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.

 

 

Urban Heritage in Jakarta’s Riverine Communities

On the 5th of April, Dr. Rita Padawangi gave a presentation in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, NUS, discussing her research on ‘Urban Heritage in Jakarta’s Riverine Communities’.

Poster for Rita Padawangi’s presentation in the Southeast Asian Studies Seminar Series

Riverine communities of Southeast Asia have often been the foci of urban transformation or ‘revitalisation’ projects, which have sought to ‘clean up’ such communities to make them more amenable to capital accumulation, largely as sites of consumption for upper middle class members of society and foreign tourists/visitors. Examples include the Malacca River in Malaysia, which was redeveloped to attract tourists visiting the UNESCO World Heritage City (see Bunnell 1999; Cartier, 1998); or the Singapore River, which is now host to numerous bars and restaurants in the lively Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay Districts (see Chang et al, 2004). Such projects involve the removal and forced relocation of local residents and dwellings, thus replacing the vernacular (in)tangible heritage of the area with a reconstructed heritage landscape. As Dr. Padawangi noted in her presentation, rhetorics of health and disease are often used as official justification for the clearing of these areas (see Connolly et al, 2017).

In Dr. Padawangi’s talk, she used data from ethnographic interviews, field observations and discussions with residents of Jakarta’s riverine communities to examine how meanings of local places relate with the perceived historical significance and impacts of urban development in the affected areas. She contrasted this with official heritage discourse in the city which has long valorized the colonial heritage of the area, which is seen as more attractive to foreign tourists. Dr. Padawangi thus questioned the logic of replacing rather than preserving vernacular riverine communities in heritage and tourist development.

Dr. Padawangi has been Senior Research Fellow in the Asian Urbanisms Cluster for the past four years, but will sadly be leaving us for greener pastures at the Singapore University of Social Sciences this July.  She will also be organizing a symposium at Airlangga University in Surabaya, Indonesia, December 11-12th, 2017, titled: ‘River Cities: Water Space in Urban Development and History‘. If you are interested in this topic, please consider submitting a paper proposal. The deadline for abstracts is 1 May 2017.

Tracing narratives and perceptions in the political ecologies of health and disease

by Creighton Connolly

Post written for ENTITLE Blog

In a previous post on ‘Horses, bees and bodies: post-conference accounts from Lexington’, Panagiota Kotsila shared reflections on the 2015 Dimensions of Political Ecology (DOPE) Conference, where we organised a panel titled ‘Perceptions of Urban Environmental Health: Narrating Political Ecologies of Disease’. At the end of the post, she promised a forthcoming issue on the topic, which we have now published in the Journal of Political Ecology, with Giacomo D’Alisa.

While there have been some previous writings setting out a political ecology framework for the study of health and disease (e.g. King, 2010), we bring a particular approach to the sub-field, namely, the role of perceptions and discourse. We emphasize the role of health perceptions, in particular, as a way of exploring how people’s experiences of the local environment often differ from dominant discourses related to un/healthy environments, and the effects stemming from this disjuncture.

More recently, scholars have suggested more specific avenues through which the sub-field can be further developed and focused. For example, Jackson and Neely have argued for the incorporation of marxist-feminist, STS, and more-than-human approaches to the political ecology of health and disease (PEHD). Similarly, our special section also sets out three additional avenues which we think may be of use for future empirical studies in this area. These are the themes of environmental justice, place and landscape, and the political economy of disease. These theme emerged from the empirical contributions making up our special issue, and also relate to central themes in political ecology.

The concept of environmental justice, in particular seeks to expose the way that marginal populations, minorities, and the poor are more vulnerable to environmental and health hazards. This is aptly demonstrated in Kotsila’s article on ‘health dispossessions’ in the Mekong region of Vietnam, which shows how state discourse follows neoliberal approaches in individualizing health responsibilities and moralizing disease. As shown by Iengo and Armerio’s article on ‘the politicisation of ill bodies’ in Campania, Italy, the most affected by the disease are also (often) seen as the least credible in generating knowledge about environmental justice disputes, thus forcing such individuals to mobilize particular forms of embodied resistance. For this reason, Marcelo Porto and colleagues mobilise a political epistemological approach to the political ecology of disease, which recognizes that the way knowledge is produced (epistemology) plays a fundamental role in generating and confronting environmental justice disputes. They also develop the concept of ‘health as dignity’ to highlight the capacity of affected communities and their democratic alliances in addressing environmental conflicts. Relatedly, the article by Giacomo D’Alisa and colleagues on ‘the Land of Fires’ in Southern Italy, illustrates the importance of using a PEHD approach to studying environmental conflicts, firstly to highlight the role of victims of environmental disasters in fighting environmental crimes, and second, to challenge the ‘slow violence’ of toxic crimes.

Toxic Waste burning in the streets of Naples, Italy (image: Eduardo Castaldo).

The themes of place and landscape are central to the discipline of cultural geography, and have also been adopted in political ecology studies (see, e.g. Connolly, 2017). Two of the articles in this section use landscape as a form of inquiry for addressing political ecologies of disease. First is Jeff Rose’s insightful study of a group of ‘hillside residents’ in an American municipal park, which considers the role of material and discursive cleanliness as an agent of health in the construction of ‘sanitary’ urban environments. Second is Creighton Connolly’s study on the farming of edible birds’ nests in Penang, Malaysia, which demonstrates the dialectical relationship between landscape and discourse in producing political ecologies of disease. Together, these articles further demonstrate how the landscape concept can be utilized in seeing disease as not only determined through biophysical factors, but also constructed out of a particular set of social relations and lived experiences mediated through the landscape.

Finally, and relatedly, all of the articles in our special issue refer to the political economy of health and disease as a set of material and discursive practices that influence the incidence of disease, or are otherwise involved in the production of (un)healthy landscapes. Such an analysis recognises that health is structured by political and economic systems that influence the transmission of disease and the ability – or willingness – of health care agencies to effectively respond (see, e.g. Houston and Ruming, 2014). Through these foci, the empirical investigations provided in this special issue thus further rectify the gap between the material and the discursive, highlighting how the politics of health is shaped through the confluence of power relations, specific discourses and practices of communication in particular sites.

If you have any comments on the special issue, please leave them below, and we’ll get back to you. Alternatively, you can send an email to Creighton Connolly  or Panagiota Kotsila. Thank you for reading!

The Dilemma of Environmental Refugees in Asia: The Case of Disaster-Induced Urbanization in Bangladesh

Author: Marcel Bandur

Re-blogged from the ARI Disaster Governance Asia Blog

The global climate change, accelerated by anthropogenic interventions into the natural environment, has led to warmer temperatures, rising sea levels and an increased frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, extreme precipitation, harsh droughts, destructive storms and severe floods. Together, all these conditions contribute to the loss of livelihoods resulting from either slow or rapid onset disasters.  Some estimates predict that over the next 40 years global climate change will compel up to 200 million people to migrate. According to the Asian Development Bank, approximately 37 million people in India, 22 million in China, and 21 million in Indonesia will be at risk of displacement from rising sea levels by 2050. Extreme weather conditions affect rural dwellers and farmers disproportionately more than urban and middle-class citizens.

Currently, the majority of environmental refugees are displaced internally, with cities being within home countries their primary destination. A study published in Climatic Change on the 20 most populous cities expected to be exposed to coastal flooding by 2070, placed Dhaka third, behind Mumbai and Calcutta. Also in the top 10 are Guangzhou, Ho Chi Min City, Shanghai, Bangkok and Yangon. Miami is the only city in the top 10 that is located outside of Asia. Asia’s urbanisation and the expansion of Asian megacities are trends accelerated by the influx of environmental refugees.  As these trends continue, refugee movements are expected to increasingly witness the migration of people across national borders due to the extreme impacts of such massively impacting trends related to global climate change.  In Asia, this will include not only sea rise but also the melting of the Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers that are the sources of the majority of riparian systems in continental Asia.

The term “environmental refugee” was first coined by Lester Brown in 1976, who was attempting to amalgamate similar concepts floating around at the time. “Environmental migrant”, “climate change migrant” or “environmentally displaced person” are similar terms with one commonality: they all define an individual who is displaced due to extreme changes in environmental conditions that reach a point at which continuing to dwell in a locality is no longer viable. To-date, climate refugees are not officially recognised or protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was adopted before human-driven climate change became its own global crisis, and entered the global consciousness. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants recognizes that climate change is becoming a driver for people to leave their homes. Still, the rules are written for those escaping war zones or persecution, not creeping desertification or weather disasters. While the 1951 Convention remains the key legal document defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of governments, the world has changed dramatically over the past 60 years. No binding global agreements contain provisions for them, despite the first assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 suggesting that “the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration” (IPCC, 1990: 20).

The legal gap in the protection of environmental and climate change refugees poses a challenge to the nations such as Tuvalu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives, which are likely to lose significant part of their land over the next 50 years. As the number of environmental and climate change refugees will reach up to 200 million in the next 40 years, climate change will become the leading cause of displacement. Unless the international community addresses the glaring absence of the legal protection and support of environmental refugees, cross-border violence, human trafficking and humanitarian crises, as seen by the example of Bangladeshi climate refugees to the Assam region of India, are likely to prevail.

The intersection of environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation is most evident in the case of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. One quarter of Bangladesh and its 700 kilometres of low-lying coasts will be inundated by the end of the century. Sea rise will wipe out more cultivated land in Bangladesh than anywhere else in the world. Saltwater intrusion into low-lying coastal and rural areas has increased the saline content of groundwater, damaging fresh water supplies for human consumption and destroying the rice fields. By 2050, rice production is expected to drop by 10% and wheat production by 30%. In Bangladesh, the issues are magnified by the density of the population. The best current estimates state that rising sea levels alone will displace 18 million Bangladeshis within the next 40 years.

(Hazaribagh, Dhaka, Allison Joyce photoblog, 2000)

Dhaka is the fastest-growing megacity in the world. At least 400,000 people move to Dhaka every year, with 70% of Dhaka’s slum-dwellers having moved there fleeing environmental disruption. Most of the displaced Bangladeshis are from the Rangpur, Dinajpur and Gainbanda region basin area, where frequent floods and saline groundwater has destroyed the farmers’ livelihoods. Within two decades, the city’s population could double to 30 million. Supporting more than 14 million people on less than 325 km2 of land, the city’s drainage, waste management and transportation infrastructure is on the brink of collapse. The unsustainable levels of climate-induced displacement and migration causes a water supply-demand gap of 500m litres a day. It is estimated that currently 3.4 million people suffer from the scarcity of basic facilities like housing, healthcare, electricity and clean water. This number continues to increase exponentially.

Bangladesh contributes just 0.4 tonnes per capita to the carbon emissions (the US produces 17 and the UK 7.1), but the country, with Dhaka in particular, are suffering the hardest hit from environmental degradation caused by anthropogenic disruptions. Unsurprisingly, questions of environmental justice emerge, as the most polluting countries ought to share the burden. As discussed earlier, no international provision exists to protect environmental refugees. India, sharing more than 4,000km-long border with Bangladesh, is constructing a 3,400km of barbed wire fence. This makes the migration into India’s Assam dangerous and causes proliferation in human trafficking and smuggling of refugees escaping their lost livelihoods. In general, countries in South and East Asia have a bleak record of accepting refugees. Considering that the majority of environmental refugees in the next 40 years will come from countries in Asia, there is a danger of future socio-political contestation over migration policies in Asian countries.

The dynamics of environmental migration in Bangladesh foreshadow wider trends in Asia. Unsustainable urbanisation, proliferation of poverty and slum dwellers, depletion of vital resources, cross-border conflicts and ethnic violence will be the major challenges in the coming decades. Often, the nation-state apparatus proves ill-equipped to alleviate traumas caused by climate change migration. Increasingly, non-state actors, such as INGOs, MNCs and transnational diaspora communities appear to substitute the traditional role of a nation state in tackling humanitarian crises. The intertwinement of these megatrends is set to shape the face of migration politics and disaster governance in the Asia and the Pacific.

References:

Brown, L., Mcgrath, P., and Stokes, B., 1976. Twenty Two Dimensions of the Population Problem. Washington DC: Worldwatch Institute.

Hanson, S., et al, 2011. A global ranking of port cities with high exposure to climate extremes. Climatic Change , 104, 89-111.

IPCC, 1990. Policymakers’ summary of the potential impacts of climate change. Report from Working Group II to IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Commonwealth of Australia.

Poppy McPherson (in The Guardian), 2015. Dhaka: the city where climate refugees are already a reality. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/dec/01/dhaka-city-climate-refugees-reality. [Accessed 2 December 2016].

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.

Heritage Preservation as / and Community Movements in Wanchai, Hong Kong

By Desmond Sham

Wanchai is an urban area in Hong Kong, to the east of Central, which has been the political-economic centre of the city-state since the British colonial era. It was the primary settlement for ethnic Chinese in the early colonial period, although other ethnic groups also lived there. The vernacular, tenement buildings (tong lau) – the Hong Kong equivalent of the shophouse – began to emerge from the late 19th century. Since the 1930s, different kinds of industries, such as printing, construction, and rattan furniture-making, began to cluster in Wanchai. This area, on the south of Hennessey Road, was later colloquially known as “Old Wanchai”. In the 1950s and 1960s, the area had already developed into a very vibrant, mixed-use area ( Huang 2015) After the Central Barracks were demolished, office towers and commercial developments were constructed on the original barracks site, simultaneously expanding the commercial area of Hong Kong and removing the “buffer zone” between the central business district and the vibrant mixed area. Due to its proximity to the CBD, the Old Wanchai has been a targeted area of urban renewal by both the state and private sectors since 1980s.
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Within the first five years of the establishment of the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) in 2001, several urban renewal projects were launched in Wanchai. Unlike its predecessor, the URA was empowered to seek government orders for the requisition or forced purchase of land through the Land Resumption Ordinance, in the guise of “public interests”. Yet, in practice, after resuming the land, the URA usually bulldozes almost everything and collaborates with developers, while the profit made is not transferred into public revenue. Moreover, the affected residents and businesses were not given the option to “stay” in the URA’s plans. In Wanchai, community movements broke out at two affected neighbourhoods. Both community movements mobilized the discourses of heritage preservation.  The Lee Tung Street community movement started in 2004 was the pioneer. Their demand was that the owner-occupiers to use their “property ownership” to “participate” in the urban renewal process and to exchange for a flat or a shop respectively in the original site, or at least a nearby site (H16), after the urban renewal  (Huang 2015). They also called for the preservation of the built heritage, the “local characteristics”, namely the famous wedding-card printing shops and related industries that clustered in the street, and the “social network”. They proposed an alternative “Dumbbell Proposal”, which involved both the elements of heritage preservation and the protection of existing social networks (Huang 2015). The community movement of the Blue House cluster nearby was also a targeted urban renewal project of the URA. In original plan, the tong laus would be partially preserved and the converted to tourist spot, but the residents and businesses would be evicted. It was accused as a “fake” conservation. The community movement, on the other hand, came up with a counter-proposal of “living heritage preservation” that could “keep both the houses and the people”. In their counter-proposal, those residents who wanted to move out were to be resettled in public housings that they wanted, while those who wanted to stay were given the right to move back after the renovation. The remaining units were to be designed for community and cultural uses (Huang 2015; Chen and Szeto 2015). The result of the two community movements were different. Lee Tung Street was demolished in 2007, and luxury resident tower is now built at the site. After the huge protests and outcries of the society resulted in the demolition of the city’s important landmarks and neighbourhoods, the government later withdrew the Blue House Cluster as a URA project. The community movement also secured the role as the partner in the government’s “Revitalizing Historic Buildings through Partnership Scheme” to implement their alternative plan.

The mobilization of heritage discourses in these community movements were criticized for their failure to address the problem for “spectacularizing” the neighbourhood, failing to address and criticize the capitalist logic of urban renewal, and producing a gentrified, middle-class “cultural Wanchai”. However, I believe that the affected communities’ tactics needed to be contextualized. In the highly-commercialized society of Hong Kong, land has long been treated as commodity, and old buildings, like in many parts of Asia, are regarded as “devalued”. In the mainstream media’s narrative, the URA was often depicted as a “considerate” and “reasonable” organization willing to negotiate, which carried out redevelopment projects beneficial to the society. On the other hand, those affected residents and businesses refuse to leave were depicted as being merely selfish, greedy and wanting more “compensation”. The complexity in the conflict was reduced into an issue of money, and the reason behind why the amount was insufficient was often omitted. In such a context, regardless how reasonable the claim to be, pursuing any arguments involving the issue of “compensation” or rate of acquisition would be ignored or counter-productive. In contrast, the mobilization of “non-materialistic” discourses usher in a paradigm shift that the demands of the affected communities cannot be reduced to the question of “compensation”, just as their story cannot be reduced to the “greedy-ones-want-more” narrative (Huang 2015). The discourses of heritage preservation was chosen as a tactic partly because the URA opened this room in their guiding Urban Renewal Strategy. Accordingly, the “main objectives” of the urban renewal include the preservation of “buildings, sites and structures of historical, cultural or architectural interest”, “as far as practical local characteristics”, and “the social networks of the local community” (Planning and Lands Bureau 2001). This gave the room for affected communities to put in their definition of these key terms and urged for their demands.

The significance on community movements’ mobilization of heritage preservation discourses also goes beyond the geographical boundaries of the neighbourhoods. In the neoliberalizing city, capital accumulation by “recycling” urban spaces operate best in the absence of place-based identities because attachment to place can provide the basis for a strong resistance to the uprooting and demolition of urban landmarks.  As a shared and “common” notion, cultural heritage provides an alternative through which one’s relationship with a place can be addressed beyond, if not irreducible to, the terms of “property” and exchange value. A major criticism of the mobilization of the discourses of heritage preservation in the community movement is that such tactic is a compromise and does not address the capitalist logic in urban renewal. Yet, paradoxically, it is through bypassing the more direct political-economic side, and bypassing the language of distribution, that makes the critique of, and offering the alternative beyond, the property regime possible, which is rooted in the colonial practices. Cultural heritage can be used to address the right to city, including the right to planning, because they are also not defined purely in terms of “private property” and exchange value. The mobilization of heritage preservation in community movements, in this sense, actually decolonizes the concept of land, and provides space for imagining a new urban common. Similar to many other urban social movements, such tactics may not be always successful. They may face many challenges not necessarily from within. Yet, it is through these spaces for desiring a better future, and “spaces of hope” (Harvey 2000) are created, no matter how small it may be.

* The article is a summary of the author’s presentation “Decolonizing the Land, Imagining a New Urban Common: Heritage Preservation as/and Community Movement in Hong Kong” at ARI’s cluster seminar on 24 Nov 2016.

Bibliography

Chen, Yun-chung, and Mirana May Szeto. 2015. “The Forgotten Road of Progressive Localism: New Preservation Movement in Hong Kong.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 16 (3): 436–53. doi:10.1080/14649373.2015.1071694.

Harvey, David. 2000. Spaces of Hope. University of California Press.

Huang, Shu-Mei. 2015. Urbanizing Carescapes of Hong Kong : Two Systems, One City. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

Planning and Lands Bureau. 2001. Urban Renewal Strategy, Hong Kong.

Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia and the Pacific

by Michelle Miller and Marcel Bandur
On November 17-18th, the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at ARI hosted a two-day workshop on ‘Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia’. Organised by Michelle Miller and Mike Douglass, this interdisciplinary conference brought together 28 scholars representing 11 disciplinary backgrounds to show how research on environmental disasters in the Asia-Pacific region illuminates questions of disaster justice from historical and contemporary perspectives. The event combined the richness of on-the-ground research with new insights into how to conceptualize and govern disasters from normative as well as explanatory perspectives. Our central organising premise for the conference was that disaster justice as a moral claim on governance arises from anthropogenic interventions in nature that incubate disasters and magnify their socially and spatially uneven impacts. The conversations generated by the event yielded rich insights into how the changing geographies of vulnerability accompanying the urban transition in Asia and the Pacific are adding new dimensions to disaster governance and justice.

Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia
Disaster Justice in Anthropocene Asia

As all disasters occur in political space, disaster justice is situated in spheres of governance and in the context of the rapidly urbanizing societies of the Asia-Pacific that are increasingly impacted by the advent of the Anthropocene, namely, the destructive human transformations of nature that are significant drivers of environmental disasters. Growing awareness of human complicity in creating socially and spatially uneven vulnerabilities to disasters is generating discontents and mobilizations for disaster justice as moral claims for more effective and inclusive modes of disaster prevention, mitigation, management and redress. Posing disaster justice as a problem of governance thus covers a set of issues that encompass but are also differentiated from such allied concepts as environmental and climate justice. As intense events that cause widespread harm and overwhelm existing capacities to respond, disasters generate highly charged but exceptionally complex questions of justice. These factors, combined with the increasingly compound characteristics of environmental disasters (for instance, when a tsunami leads to a nuclear power plant meltdown) further complicate issues of justice in establishing causalities, attributing blame, identifying victims and (re-)establishing working solutions.

Keynote speaker Robert Verchik from Loyola University opened the conference by laying out the social, legal and policy dimensions of managing physical exposure to, and social vulnerabilities rooted in spatial inequalities to explicate the linkages between building community resilience and fighting disaster-related injustices. He emphasised that “in the Anthropocene, there is no such thing as a natural disaster”. Indeed, disaster justice as a moral claim on governance arises from anthropogenic interventions in nature that incubate disasters and magnify their socially and spatially uneven impacts.

Keynote Speaker Robert Verchick (Loyola University)
Keynote Speaker Robert Verchick (Loyola University)

D. Parthasarathy of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay opened the second day of the conference with a keynote address on the moral imperative of interrogating uncertainty at multiple scales of governance and from diverse perspectives as a pre-requisite for enhancing resilience, coping and adaptation for long-term disaster risk reduction in urbanising populations across the Asia-Pacific.

Day two keynote speaker D. Parthasarathy
Day two keynote speaker D. Parthasarathy

Isaac Kerlow from the Earth Observatory of Singapore screened his short film titled “Change”. The conference participants were only the 2nd audience to watch the film, after it premiered the day before. The short film explored the disruption of the Earth’s natural balance due to rapid changes caused by our growth and prosperity.
The conference included themed panels based on paper presentations that spoke to questions of historicising disaster justice, justice in anthropogenic disasters, the politics of inclusion and exclusion in disaster (in)justices, the role of civil society in claims for disaster justice, and a special panel on disaster justice in South Asian localities, namely India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Given the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, the discussions generated significant insights drawing from a wide range of conceptual lenses and on-the-ground research.
Finding a consensus on the definition of Disaster Justice was not the goal of the conference. Rather, the conference highlighted what Disaster Justice mean for various communities and polities. The notion of Disaster Justice is yet to be played out, especially in light of raising consciousness regarding the anthropogenic essence of disasters. More importantly, this conference succeeded in fostering a diverse community of scholars and practitioners alike to draw Disaster Justice closer to the centre stage of academic and socio-political discourses.
Taken together, the conference surpassed expectations in pushing the parameters of theorising on the understudied concept of disaster justice within and beyond the rapidly urbanising societies of the Asia-Pacific, which are increasingly vulnerable to environmental disasters and their cascading impacts.

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.

Highlights:

•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.

Conference: Disastrous Pasts: New Directions in Asian Disaster History

By Fiona Williamson and Chris Courtney

The interdisciplinary conference “Disastrous Pasts: New Directions in Asian Disaster History” will be held on 21-22 November at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Its focus is the role played by disasters in the history of Asia what past disasters can teach us about present conditions. It aims to explore the following key themes:

How did historic communities cope with disasters?
How have perceptions of environmental hazards changed over time and varied between cultures?
How can scholars develop cross-disciplinary dialogues to improve the understanding of disasters?
How have environmental hazards interacted with famines in the history of Asia?
How have epidemiological transitions and changes to public health influenced the outcome of disasters?

The full program and more details are available here: https://ari.nus.edu.sg/Event/Detail/f9b3d624-abc3-4564-8c79-450a1a3a5f32

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

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

Venue
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

Lim_CityPossible

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. 

PROGRAM

 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
 
A HOUSE IS A HOME
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
                               
COMMUNITY CONTINUITIES
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
 
PUBLIC SPACES
Kolor Kathmandu | Suraj Ratna Shakya
Hong Lim Park | Henry Mochida
Yang Ketu7uh | WatchDoc
 
8:00 – 8:20 pm                   INTERMISSION | Light snacks will be provided.
                                               
PERFORMANCE BY BLUES 77
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
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
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
                               
LIVELIHOODS
The New York Street Vendors | Samuel Enblom
Dhaka Stories: Calling Home | Shadman Alvi
Head Porters Become Business Women in Accra’s Slums | Next City
                               
ARTS AND COMMUNITY
                                                Stand by Me: Playing for Change | Mark Johnson
Voices to be Heard | Henry Mochida
 
9:30 – 9:45 pm                   MEET THE FILMMAKER SESSION
Yaminay Chaudhri 
visual artist based in Karachi and New York
 
9:45 – 10:00 pm                 CLOSING REMARKS & INFORMAL DISCUSSIONS
 
10:00 pm                              END
 
 

Event: The Quotidian Anthropocene: Reconfiguring Environments in Urbanizing Asia

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

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

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

E | 
arietv@nus.edu.sg
 

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

bikes

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: http://societyandspace.com/2014/06/06/volume-32-issue-3-now-out/

The open access version appears here:
http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=d14043cm

Recommended Reading

Radical_Cities_-_300_RGB

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.
from: http://www.versobooks.com/books/1646-radical-cities

Snaps from the Field: Paete

by Dr. Marco Garrido

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

Paete from atop
Paete from above
Paete street
Paete street

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

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

Workers at night
Workers at night
Master woodcarver
Master woodcarver

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

Making papier mache
Making papier mache
Gallery
Gallery

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

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

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

 

 

Event: Cyber-Urban Connections

by Peter Marolt

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

Cyber-Urban Connections s

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you all for your interest and participation!

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