Category Archives: Progressive Cities

Hillslope Development in Penang: Sustainability or Unviability?

In this post, I write about my ongoing research on urban redevelopment in Penang, Malaysia, and in particular, about recent severe flooding and landslide events that are increasing in frequency and intensity.

November 4th 2017 flood in Penang

Historic cities within Asia’s rapidly developing and urbanising regions tend to sit at an ‘uneasy crossroads’ between heritage conservation and newer (re)development projects. In these places, understandings of landscape and how it should be used become increasingly tangible and contested. The mid-sized city of Penang, Malaysia is one key site where this is playing out at the moment, given recent flooding and landslide events that have been increasing in both severity and intensity. In October 2016 there were severe floods (the largest since the 1990s) during the Deepavali holiday season which caused significant damage and disruption. There have already been two major floods this year, one on September 15th and another on November 4th, the latter of which claimed the lives of seven, primarily elderly and other at-risk people. Moreover, there was a landslide at a hillside construction site in the Tanjung Bungah area on October 21 this year which killed 11 workers. This has been attributed to high density residential developments on hill land in Penang, which has intensified due to the lack of developable land around the city center and housing shortages. Local civil society groups have thus become increasingly vocal in protesting this ongoing development, and stressing the dangers of building high-density residential units on the islands forested hillsides.

Hillside development in Tanjung Bungah, Penang.

In his (2016) book The Sustainability Shift Malaysian scholar Adnan Hezri has noted that civil society movements in Malaysia often emerge over controversial land use decisions, or, in other words, because the environmental imaginaries of their members are at odds with official conceptions of what sort of development is best for a particular place. Indeed, there seems to be an impasse between the government and civil society in Penang at the moment, which continue to have differing views on the causes of and recommended solutions to these events. For example, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has recently reiterated that Penang’s floods are “natural disasters” and not caused by development. On the other hand, civil society groups, backed by local academics, argue that the floods are a result of both climate change and unscrupulous development projects on Penang island. Though, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak recently commented that the Penang State Government should: “avoid developments that could negatively impact the environment”, indicating tensions within the Malaysian Government.

There are also differences between the level of environmental protection within both Federal and State Government policies. For example, Penang island has clearly demarcated forest reserves (6% of the island’s total land area), and the Penang Structure Plan (PSP) disallows development on slopes steeper than a 25% gradient and/or on land higher than 75 meters (an additional 1.5% of total land area). This is stricter than national guidelines for hill land development, demonstrating that Penang does actually have strong environmental protection measures in place. However, this restriction excludes ‘special projects’ which may be permitted by the State Government if they are low density developments and have strong mitigation measures in place to protect the integrity of the slopes. This exemption has been frequently invoked, resulting in an increase in both the extensive and intensive nature of hillside development in Penang. Penang civil society members have thus argued that this exemption should be revoked, apart from necessary public works, given that it has been over-used.

Many observers have thus stressed the fragility (and ecological importance) of Penang’s natural ecosystems, and the increasing encroachment of human activity. For example, between 2008 and 2015, the municipal council (MBPP) granted 56 approvals on land above 250 ft, many of which are high-rise, high-density projects. There was also a geometric rise in illegal hill clearing cases from 2012-2015. This is despite a declaration from the State Government in 2009, reported in the New Straits Times (February 17) that they would not approve any more hill-land development projects in the Tanjung Bungah area of Penang.

However, much of this land is not gazetted and hence no local plan to regulate its use. This creates considerable ambiguity over what type of development is permissible on Penang’s hillsides and allows for developers to exploit loopholes in existing policies. Land is also privately owned, which is problematic because it is more difficult for the government to monitor and protect hill land on a continuous basis, and there is strong incentive for land owners to develop land in their possession. As Gwynn Jenkins (2008:23) has observed, there seems to be “little comprehension of the possible implications of mismanagement or the consequences of ‘redefining’ the planning laws” amongst officials in Penang. There also seems to be little understanding of the amplifying effect of deforestation and urban development on the impact of flooding events.

Residents living near the hillsides – and environmentally conscious citizens of Penang – thus feel that development is getting ‘uncomfortably close’ (Kam, 2016). Indeed, a recent study by Masum et al (2017) found that the current rate of deforestation Penang is 1.4% per annum, which is the highest in Southeast Asia. The paper also identifies the direction of development on the island based on recent trends, which is extending further into Penang’s protected forest reserve area from all sides (see below image). Masum et al thus call for an immediate ban on hill land development in Penang to ensure overall environmental safety, which has been echoed by local civil society members. Given that Penang was originally entirely forested in early 19th century, NGOs such as the Consumer’s Association of Penang (CAP) have thus expressed concern over the rate that trees are being sacrificed for development.

As Hezri has also argued, the focus on socio-economic development in Malaysia’s Vision 2020 initiative (to reach status of a ‘fully developed’ nation by 2020) has resulted in many Malaysian’s becoming detached from the natural environment. This tension between conservation and development plays out in all rapidly developing cities, with the financial incentive to develop usually winning over conservation needs, given that they are perceived to have less tangible value. Moreover, tangible cultural heritage in George Town has taken priority over other forms of heritage elsewhere on the island, which is partly to do with the city’s designation as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site and the conservation of its associated heritage buildings. Indeed, Penang’s natural heritage is now rapidly disappearing, while its historic town center has been (at least on the surface) preserved.

The increasing recognition amongst Penangites of their dependencies upon the wider biophysical environment has thus been central to the process of cultivating a collective response to the harms of Penang’s intensifying development. However, this recognition is one that will need to spread throughout the Penang society more broadly in order for change to occur, and may even need to take the form of ousting the current state government, as has resulted following previous environmental movements in the state. Without such resistance, Penang will continue to be impacted in compounding ways by the unregulated interventions into nature that are currently increasing in both frequency and severity.

Creighton Connolly, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore


Planetary Urbanisation at the Crossroads

On the 6th of April, Prof Mike Douglass gave a presentation at the Department of Human Geography and Demography at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. Following this, he traveled to Charles University in Prague for another talk on April 11th.

Poster for Prof Douglass’ Lecture and Discussion at Comenius University, Department of Geography and Demography

Prof Douglass’ presentation at Comenius built on his earlier work on alternative futures of city life in East Asia, which is an increasingly pertinent topic in the face of rapidly intensifying urbanization processes. This work positions developing cities as having two primary choices, one of ‘Globopolis’, which is characterized by new towns, gated communities, mega-malls, skyscrapers and business parks; or on the other hand, ‘Cosmopolis’ refers to cities where, “inhabitants can assert their differences and negotiate them in a productive and affirmative manner” (Douglass, 2009). Douglass argues that in achieving the latter vision of urban futures, the governance interventions of civil society is crucial. His talk at Comenius thus reasserts the importance of the democratization and progressive, grassroots movements in cities in an age of ‘planetary urbanization’, in which proponents (provocatively) argue that the whole world is now being impacted by urbanization processes. The seminar also included a discussion aimed at pinpointing the origins and potential of progressive cities, with reference to various case studies.

Prof Douglass’ lecture at Charles University

Prof Douglass’ presentation at Charles University, titled: ‘Progressive Cities: Inclusion, Distributive Justice, Conviviality, and Environmental Well-being in Asia‘ served as an overview of key urban challenges, and the threats that they pose to the issues in the talk’s title. Like his talk in Bratislava, Douglass started with reviewing the concepts of planetary urbanization and ‘the Asian Century’, and how these relate to the concepts of globopolis and cosmopolis. He then went on to discuss issues related to urban form, including the proliferation of ‘supertall buildings’ and observation wheels as a means to plug cities into global circuits of capital investment, and the associated implications for public space. Building from this, Douglass discussed the development of private urban enclaves, which are often, problematically, branded as ‘eco-cities’. This subject in particular has received considerable criticism from urban scholars in recent years, such as UK-based scholars Federico Caprotti and Federico Cugurullo; as well as NUS’ own Harvey Neo, C.P. Pow and former graduate student Rachel Bok. Douglass then reviewed the threats posed by climate change, and the ways in which large cities are increasingly vulnerable. Finally, he considered civil society initiatives which have sought to provide urban communities with some measure of resilience from these various threats.

Any questions or comments on the above? Please comment below, or contact us, and also stay tuned for upcoming activities of Asian Urbanism Cluster Colleagues.

A ‘Model State’ for Malaysia?

On the 6th of April, I gave a talk at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Cities Cluster, titled A ‘model state for Malaysia’? Competing visions of redevelopment in a UNESCO World Heritage City. This presentation critically examined controversies over the extensive urban redevelopment and regeneration projects that have emerged in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Penang, Malaysia, since 2012. In particular, I focused on the ambitious Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) (mentioned in a previous post), which has posed numerous threats to the city’s cultural and natural heritage, as well as questions about the future socio-economic and environmental sustainability of the island.

Poster for my presentation at the NUS FASS Cities Cluster

The paper particularly focused on the competing visions of Penang’s future, which have been identified by various stakeholders, from the State Government, to developers and civil society members. Given that the Penang Forum, which is a ‘loose coalition’ of NGOs in Penang, has been the primary civil society voice involved in these disputes, the question was raised (from the audience) as to what extent Penang’s ‘civil society’ is really one cohesive group, with a collective vision for the city’s future. This question was put to the test on a subsequent field visit to Penang (immediately following the seminar) to attend the 7th Penang Forum, which was a public forum to discuss the future of Penang’s off-shore island of Pulau Jerejak. The event had a surprisingly high turnout and filled the venue at the Penang Institute. The forum was led by speakers from the Penang Forum and Penang Heritage Trust who shared insights on the island’s natural and cultural heritage significance, followed by the development of some recommendations to forward to the State Government regarding its conservation. This was an open process, and most audience members seemed to share the general consensus that the island should be largely conserved and saved from development (summary).

This event did offer more insights as to how civil society organizations in Penang are actively involved in both resisting and actively co-producing new developments to (re)shape the city in both sustainable and culturally distinctive ways. However, as noted in the talk, Penang does have limited local engagement and interest in cultural and natural heritage conservation, which is a significant challenge for local resilience to the socio-environmental harms posed by intensifying development on the island. Any insights, thoughts, or questions on this problematic? Please comment below.



Mediating Heritage Conservation and Urban Development in Contemporary Malaysia

What are the issues surrounding the conservation of urban heritage in Malaysia’s rapidly urbanising cities? This is the seemingly simple question that I set out to explore in my current postdoctoral work at ARI, focusing primarily on the UNESCO World Heritage City of Penang. However, the more that I thought about this question, and began some preliminary research, it quickly became evident that there is more to the question than I initially thought.
I first set out to focus on cultural heritage, as this seemed to be at the core of disputes surrounding redevelopment and urban regeneration in the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site of Penang.  However, I soon realised that the ongoing conservation efforts in Penang, and concerns about urban (re)development are about more than just the island’s cultural heritage. Rather, the concepts of cultural and natural heritage, which have been largely kept apart both in academic studies on heritage conservation, and UNESCO’s distinction between Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites, are both deeply intertwined. This is particularly true in South/East Asian cities like Singapore, Penang, and Hong Kong, which have an abundance of both cultural and natural attributes that create attachment to place amongst locals and visitors alike. As Jenkins and King (2010: 48) have noted: “recently there has been an emergence of conservation awareness and the realisation among some local groups of the importance of their urban heritage for the general well-being of their environment”.

The importance of both natural and cultural heritage to Penang’s inhabitants have become particularly discernible with the announcement of the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). Penang’s civil society organisations, most notably the Penang Forum, which subsequently released its detailed critique of the Plan, encapsulated by the slogan Better, Cheaper, Faster. This document critically evaluates the perceived social, economic and environmental unsustainability of the PTMP, while offering a revised plan that would be better, cheaper and faster. Amongst the numerous areas of concern, particular issues are related to the proposed LRT system, which would pose both aesthetic and physical threats to the heritage landscape of George Town. In addition, the proposed undersea tunnel linking Penang Island with Peninsular Malaysia, and the substantial land reclamation required to finance the project, have posed additional environmental concerns.

Various components of the Proposed Penang Transport Master Plan Development, including reclaimed islands in yellow at the south of Penang Island.
Various components of the Proposed Penang Transport Master Plan Development, including reclaimed islands in yellow at the south of Penang Island.

Perhaps surprisingly, land reclamation is a recurrent theme in heritage controversies in South/East Asian Cities. Singapore, Melaka, Penang and Hong Kong have all experienced substantial land reclamation, which has been hotly contested by local civil society organisations. In Hong Kong, land reclamation emerged for two reasons: first, given the island’s limited amount of developable land and the high population; and second, the State’s dependence on it as a revenue stream, particularly in the 1980s (see Lu, 2009). This situation is similar to Penang, which receives a limited budget from the Malaysian federal government and thus relies on the unsustainable income stream of land sale to corporate land developers. Since the State Government has now sold most of its remaining land, it now must reclaim additional land, which will mostly be used for the development of high rise luxury condos, hotels and cruise ship terminals. Penang has now also been digging into its forested hillsides for condo development, which has caused landslides, and sinkholes under the nearby roads and properties due to the changing water table. The reclamation of land in these cities is also dialectically related to heritage conservation, because the local governments have sought to overcome heritage-related constraints on development (i.e. UNESCO zones in George Town and Melaka) by reclaiming land to ‘take the pressure off the historical parts of the city’ (King, 2016: 153).

For instance, in Melaka, the State Government’s focus on megadevelopment and tourism revenue has resulted in the destruction of the city’s harbour and waterfront area – which is arguably its historic raison d’être – only to be replaced by a large swathe of reclaimed land (see King, 2016: 151; Cartier, 1998). This reclaimed land has been used primarily for high-rise buildings, hotels, shopping malls, and some semi-detached housing. Despite the failure of the Pulau Melaka development (Melaka Island – constructed of reclaimed land), work is currently underway to reclaim even more land along the Melaka coast, known as Melaka Gateway. This development would envelop the Pulau Melaka development, in order to rid the State Government of the white elephant that it has created since its completion, over ten years ago. Such developments pose not only environmental consequences for the region, but also social issues, particularly for the Kristang (hybrid Malaccan/Portuguese) community and their sea-based livelihood, as their “coastal location has been transformed into an inland one” (King, 2016: 153).

Pulau Melaka (vision)
Developer’s vision of Pulau Melaka…
Reality of Pulau Melaka
Reality of Pulau Melaka – a ‘ghost island’. Will the same happen with the Melaka Gateway Project?

Of course, the dynamics between government, civil society and other stakeholders is also a central component of this research. Penang has been credited with having a more vibrant and successful civil society community than other Malaysian – and, indeed, Asian – cities. The success of heritage preservation there has been credited to the “interplay of fight and talk” between the government and civil society (ibid). Yet, the relationship is far from perfect. For instance, a Penang Forum Member recently wrote a letter to UNESCO, highlighting the considerable impact that the proposed PTMP plan would have on the heritage value of the city. In response, the Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng said the letter was “like a stab in the back”, given that the author of the letter is an elected MP in Penang. Lim explained that the PTMP is “crucial, a life changer that can affect every citizen in the state, and will provide for the economic prosperity of Penang until 2050” (ibid). These comments are evocative of the attitude of the Malaysian government’s narrow focus on (capital D) development as the way forward for Malaysia. It also highlights the extent to which constructive criticism on behalf of civil society, and other stakeholders is (not) valued by the government. As Jenkins and King (2010: 46) have lamented: “there appears to be confusion in the Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang [MPPP]) as to what is meant by conservation as an integral part of development…just as there is a preoccupation with ‘the tallest, the biggest, the longest and the widest”.

If you are interested in discussing these issues further, I would encourage you to attend ARI’s upcoming seminar ‘The Natural Heritage and Environmental Costs of Penang’s Development’ by Dr Kam Suan Pheng, an activist/scholar, and a Penangite, who has been actively campaigning for the conservation of Penang’s urban heritage for a truly ‘Cleaner, Greener Penang’ (31 October, 2016). I will also be presenting a longer version of this post at the later ARI Workshop ‘Resilient Cities for Human Flourishing: Governing the Asia-Pacific Urban Transition in the Anthropocene’(March 2-3, 2017).

References and Further Reading
Cartier, C., 1998. Megadevelopment in Malaysia: From Heritage Landscapes to “Leisurescapes” in Melaka’s Tourism Sector. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 19, 151–76.

Jenkins, G., King, V.T., 2003. Heritage and development in a Malaysian city: George Town under threat? Indonesia and the Malay World 31, 44–57. doi:10.1080/13639810304441

Lu, T.L. 2009. Heritage Conservation in Post‐colonial Hong Kong. International Journal of Heritage Studies 15, 258–272. doi:10.1080/13527250902890969

Proposal for an Urban Forum – Progressive Cities in Asia, Part 2

by Mike Douglass

Urban fora are being organized in many world regions, but none yet exists that places the idea of progressive cities on the agenda.  Most remain framed in developmentalist constructs that focus on material and economic benefits.   They also divide concepts into sectors or functions rather than the quality of the human experience in multidimensional ways.  The proposal here is to shift the frame to participatory governance of cities that includes associational life, public spaces, grassroots economies, and neighborhood environments as well as social justice and equality in access to the public domain.  The accent is on mobilizations and engagements of city residents in governance.  It is not simply to record how cities are making progress but rather how cities are constituted as progressive forms of governance.

A series of workshops can be held to begin to create a roster of prospective cities to be represented at the forum.  These would involve development of concepts, components and indicators of progressive cities.  They would also entail networking among cities that would build toward a larger forum.

The forum would have three principal purposes:

1.   First, it would shift the discourses on urban development in Asia from the prevailing ones that focus on quantifiable indicators of outcomes to a discourse about the processes of engagement in governance and its dynamically changing qualitative as well as quantifiable outcomes.  Whether under liveable cities, millennial development goals or other banners, current assessments of the progress of cities are done from armchairs by experts who often have no experience in living in cities being measured.  This forum would directly engage multiple actors, including civil society organizations and local governments as well as academic institutions and business interests, in its deliberations on how governance can become more progressive in both process and outcomes.

2.   Second, it would focus attention on the production of urban spaces by and with residents from lanes and neighborhoods to municipal and city region scales.  Without attention to the quality and meanings of urban spaces as seen by ordinary people, understandings of the relationships between human flourishing and the city are lost or obfuscated by sector studies that miss or remain silent on the loss of neighborhoods, heritage, public spaces, place-making capacities and identities of people with their cities.  The forum would bring real world experiences to explicate how the city as a physical as well as social realm is produced and what are its consequences for the quality of everyday life.

3.   In raising the idea of a progressive city to an international scale, the forum would promote mutual learning processes and solidarity among cities that are endeavoring to create progressive forms of governance but are often struggling for recognition and support within their own national settings.  This could further reforms toward decentralization and participatory governance throughout Asia and beyond.  In this regard, it is intended to reveal rather than disguise the politics of city-making, and, in so doing, to make more transparent the obstacles as well as opportunities for more progressive cities to emerge.

In Search of Progressive Cities in Asia – Part 1

by Mike Douglass

In recent years the idea of progressive cities has begun to appear in various forms in Asia.  “Good governance,” “liveable cities”, the pursuit of a “harmonious” city that “recognizes tolerance, fairness, and social justice,” and the urban dimensions of the UN “Millennium Development Goals” all speak to the pursuit of urban governance as a process of translating the material and economic prospects of cities into socially valued and just outcomes.  By implicitly turning attention to government-civil society relations, these approaches also hold in common an intended corrective to the idea that economic growth through global competitiveness will create by itself cities in which people can flourish in their daily lives.

Asia’s urban transition in a global era provides a clear rationale for focusing on cities as realms of political action for improving human well-being.  Now nearing the 50 percent urban mark, by the mid-21st century every country in Asia is expected to have a majority of its population living, working and engaging in the social and political life of cities.  Moreover, globalization is linking cities across national borders to form systems of connections and flows that not only articulate the global economy but also foster transborder connections among people.   From these perspectives, cities and intercity connections are becoming the sites and networks for social, economic and political deliberations about the future of Asia and its quality of life.

With cities rising as important spheres of public decision making, the diversity of urban experiences also become more recognizable.  In every country many observers tend to identify particular cities as being more progressive than others.  The identified cities tend to focus energies on issues of inclusion and social justice, improvements in stewardship of environmental resources and city region ecologies, and a flourishing of public life, including participatory governance.  Such a convergence of views raises a central question of how these cities achieved such a reputation.  They also show that even within the same national context, cities vary in their approaches toward governance.

What are the prerequisites for a progressive city?  3 dimensions can be posited.  First, is governance capacity, which includes devolution (decentralization) of public decision making authority to the city level, autonomous sources of financing, and democratic forms of direct and indirect participation in political life.  Second, a requirement for a progressive city is the inclusion of progressive political forces in governance coalitions.  Third, an urban culture around progressive ideals must emerge to support progress politics.

Each of these criteria shows a wide range of experiences and major bottlenecks.  First, decentralization of political power remains partial in many countries.  Most of those that have substantially devolved governance systems have only had them in place for one or two decades.  Second, progressive political coalitions can be fleeting and difficult to sustain in a neoliberal era of privatization and corporate-driven public policy.  Third, with migration contributing very large shares of increases in urban populations, building a shared cultural ethos of a progressive public sphere is a continuing challenge.  Nonetheless, a number of cities in Asia have been able to combine local autonomy and participatory democracy with progressive coalitions and a supportive urban culture even with the dynamics and turbulences of urban growth and change today.

Questions for analysis and research

Given the wide variations in basic criteria for their emergence, progressive cities can be expected to form a special subset of cities that are contextually specific in their mix of governance structures that are subject to dynamics of change through time.  In some cases, progressive cities might appear for just a brief period due to extraordinary constellations of events that prove not to be extendable.  In contrast, other might gain a level of resilience to endure through long periods of time.   All of these considerations lead to six key questions for research:

1.   Can an overarching concept of a progressive city be established?

2.   What are the components and indicators of a progressive city?

3.   Can a typology of progressive cities be created to contrast and learn from different contexts and policy outcomes?

4.   How do cities become progressive? What governance processes and outcomes are involved in making a city progressive?

5.   What are the possibilities for progressive cities to endure through time?  Conversely, why do such cities fail to endure?

6.   Can a network of mutually supportive cities be created to give more prominence to the idea of progressive cities in contrast to other formulations of the purposes of urban governance?