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A Rich Ensemble of Cases (Review)

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Gregory Bracken, Paul Rabé, R. Parthasarathy, Neha Sami, and Bing Zhang (eds). 2020.
Future Challenges of Cities in Asia
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
ISBN 9789463728812

Asia’s ongoing urbanisation has created unprecedented opportunities for co-creating deep, contextual knowledge on the multiplicity of issues at hand and ways in which these can be reconciled inclusively in the best interests of all stakeholders. The scholarly literature emergent from this realm of exciting and provoking possibilities is necessarily multisited and interdisciplinary, drawing as much from local experiences of governance, infrastructure, planning, heritage, and risk as from regional and global iterations of these key nodes – constituting the social and economic basis of Asian urbanity. In a century poised to be urban and Asian in equal measure, such research acts as a valuable signpost for timely introspection and investigation of our bearings amidst the fast and often unsettling transformation of our cities.

The volume under consideration, Future Challenges of Cities in Asia, is a pertinent addition to the growing corpus of such scholarship. Produced under the aegis of the Urban Knowledge Network Asia, one of the most dynamic and collaborative knowledge sharing networks in the field, this book is the third and final volume in an Asian Cities series which is known for the robustness of its interventions in our understanding of Asian urbanisation. Comprising case studies on cities like Shenzhen, Beijing, Shanghai, Cagayan de Oro, Bangkok, Jakarta, Ahmadabad, Delhi, and Hong Kong, the 10 essays curated in this volume present a series of concerns which affect all of them to varying extents.

Immanence, Local traditions, and Experiential knowledge
The volume begins with Shiqiao Li’s thoughtful piece on human agency in Asian Cities. Arguing that research needs to think with Asia and not about it, Li proposes a tripartite framework to distinguish Asian cities from their Western counterparts: ‘a conception of inclusive land rights, a normative understanding of labor, and an aesthetics of contingency in cultural life’ (p. 24). His assertion that immanence has been a key principle in Asian thought and worldview is a useful corrective to the dominance of transcendence as a cherished ideal and goal in Western intellectual and cultural life. His broad claim that expansion in the Indian and Chinese economies over the past few decades is due in part to the inclusive cultural notions of land rights in these societies may not stand to close scrutiny though – nor, similarly, might his optimistic assessment of ‘the better position of individual human agency’ in Asian countries (p. 36). Nonetheless, his suggestion that we dig deeper into our own traditions of humanism to reshape the contours of our sociopolitical discourse is an important methodological directive which can make urban research more rooted and responsive.

This call to reshape Asian cities in greater sync with local philosophies and patterns of use is reflected in Lei Qu’s essay on urban villages in Shenzhen. Criticising the tabula rasa approach adopted by municipal and regional planners in the development of Shenzhen’s urban villages. Qu asserts that these settlements must be seen as arrival cities for low-income migrants and developed so as to balance economic incentives and social responsibilities for all key stakeholders, i.e. landowners, city planners, migrants, local businesses, and property developers. Her suggestion that layered precincts like urban villages – which have complex use and ownership patterns – should be developed by adapting and reshaping ‘the existing urban form for new social relations, using participation and collaboration among stakeholders’ is an important one, as is her astute observation that this model of urban policy paradigm may be applied to other cities even though Shenzhen’s urban villages are not slums and/or illegal settlements as in many other Asian cities (p. 59).

Likewise, the essay by Hendricus Andy Simarmata, Anna-Katharina Hornidge, and Christoph Antweiler on flood-related vulnerability of the urban poor in Jakarta foregrounds a ‘people-centric’ model of vulnerability assessment (p. 187). Arguing that top-down risk assessment tends to generate blanket notions of vulnerability which ignore local people’s agency and experiential knowledge for collective resilience, the authors emphasise on the importance of identifying ‘the individual life-world as a baseline in order to differentiate the level of adaptive capacity’ (p. 197). Their evaluation of flood-prone kampungs in Jakarta from this perspective of tacit knowledge of the urban poor makes for compelling reading, though the implicit suggestion that communities in such vulnerable areas should be allowed to continue – albeit with greater resilience – is a little difficult to digest. The challenge to balance precarious, informal livelihoods with growing risks of natural disasters is addressed here only at the microscopic level of the neighbourhood, which may not be sufficient in the future.

Decentralising Institutions: Heritage, Disasters, and Infrastructure
Most other essays in the volume focus more on institutional mechanisms and the need to decentralise their work in a more participatory manner. Wan Liu’s essay on Beijing and Non Arkaraprasertkul’s study on Shanghai make strong statements on the prevalent malaise of gentrification and manufactured authenticity in urban heritage management. From a rigidly centralised model of cultural showcasing in the 1980s to a primarily market-driven model of gentrification in the 2000s to a cautiously participatory model of ‘microcircular’ renovation in the 2010s, Liu’s essay on urban regeneration in Beijing’s old city is an engaging – if somewhat familiar – account of the trajectory taken by municipal and national governments in reorienting their construction, tangible heritage as highly visible assets in today’s globalised tourism economy. She gives a series of provocations which encompass the stakes at hand in such culture-led regeneration of inner cities: perceived divergence between cultural strategies and economic goals and difficulties in reconciling revitalisation of built heritage with pre-existing intangible social ecologies. Similarly, Arkaraprasertkul’s essay analyses how aspirational city-branding in Asian cities often selectively repurposes some kinds of old and dilapidated housing stock as cultural commodities to be easily accessed and consumed by primarily overseas tourists. His correlation of scarcity with heritage is an interesting one: arguing that Shanghai’s government began to consider lilong as significant to the city’s architectural heritage only after most of them had been demolished, he contends that ‘weakly defined’ notions of the ‘common good’ have allowed the state to displace long-standing working class residents to urban peripheries (p. 119).

In a similar vein, Carmeli Marie Chaves and Danny Marks argue for a more socially responsive planning for disaster risk mitigation in their essays on flooding in Philippines and Thailand respectively. Taking the example of Cagayan de Oro, Chaves points out that community-led strategies for building resilience in keeping with national and international risk mitigation guidelines have allowed vulnerable urban barangays to insure themselves to an extent against the kind of damage they suffered in the wake of the tropical storm Sendong in 2011. Significantly, Chaves traces a connection between indiscriminate logging and mining in the city’s surrounding highlands to extensive urban flooding in cases of natural disasters: this is an important qualification to make when planning for communities at the neighbourhood level, because the local never really operates in isolation of the regional. This point is also iterated by Marks, who notes that ‘anthropogenic changes to the built environment’ of Bangkok have made its economically weaker and peri-urban communities increasingly vulnerable to the risk of flooding as well as coastal erosion (p. 163). Marks’s assessment of climate injustice at the urban-scale level of Bangkok goes a step forward than Chaves to find specific biases in the city’s governance paradigm that favour the elite, inner city core. His cutting critique of the thematization of climate change awareness as volunteer-based awareness campaigns will also find resonance in multiple Asian cities, where the state pays only lip service to its commitments towards sustainable and resilient futures.

Urban infrastructure is another major issue addressed by the book’s contributors. Ian Mell’s essay on the economic utility and social need of Green Infrastructure in the urbanising cities of Asia takes as its sites two Indian cities, Ahmadabad and Delhi. Mell’s comments on Green Infrastructure and ecological planning may be taken as useful tools to situate environmental resources as central to urban lives and livelihoods, but his evaluation of these in operation in these two cities seems a little too optimistic to be taken at face value. It does not help that he picks up two of the most controversial riverfront development projects in contemporary India to substantiate his claims that ‘G[reen] I[nfrastructure] is beginning to position itself as an approach to urban development that is socioeconomically viable’ (p. 237). Amogh Arakali and Jyothi Koduganti, however, scale up their assessment of infrastructure to the regional level in their straightforward essay on large infrastructure projects in Asia. They rightly see corridors as ‘spatial forms that integrate disparate urban centres into more cohesive regional areas’ (p. 279), and give examples from Japan, India, and Malaysia to support this argument. Yet, their recommendation that planning for such industrial corridors needs to consider the deep footprint on pre-existing urban settlements and forms lacks interest and could have been fleshed out with a little more ingenuity.

Towards Inter-referencing of Urban Research
It would have been fitting to have ended this volume with Clément Musil’s essay on Hong Kong’s Rail-plus-Property model, a rigorous analysis of the much-lauded land-value capture paradigm instituted by the city’s Mass Transit Railway Corporation . Musil’s assessment of Mass Transit Railway Corporation ’s spectacular and consistent profitability dwells on the peculiar conditions of its inception in the 1970s, when the colonial government sought to develop a profitable mass transit network which would not only solve congestion but also allow pay dividends by acting as a real estate developer. His observation that there is an inherent conflict of interest at hand in Mass Transit Railway Corporation being a ‘publicly listed company ... [but] also a public policy instrument’ must be kept in mind for those looking to study the feasibility of its Rail-plus-Property model in other Asian cities: this is, as Musil reminds us, primarily an urban governance challenge, and institutional mechanisms and stakeholders must be taken into consideration before any simplistic inter-referencing of such successful models of urban transit development (p. 264).

On the whole, though, inter-referencing in research is what this book accomplishes the most. Notwithstanding a lacklustre introduction and a striking paucity of contributions on Central Asia and the Middle East, the editors have been successful in compiling a compelling cluster of cases on some of the most pressing concerns for Asian urbanisation in the 21st century. These essays open many more avenues for further research into urban planning, heritage management, disaster risk mitigation, and infrastructure in a manner which is not only interdisciplinary but also in constant conversation with multiple levels and kinds of the urban – inter-referencing and modelling may not, after all, be fully undesirable in academics. One can only hope that such a rooted body of scholarship goes on to have a life beyond bookshelves and influences urban policy in the near future.

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