Category Archives: Spaces of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


CityPossible III Film Festival


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

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

Registration info and full program available here. 


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


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

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

By Tharuka Prematillake Thibbotuwawa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bike Friendly and People Friendly City

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Publication Update: “Cities and their grassroutes”

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

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

The open access version appears here:

Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema: Projection, Perception & Public Space

by Ms. Yaminay Chaudhri, Artist & Founder ‘Tentative Collective’ and Dr. Nausheen H. Anwar, Research Fellow, Asian Urbanisms, ARI

Since February 2013, using a rickshaw powered projector Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema has been projecting cell phone videos in the neighborhoods in which they are made. These are different neighborhoods located across Karachi’s Central, South and Malir Districts. With an estimated population of 21 million, Karachi is a melting pot of diasporas and multiple ethnicities and one of Asia’s fastest growing cities. Produced in response to the prompt “Home: What did you do last Sunday?” the videos provide snapshots into life in the city. The video projection events transform expectations of everyday private and public space, and create new zones for collectivity and conviviality. This work has traveled to various residential neighborhoods and most recently in and around the old railway or Cantt Station that was built during British colonial rule. Multiple visits to each place generate new insights into the ephemeral identities of the various actors and the subjective spaces they inhabit. We are interested in creating a means by which individuals can wrest this city’s narratives from the homogenizing gaze of mass media, destabilizing stereotypes and unpacking assumptions along the way.

Our exploration is complicated by the gendered nature of public space, by the parameters of permeability and penetrability, and by the amplification of desire in the presence of vernacular mobile technology. By responding to the above and more, we wonder if this journey might lead to alternative perceptions of the city; revelations about invisible public space; and new ways of examining the power dynamics between seeing and showing. We take a cue from the philosopher John Dewey (Art as Experience, 1934):

“Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living. Under conditions of resistance and conflict, aspects and elements of the self and the world that are implicated in this interaction qualify experience with emotions and ideas so that conscious intent emerges. Oftentimes, however, the experience had is inchoate. Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience. There is distraction and dispersion; what we observe and what we think, what we desire and what we get, are at odds with each other. We put our hands to the plow and turn back; we start and then we stop, not because the experience has reached the end for the sake of which it was initiated but because of extraneous interruptions or of inner lethargy.”

With this introduction by John Dewey, let us enter the experience of two screenings: First one held in Ali Akbar Shah Goth, a low-income settlement situated near Karachi’s shoreline and comprising Bengali and Burmese-Rohingya migrants whose livelihood is tied to the export-oriented fishing industry; Second one held in an upscale locale known as the Defence Housing Society where the videos were projected at a popular café, the T2F. Our navigations in Ali Akbar Shah goth were facilitated by Zebunissah, a muhajir migrant and long-time resident of this neighborhood. She has joined our project as a community leader.

Screening #1.

Our rickshaw puttered and sped off from a suburb by the sea,
equipped with machines,
and us in the back.
It was bright still.
We cruised through the broad, paved boulevard.
February sea breeze,
open views, exhilaration.
Turned towards in-coming traffic to get onto the Korangi Creek flyover.
swarms of motorcycles, vans and buses
at the Korangi Crossing.
Stabilized vibrating cameras, made them discreet.
Passed a zoo, kites images of Altaf Hussain in his forties.
We turned right, after a cricket ground.
The road ended in a ditch.
Followed traffic wrong way.
Pressed on the railings.
Put down the cameras.
Took another right onto the narrow street which goes to the Fish Market.
Slowed down just before the big cricket ground.
Landed in front of a small empty
plot marked by mobile phone shops,
trash heap,
and an empty flag post with a concrete base.
Surrounded by eyes now.
dead fish.
Burning plastic.
I held my breath.
We stopped.

Zeb was waiting for us near the flag post in her burqa. She climbed on. We asked her for permission to film, we usually leave the DSLR cameras at home. Zeb grabbed the camera to shoot for a while.

The gali gets narrower.
A crowd started appearing.
No confusion.
Just a buzz. We were led towards the selected wall.
The ground of the gali was soft and bumpy,
raised where it met the boundary of each
house that defined it’s edges.
The boundaries were concrete
punctured by doors and windows
separating spaces of intimate activities from the gali.
Our purple lights seeped into interiors through
crevices in the facade. Eyes peered back at us.
The boundary became chaotic, permeable,
and blurred.

As the rickshaw docked in the Thekedar’s gali, we noticed that the whole vehicle was tilted to one side.

The crevices in ­the gali delivered bodies, pick axes, a shovel and within seconds men began to level a patch of ground so we could flatten. The projector was pulled out.

A frenzy of wiring and connections
facilitated by a hundred eyes. Light.
Light hit the surface of the concrete-
the boundary-
the wall-
the exterior-
one edge of the gali.
And created an ephemeral window of moving images of everyday life
—in an ‘everyday’ space.
We were submerged.
Recognition of faces on the wall.
Zeb’s familiar voice on the microphone.
A kid fighting.
An arm hooking his collar from above, pulling him out of
the thick jumble of bodies.
I can smell the sweat of the man standing next to me.
He is suspended with the projection.


Screening #2.

Hurried loading, nervous drive to boulevard.
June heat. Humid, still air.
Red qameez, less sweaty without burqa.
Slow left turn onto commercial street.
Naala. barb-Q chicken.
Expensive fruit.
We wait for a Hilux,
Slip into a smaller commercial gali.
Apartment blocks with balconies.
Corrugated metal facades and boundary walls with bougainvillea.
An opening. A vacant lot with three media vans and several Honda Cities.
A heated argument. Someone helped us empty the lot.
Loud music filters into the lot every time a lady gets dropped off by the entrance of the mela.
It’s air conditioned inside. We are waiting with our lights turned on.
The ground is soft and bumpy.
Wait for our cue. The crowd gathers. Cops drive by in a big mobile van. Guns hanging out.
We turn off the lights.
Lights on again. Farhad and Talha work the deck projector and laptop.
The promo rings through the neighborhood and videos begin.
Teenagers are taking pictures with the rickshaw. Someone wants a ride.

A man starts measuring our trunk and announces that he is doing something just like this- but at a bigger scale.

It sounds like people are having much more fun inside.

Zeb arrives with NoorAmeen Farooq, Poleecha and a friend. We hug. The girls are not wearing their burqas today.

They huddle around the rickshaw.
Too shy to introduce themselves to the audience.

People seem divided. Pulled apart into groups and layers by class. The ladies and mela team are close to the entrance of T2f. Our friends stand close to us. Noor Ameen refuses to leave the rickshaw. His video plays.

The fight scene seems to go on too long.
The tailors and drivers are standing together in an outer ring.
Cheering for Farooq.

Someone says, “what’s the theme? I think the videos need to be shorter, with more special effects”.

Our work is complicated by the fact that defining the ‘everyday’ is very important to analyzing the effect we have on transforming it. But how does one define the everyday?

If we do it quantitatively we run the risk of oversimplifying our subjects. Defining it qualitatively varies from narrator to narrator and gali to gali, and runs the risk of exoticising the experience. Hence as unwilling representatives, we cannot simply list a series of actions and personal observations (as above) but must also include the tricky description of the collective experience. How do we do that? Can we claim authority when we say that a convivial sensory experience was felt so strongly that it was

transformative to the group

All we can do by writing and speaking here is to recreate a projection for you- an audience many times removed

Using our bias, you will construct your own opinion of what we are doing based on this presentation of

and minutia.

In fact, the more obscure our description of what we are doing the better. Because any attempt at description takes away the blur and multiplicity of the projected experience—and the ambiguity of its perceptions.

This project was made possible by numerous donations from individuals, and organizations including a grant from the Asia Research Institute, National University Singapore.

The cost of urbanization?

by Rita Padawangi

TODAY paper reported that a banyan tree in Toa Payoh Central fell a few days ago. No injuries reported, but it damaged a small shrine under its hanging roots.

This tree, the 40+ year-old shrine and the people attached to it was the main feature of one of the short films in the City Possible II Film Festival on 2 July 2013, titled “Leaf of Faith”.

The film left us wondering how the shrine would survive amidst the development push to remove the tree. Resembling a more or less ‘close to ideal’, but not happy ending, finale to the story, the tree fell on its own. The tree can only be removed if the guardian spirits let it die.

From another perspective, the tree had been surrounded by dense housing developments that look pretty much suffocating for the tree itself. This also reminds us to the recent talk on Channel 5 on floods in Singapore: is it natural or man-made? We have seen green areas disappearing in Singapore. The greens surrounding another living heritage, Singapore’s dragon kilns, are also disappearing. Bukit Brown, a natural heritage on its own, is also going to be reduced and subsequently planned for a residential development.

In Jakarta, where floods become more and more frequent and prevalent, urbanization has been blamed for 50% increase in water runoff, which subsequently caused floods. Green and penetrable areas of the Ciliwung River watershed have been reduced significantly since the 1970s and continue to decline. But still, more land clearance and concrete developments continue.

Is there an alternative to development as usual? Is another city possible? If so, how should it be?

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.

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.