Category Archives: Recommended Reading

Reflecting on Affect and Urbanism

Here we have a guest post by Lisa M. Hoffman, Professor of Urban Studies at University of Washington Tacoma, who was visiting NUS from December 2017 until January 2018.


Recently I spent a month at ARI as a visitor from University of Washington Tacoma, Urban Studies. While I was there, I presented as part of the ACTIVATE! seminar series, which offered me the opportunity to think in more detail about the role affect plays in shaping identities and social relations. Taking affective relations seriously also shifted the register through which I was understanding subjectivity, collectivity, and contemporary forms of governing.   The paper was based on my anthropological fieldwork with volunteers and nongovernmental/social organizations in a port city in northeast China.

The questions I asked revolved around how expressions of responsibility, caring, and notions of a healthy life shaped class-specific identities – as some scholars of affect have argued, they “do things” (see Ahmed 2004; Richard and Rudnyckyj 2009).  As urban inequalities and other social problems have increased in cities across China, more individuals have been moved to help others identified as “in need”.  This could be a child with health problems and no financial resources or an elderly person with no children nearby to help them or even the local environment impacted by air pollution and litter.  Expressions and practices of care and responsibility shaped middle class identity such that affective enactments were incorporated into social differentiation and class distinction.

Significantly, public enactments of care, an increase in citizen volunteers, and an official emphasis on citizen “duty” to help others coincided with restructuring of the urban welfare system.  In other words, as social services have been moved from the socialist work unit to the community (shequ 社区) and society (shehui fuli shehuihua 社会福利社会化), citizens have also been asked to step up and do their share.  The cultivation of responsibility and compassion for others is then a critical part of urban governance and helps to stabilize reforms in the welfare system.

While I argued it is important to think of enactments of care and compassion as social facts and not simply as a false amelioration of inequality or the expanded securitization of society, these practices do embody a kind of “curious double”, to use Andrea Muehlebach’s term (2011), in which citizen responsibilization and socialist state welfare disintegration are stabilized, as meaningful and authentic socialities may also appear. Many volunteers spoke about the friendships and connections they made when volunteering and showing care for strangers, suggesting the possibility of alternative socials at the same moment we see a stabilization of profound political economic restructuring.



Ahmed, Sara. 2004. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 22(2): 117-139.

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2011. “On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy.” Cultural Anthropology 26(1):59-82.

Richard, Analiese, and Daromir Rudnyckyj. 2009. “Economies of affect.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15(1): 57-77.

Territorial Transformation and Land Reclamation in Singapore

Land reclamation is a hot topic in Singapore and Malaysia these days.  As a recent New York Times article observed, “land is Singapore’s most cherished resource” and land reclamation has been a chief component of the island archipelago’s development since the 19th century. Even just since its founding independent nation 52 years ago, Singapore has grown in size by almost a quarter: from 224 square miles to 277. By 2030, the government wants Singapore to measure nearly 300 square miles. This is partially related to Singapore’s ambitious targets for population growth and economic development (iconic landmarks such as the Esplanade, Marina Bay Sands, and even the Merlion are all built on reclaimed land). It is also premised in founding Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew’s vision for Singapore, which was in part based on a struggle against its small size.

This is a topic that was covered by Canadian geographer Rodolphe De Koninck in his recent book Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution: Fifty Years in Fifty Maps, published by NUS Press. 

Rodolphe De Koninck’s book launch at ARI for ‘Singapore’s Permanent Territorial Revolution: 50 years in 50 maps’

De Koninck shared the decades of research that went into his book at a recent book launch at the Asia Research Institute on May 29th. The launch attracted an overwhelming audience – which left standing room only in our Seminar Room – consisting of local artists, students, heritage advocates, and established local academics from NUS and beyond. During his talk, Professor De Koninck debunked several myths underpinning the logic of land reclamation —such as that of land scarcity—and raised keen observations surrounding changes in the territoriality and topography of Singapore, such as the intentional softening of urban development through the provision of greenspace, in the form of parks and green dividers between roads. Given the controversial nature of some of De Konick’s arguments, there was a somewhat heated Q&A session where he and members of the audience exchanged views on topics including the alienation of Singaporean heritage and identity through landscape transformation.

But land reclamation is increasingly attracting concern from residents, activists and scientists. This is in part due to the increased scale of land reclamation, enabled through technological advances, and the vulnerabilities that this creates. This is combined with increasing awareness of the dangers associated with global climate change and anticipated sea level rise over the next century.  There are also the grave socio-environmental consequences associated with sand mining, which is taking place in rural areas across the tropical world to feed the urban development appetite of mega cities like Singapore. This is a phenomena that a recent article in The Guardian atly described as the “global environmental crisis you’ve probably never heard of, and is the topic of our Senior Research Fellow Michelle Miller‘s current research on Indonesia. In the past, Singapore’s modest land reclamation projects (like Boat Quay) were completed using dirt and rock from extinct hills, like Ann Siang Hill which used to mark the western urban boundary of Singapore. Singapore still continues this practice through the reuse of material that is excavated during the construction of MRT (subway) tunnels, which is stored in a heavily protected and fortified reserve near the Eastern neighborhood of Bedok. But this still isn’t sufficient for Singapore’s land reclamation projects, so sand is imported from increasingly distant places, as neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia have stopped exporting sand to the island-city (for political and environmental reasons).

Singapore’s strategic sand reserve for land reclamation near Bedok. Photo from Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times

But environmental concerns are not the only consequences of Singapore’s extensive land reclamation and territorial metamorphosis. The constant ‘freeing up of land’ in Singapore for development purposes, has, as De Koninck noted in his talk, resulted in the destruction, of culturally sacred spaces, which is premised upon a cultural foundation whereby “nothing is sacred, nothing is permanent, nothing is culturally untouchable”. This was also touched upon in the aforementioned New York Times article, which noted that Singapore’s approach to development can make it seem as though the relocation of its people — “the living as well as the dead — can seem like pieces on a checkerboard”. Indeed, this is a controversy that has been ongoing over the past several years with the planned highway that will bisect one of the last remaining Chinese cemeteries – Bukit Brown – in the central part of the island, which will result in the exhuming of graves. This is a topic that our own Huang Jianli and Kenneth Dean have worked on, in the wake of significant civil society activism to preserve the site. Unfortunately, given the nature of a recent grant that was awarded to Prof Dean, it seems that Singapore’s strategy will be of documenting – rather than preserving – the graves.

In closing, it should be noted that land reclamation is not only a problem specific to Singapore. Indeed, each time I cross the causeway from Singapore to Malaysia, Johor Bahru and the new Iskandar Malaysia project seems to get closer. My current research in Penang, Malaysia partially concerns the ambitious land reclamation projects that are currently being launched by the State government in order to finance the extremely capital intensive Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). As in Singapore, there has also been talk in Hong Kong of creating floating islands in the sea to support their urban and territorial expansion. This is a topic which Andrew Toland has discussed in his book chapter ‘Hong Kong’s Artificial Anti-Archipelago and the Unnaturing of the Natural’, featured in the recent edited volume ‘Places of Nature in Ecologies of Urbanism’, published by Hong Kong University Press. While cities have always had a hate-love relationship with nature, such works bring urgent attention to the increasing artificiality and alienation of our cities from the natural environment. This is thus a critical issue that  deserves the attention of critical urban scholars, not only in Asia-Pacific, but around the world.

Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda was recently adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Equador on 20 October 2016. This goal recognizes that we cannot address global socio-environmental problems without also addressing urbanization processes, as urban scholars have been arguing for quite some time now. One of the development goals for this agenda is the broad objective to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. This has been a central point of focus by local governments and universities around the world, including in my own research site of Penang, Malaysia, as captured in the below photograph:

“Welcome to a safer, cleaner, greener and healthier Penang”. This is certainly the State Government’s stated goal for the city, weather or not it is actually the case is up for debate.

Resilience, in particular, has been a key buzzword amongst academics, policy makers, and journalists in recent years (example), and is the topic of an upcoming conference organized by the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at ARI entitled: “Resilient Cities for Human Flourishing: Governing the Asia-Pacific Urban Transition in the Anthropocene“, taking place at NUS in March, 2017. This conference intends ” to explore innovations in governance aimed at building urban resilience to various forms of environmental harm while protecting human flourishing through the creation of civic cultures centered on more sustainable forms of resource consumption”. To date, much of the focus on building sustainable cities in the popular media and in planning discourse has focused on techno-managerial solutions and pursuing ‘ideal’ sustainability indicators. The New Urban Agenda put forth at Habitat III is no different. Yet, as a new paper by Maria Kaika in Environment and Urbanization has convincingly argued, these pursuits do not work, and actually exacerbate (rather than reduce) socio-environmental ills through the deepening of inequalities between places and social groups.  For this reason, our upcoming conference intends to spark a shift in thinking about what human flourishing means away from narrow economic indicators centered on consumptive patterns, and towards wider conceptions of flourishing and linked notions of human well-being that encompass our interdependencies on non-human species and wider city-environment relationships.

We thus encourage participants to  propose new forms of urban environmental governance which can move beyond a mere focus on resilience, which, as Kaika demonstrates, has been criticized for “vaccinating citizens and environments so that they can take larger doses of inequality and degradation in the future”. Thus, instead of directing policies, research and resources into the pursuit of resilient city models, we should instead seek to fix the things that create the need for community resilience in the first place. One key goal for our conference should thus be to re-frame the concept of resilience into one that is community based and driven from the ground up, rather than something imposed on communities by their leaders.

Additionally, Kaika argues that the New Urban Agenda’s focus on ‘inclusion’ in the creation of sustainable cities is also problematic. For instance, an article in the Guardian noted that “one of the Habitat III billboards around the site’s perimeter stated, ‘INCLUSIVE CITIES'”, but that the impact of this sign was ironically reduced by the fact it was attached to a wire security fence around the venue’s perimeter. The same article interviewed a local community activist (excluded from the Habitat III conference), who argued that “the municipality invests a lot of money in projects, but there is no integrated plan to make things work for the majority of people here”. The sign thus seemed at best a reminder to participants, or at worst a mere façade, raising the question of inclusive cities for whom?

Inclusive cities? This sign at the perimeter of Habitat III reminds us that the concept of inclusion necessarily involves exclusion. Photo: Francesca Perry, the Guardian

Moreover, as Kaika further argued, even when communities are included in urban governance, ‘inclusion’ often does not change underlying power relations or development practices that have often only exacerbated environmental injustices. For example, civil society groups and members of the public in Penang are often ‘included’ in the government’s (re)development plans, but only after key decisions have already been decided upon (and developers’ contracts signed). Therefore, rather than being merely ‘included’ in predefined urban policies put forth by elites, communities affected by environmental injustices should play a central role in setting development goals and allocating resources. This is a particularly urgent goal in the rapidly urbanizing and developing regions of Asia-Pacific, which will need to play a central role in ensuring our planet’s future social and ecological well-being.

References and Further Reading

Barnett, C., Parnell, S., 2016. Ideas, implementation and indicators: epistemologies of the post-2015 urban agenda. Environment and Urbanization 28, 87–98. doi:10.1177/0956247815621473

Maria Kaika (2017) “Don’t Call Me Resilient Again!”: The New Urban Agenda as Immunology…or what happens when communities refuse to be vaccinated with ‘smart cities’ and indicators. Environment and Urbanization DOI: 10.117/0956247816684763

Bruce Watson, 2014. What Makes a City Resilient? The Guardian, 27 January.

Article Alert: Moral Geographies of ‘Swiftlet Farming’ in Malaysia

Last week saw the publication of the first of four journal articles from my PhD research on urban ‘swiftlet farming’ in Malaysia. Swiftlet farming refers to the harvesting of edible birds’ nests in urban areas, which has posed a number of socio-environmental challenges to cities in Southeast Asia where the industry proliferates. This particular article engages the animal geographies literature in foregrounding the agency of  animals like swiftlets as co-producing urban environments. This research contributed to the EU funded project ‘ENTITLE‘ (2012-16) which funded a number of projects on political ecology throughout Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia.

An active swiftlet farm in central George Town, Malaysia, photo by author, 2014.
An active swiftlet farm in central George Town, Malaysia, photo by author, 2014.

Title: ‘A Place For Everything’: Moral Landscapes of ‘Swiftlet Farming’ in George Town, Malaysia

Journal: Geoforum (Vol. 77, Dec. 2016, pp. 182-191).

Author: Creighton Connolly (Asia Research Institute, NUS).

Abstract: This paper is based on 6 months of ethnographic, multi-sited research in Malaysia, and investigates the relatively recent phenomenon of edible birds’ nest farming in urban areas (‘swiftlet farming’). Swiftlet farms are typically converted shophouses or other buildings which have been modified for the purpose of harvesting the nests of the Edible-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus). I use the controversy over urban swiftlet farming in the UNESCO World Heritage city of George Town, Penang, to examine discourses used by key stakeholders to shape debates over the place of non-human animals in cities. By considering everyday experiences of urban swiftlet farming, I explore how this burgeoning industry is perceived amongst residents, and how it is deemed to be (in)appropriate within the political, economic and cultural landscape of George Town. Yet, I also consider how farmers have sought to contest these discourses on ideological and normative grounds. In so doing, I place the cultural animal geographies literature in conversation with emergent literature on landscape and urban political ecology. Such a framing allows for a critical evaluation of the controversies surrounding this case, and their implications for human- animal cohabitation in cities. The paper reflects on the implications of this case for how we regulate human-animal relations and live in contemporary cities, and the crucial role of animals in altering urban form, aesthetics and everyday life, particularly in non-Western contexts.


•Develops the conceptual approach of landscape political ecology as a way to examine socio-environmental conflicts in urban contexts.

• Enhances understanding of the role of animals in shaping urban form and dynamics, and shaping urban policy.

•Highlights the complex factors involved in managing human-animal relations in cities, due to the agency of non-humans.

•Adds to understanding of politically and morally-infused claims to urban space, and competing socio-economic interests.

Read the full article here, free until January 7, 2017.

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.

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.