Thematic Areas of Investigation of the IIAS Cities Cluster

Initially developed by three Urban Knowledge Network Asia research groups, a set of themes links the activities in all three urban networks and the Asian Cities book series. These themes present the questions and explorations that remain of particular interest to the IIAS Cities cluster:  

  1. Ideas of the City
  2. Cities by and for the People
  3. Urban Transformation, Resilience and Justice

These themes overlap and are not exclusive—other work may also be accepted in the Cluster. They indicate the priorities of our urban platform partners and betray the values of the IIAS Cities cluster, i.e.:

We prefer multidisciplinary and even transdisciplinary approaches and modes of collaboration that critically evaluate mainstream Western theories of the city and have the potential to evolve into a broad and innovative, multidisciplinary body of knowledge that contributes to the dynamic development of Asian cities today. 

Theme 1: Ideas of the city

Urban phenomena in Asia raise questions among academics, politicians, and professionals, as they cannot be understood through the well-rooted categories of urban analysis, which are becoming more and more obsolete to take full account of contemporary urban realities. Recent transformations are so radical that the very idea of the “city”, as a recognizable spatial entity, are increasingly challenged. In this context, we believe that it is necessary to produce relevant new knowledge about the ideas, concepts, and representations that lie behind contemporary city-making. In the long term, our objective is to produce adequate theoretical tools that address the complexity of the ideas of the city in Asia, with an historical perspective, and which provide the keys to analyzing this complexity.  

Cities in Asia are entering the modern world through radical urban transformations. At a time when cities encroach into rural areas and give way to huge agglomerations connected by infrastructures, we question how various stakeholders imagine their urban futures, and in which directions these futures are evolving. Are the notions, which have been long and extensively used to define what the city “is”, and to distinguish it from what “it is not”, (for example the couple “urbanity” and “rurality”) still relevant? What are the new meanings that are associated with these notions, and, more broadly, with the well rooted categories of urban analysis? We are interested in the backgrounds and ethics of urban planning. How do agents who are involved in various ways in the process of city-making, conceive of a “good” and “liveable” city? What are the new ideals pursued by the architects, the planners, and the politicians? Do the discourses on the city, which are disseminated worldwide by the international organizations, shape the reflection of these actors? We think, in particular, of the labels, (such as the “creative city” and the “smart city”) which give voice to the aspirations of these actors and launch the international competition between the cities. 

On the one hand, partners in the IIAS Cities cluster ask whether urban planning is reflective of various forms of future-oriented narratives, which are shaped by the cultural background of the planners and are embedded into ethics, politics, and philosophy. On the other hand, we explore how urban planning relates to the past. At the time of modernity, planning cannot escape from making explicit its relation to inherited models and traces, even if it does so in terms of denial. Does urban planning mark a sharp break with the past, or to the contrary, does it embody it?  Which and whose pasts are given value, and why? Our research will include, but will not be limited by, the politics of urban heritage: it will broadly look at the way urban planning is inspired or incorporates inherited references, and with the reasoning which stands behind them. 

The research methodology will mainly consist of the analysis of spatial planning, considered in its relationship with theoretical, discursive, and ethical questions. Architectural projects, projects of urban complexes and neighborhoods, as well as heritage programs, will also be examined if they encapsulate urban ideals and social aspirations, which are reflective of broader concerns. 

We are particularly interested in contributions that examine the reactivation of inherited (sometimes ancient) urban models; the contemporary uses of heritage and the manipulation of urban history; the role of heritage in urban strategies; discourse analysis concerning the representation of the city; contemporary utopias and urban ideals; as well as the “virtualization” of the city, conceived as the backdrop for economic activity and the platform for technological innovation. 

Theme 2: Cities by and for the People

What are possible alternative spaces in the city, and how do they come together to reflect a city by and for the people? The flow of global assembly work to Asian cities since the 1970s began to alter peripheral urban landscapes to facilitate large industrial economic zones. This triggered waves of urbanization from the countryside in search of perceived better livelihoods in rapidly growing cities. By the late 1980s finance capital for new consumptive lifestyles arrived along with the increase of disposable income and people’s participation in the global economy. From this point on, the urban core experienced thorough transformations through privatization of urban spaces for mega-projects ranging from shopping malls to world business hubs and the world’s tallest buildings.  Large-scale gated housing and private new towns began to occupy agricultural land in peri-urban areas. 

Cities that had fewer than 1 million residents in 1970 grew to as much as 30 million within a short space of 3 decades of globalization and the new international division of labor.  Along with this growth and change came new urban lifestyles, widening social differences and disparities, as countries become more complexly urban. The attention given by commercial interests and governments to new lifestyles and global consumption diverted urban development discourse away from attention to the loss of public spaces, vernacular landscapes and from building meaningful urban neighborhoods and communities.

This urban development trajectory reflects a process of consciously forgetting that the city is a theatre of social action filled with social drama that consist of politics, education, and commerce that are richly significant in everyday life (Mumford, 1937; Jacobs, 1961). Inequalities and uncertainties have grown together with the urban population and diversity in today’s megacities (Simone and Rao, 2012). The widening social divides and the persistence of very low-income employment and inadequate housing (“slums”) in cities experiencing annual high rates of economic growth over several decades revealed that the role of cities as generators of increased prosperity for all and as new forms of egalitarian civilization was not occurring as portrayed in the earlier Western cities-based theories (McGee, 1974; Armstrong and McGee, 2007; Evers and Korff, 2001). 

For these reasons, redefining and reiterating the idea of the city in urban theory is essential for connecting epistemologies with current urban experiences. Redefining the idea of the city essentially means revisiting the right of people to be principal agents in constructing urban spaces, both socially and physically.  Such a reconceptualization would include but also go beyond economy and material aspects of what is summarized as “development” to include other important elements of human flourishing that arise from the conviviality of associational and public life, and capabilities for creative expressions of individual ideas, talents and aspirations.

Despite increasing corporatization of cities, efforts to counter the alienating forces of capitalist urban growth continue to be asserted through both non-violent insurgencies and cooperative projects for alternative development pathways.  Resistance movements against corporatization and privatization of public institutions and spaces, socially unjust economies, evictions and dispossessions and environmental destruction, among many others, are gaining in numbers of participants everywhere.  Practices of producing urban space, which are simultaneously physical and social processes, are observable and may help in theoretically defining the ‘people’ who could (and should) build the city. Local initiatives in neighborhoods and districts, including managing and governing them, are key manifestations of an inclusive city by and for the people. In urban and peri-urban areas people are engaging in the self-provisioning of food in community gardens both as a matter of having healthy alternatives and in response to rising costs of industrial food.  Some have spread throughout the city and to other urban areas. Several cities in Asia has also begun participatory budgeting in which district residents are involved in identifying problems that needs to be rectified in their localities. In some countries, communities are printing and using their own currency as a way to enhance synergistic economic linkages within them.  Other communities are adopting collective tenure as a means to prevent land speculation and gentrification. 

In an increasingly multi-cultural world in which international as well as intranational migrations are fuelling the growth of cities throughout Asia, an inclusive society cannot limit the idea of “cities by and for the people” to citizens or legal residents but will instead be judged by the ways in which it creates the city as Cosmopolis that welcomes the stranger.  In Asia today migrant workers receive incomes well below those of citizens, are quickly disposable, have exceptionally limited rights to collective consumption and to the city, and are not in line to become either permanent resident or citizen of the city or nation.  In these circumstances, the idea of the city and the epistemologies used to understand the urban condition require greater appreciation of the ways in which cities can accommodate and thrive from social, ethnic, and cultural diversity, which appears to be one of the greatest urban challenges of the 21st century.


Theme 3: Urban Transformation, Resilience and Justice

The urban challenge in the rapidly growing countries of Asia is well known: an estimated 1.1 billion people are expected to move to cities in Asia within the next 20 years.  These new urban dwellers will join the ranks of the 2 billion plus people already living in cities in Asia. The urban billions in Asia will house themselves in city centers and on the urban outskirts, in slums and newly built satellite cities. As cities expand, so residents’ lifestyles will change, and their ecological footprint will increase.   

These extraordinary trends raise many questions about the urban future in Asia.  These questions cover space and society, economy and livelihoods, politics and institutions, and the environment. What will Asian cities look like in 25 years’ time? What will the quality of life be for their residents? How will urban residents and migrants find work, access land, housing and services, and how will they feed themselves? What will be the state of infrastructure in Asian cities and the quality of urban air, water, and local waterways? How vulnerable will urban residents be to natural disasters? What kinds of urban transformations will be possible in cities in Asia and beyond—and what will these transformations mean for local communities, economies, and ecologies? In other words, what notions of “justice” need to be conceptualized, for humans and nature (and for humans as part of nature), as part of future urban growth? These and other questions are at the center of the exploration of urban transformations. The common thread linking all these questions—as well as this theme to the two other Cities themes—will be the identification and examination of long-term, transformative processes that increase the scope for the active engagement of urban residents in the creative production and shaping of their cities. 

For nearly three decades now, Asian countries have been heralded as the drivers of worldwide economic growth. The greatest potential is considered to be in the highly industrialized urban centers and in locations with a high-technology infrastructure base. But the future of cities is about more than the economy alone.  The overall objective of the Cities cluster is to contribute to “human flourishing” in Asian cities of the future. This requires—among others—economic well-being, a clean and secure environment, and the right to the city in the areas of access to adequate housing, services, and “life spaces” in the form of culture, urban heritage, public spaces, and associational life.   

Another set of challenges is in urban governance. How well are national—and perhaps even more important—city governments coping with fast urban growth?  How are various institutions responding to urban challenges at many levels?  How are different stakeholders and users of the city involved in local government decision-making?  What forms of public-private partnerships and partnerships with local communities are being developed? 

In discussing the future of “cities” it is impossible to overlook the role of the hinterland beyond the urban periphery. The regional scale is critically important to the urban population from the point of view of migration, planning, transportation, food security and the natural environment, including disaster management. While the focus will be on cities of the future, accurate insights about the future must be based on a coherent understanding of the urban present and past.