global scales, in diverse contexts in Asia, and through comparative studies with other world regions.  The orientation of the cluster is towards research that speaks in transformative ways to urban-related theories, debates and public policy issues in and beyond Asia.  Avenues for research include (but are not limited to): livable cities past, present and future with regard to vernacular urban heritages, modernization and globalization; urban discontents, insurgencies in cities and through social media, and spaces of hope through participatory city-making; and disaster governance in an age of urban transitions and global climate change. AUC is developing three themes that will serve to organize research, grant proposals, workshops and conferences, publications, and related events and activities. The three themes are:

Disaster Governance.  The intention is to bring social sciences, arts and humanities, and physical/technology sciences together to make Singapore a hub in Asia for research and training on disaster prevention, adaptation and humanitarian assistance.  The term “governance” is adopted to give emphasis to public involvement in all aspects of research and practice related to natural disasters.  With its rich history of transdisciplinary research on key dimensions of disaster governance in Southeast Asia, ARI is well position to be the center of this activity.  Asia’s urban transition that is focusing on very large urban regions, most of which are located in disaster-prone coastal regions, brings to the fore the Importance of AUC research on disaster governance.

Urban Heritage and the Vernacular City.  This theme brings AUC together with other NUS programs such as SDE that are concerned with culture-built environment interdependencies in cities.  The term vernacular city is used to direct attention to both historically inherited urban structures and living culture as they are expressed through place-making and local production of urban spaces by people who reside in the city.  This research theme seeks to make international linkages with organizations in and beyond Singapore that are doing similar research, such as the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS).

Spaces of Hope. This theme covers a wide range of research on social mobilization, the rise of civil society, discontents, and insurgencies.  It also includes cyber-activism.  Most of these activities take place in cities and can be seen emerging with the rise of urban middle and working classes, communications technologies, and political change.  It reaches beyond protest to consider projects to create alternative urban spaces.  It also links with such issues as citizenship, transnational migration, multicultural societies, liveable cities, and the right to the city.