Messy Urbanism, a Messy Concept?

Hans Schenk

A book on messy urbanism and urban mess gives an exposure to realities in Asian cities beyond the notions and norms of urban order. A useful picture but messy too, without sufficient attention to underlying causes.

Messy urbanism, urban messiness, urban informality

Eleven case studies on specific examples of messy urbanism in Asian cities are embedded in an introduction and an epilogue by the editors, in which the object of study is introduced and evaluated. What is this object actually? Chalana and Hou are interested in the “urban conditions and processes that do not follow institutionalized or cultural prescribed notions of order” (4-5) or at least dominant notions of order. This broad perspective is subsequently specified, first by an indication of the meaning of ‘order’ in the context of urbanisation and urbanism. This order, Chalana and Hou argue, finds its roots in the mainstream urban planning discourses in the early 20th century, such as the Garden City movement and the Modernism movement: efforts to an orderly and planned eradication of urban squalor, diseases and unrest: messiness in short. It is then ironically enough that the editors mention subsequently the mid-20th century “revolt against so-called rational planning” (6) that paved the way to acknowledge other and less orderly forms of planning, including messy decision making. Hence, in a way, this post-modern critique (‘revolt’) worded by Jane Jacobs in her work on New York, and others directed to the – at that time – mainstream urban planning, can be seen as the cradle of messy urbanism. It is now formulated by Chalana and Hou: “as a call to question and challenge the predominant hegemonic urban orders as manifested and embodied in the normative planning and design of urban spaces and the operations of dominant social and political institutions” (17). Instead, “By focusing on the actual, alternative production of urban spaces” (17), the editors aim at highlighting the multitude of actors and actions that create actually existing (and messy) cities.

Messiness, notably with regard to housing and to labour relations and conditions includes, the editors write, urban informality. This clarifies the idea of messy urbanism, and its related urban messiness further. Chalana and Hou mention “premodern and informal neighbourhoods” (8) often in inner cities, such as the Beijing hutong; as well as hawkers and other traders and providers of urban services who tend to operate in central parts of cities. Informal neighbourhoods, argue the editors, are threatened by the current wave of modernisation (or is it now worldclassisation?) of Asian cities through bulldozers of costly land hungry developers, in order to be “refashioned by high-end neighbourhoods using hypermodern and global aesthetics” (11), of course without hawkers.

Messy urbanism in Asian cities

Eleven case studies give sharper contours to the introductory outline of the concept of messy urbanism. Often, a distinction has been made between an appearance of (often dominant) order, in the meaning given by Chalan and Hou, and a counter-order, sometimes called messy. These phenomena may oppose each other, but a ‘silent’ stable or instable balance may be found as well. In the first two chapters Annette M. Kim and Abidin Kusno each show, by investigating contested usages on sidewalks and streets, how the concepts of order and of messiness depend on historically defined power structures. Kim observes for Saigon, the former colonial part of Ho Chi Minh City, the grand scale of sidewalks: “landscaped for promenading and socializing” (29). In contrast hawkers, vendors, etc. constitute now a vibrant sidewalk life that deviates from formal plans and regulations. Kusno adds a more powerful dynamic component. He observes how assumed messiness in the inner city kampung of Jakarta has been eliminated following the “capitalist modernization” (52) of the city, but has taken revenge and returned in the form of rebellion of the underclass, represented by motorbike-taxis, who seem “to stage a kind of psychological warfare with cars over the right to use the limited space of the street” (56). José Edgardo A. Gomez Jr. adds for Manila a vertical three tier layered universe from an unplanned underground of squatters under bridges or on idle land via the broad daylight of main roads where citizens – “well-starched and pomaded yuppies running the rat race” (68) – to the upward limits of urban growth, symbolized by the global consumerist symbols: sky-high billboards. Messiness, hence, is nothing but a “layered and pervious scheme of things through which citizens can navigate and negotiate their lives” (77). Koompong Noobanjong writes about the Royal Field (Sanam Luang) in Bangkok, a sizeable oval open field bordering the Royal Palace and a range of ministries, museums, universities, etc., and a symbol for the state authorities to “manifest, legitimize and maintain their hegemonic power” (81). The field has been transformed frequently: from a royal ground to a public place and now a site for recreation. Though its transformations symbolize the political changes of Thailand, the field remains a symbol of the country, while its messy history lies in the changing and sometimes contradictory manifestations of the power of the state.

Ken Tadashi Oshima, in a challenging essay, focuses on Shinjuku district (Tokyo), and describes the constantly changing urban built form, as well as the co-existence of high rise modern buildings next to neighbourhoods with a “fuzzy legal position” (114-5), all around an immense public transport hub. He starts, however, to express fundamental questions about the meaning of ‘messy’, by trying to find a Japanese equivalent. He hesitates between ‘dirty’ (kitanai), ‘scattered’, ‘loose’, ‘disconnected’ (bara bara) and ‘disorder’, ‘incoherence’ (mechakucha), but concludes that messy urbanism “embraces all forms of urbanism in juxtaposition to each other” (103), while the district in its turn is defying any dichotomy in terms of order and chaos, modern and traditional, etc., but “shifts and evolves like a river – rough, then calm, moving, constantly changing form, always bringing life to human existence” (117). Turning to another Asian city, two chapters are devoted to what might be messy urbanism in Hong Kong. It creates gentle mess, if at all. The first study, by Daisy Tam, is on the congregation of the about 300,000 Philippine domestic workers on their day off in the centre of Hong Kong: ‘Little Manila’. Notably sections of the elaborate system of overhead walkways connecting offices and malls form a destination for a social gathering, and walkways are neatly separated in one section for thorough fare and another for sitting. Some consider this congregation as a “messy deviation from the norm” (122), but others realize the importance of these in-migrants in the local economy. Tam concludes that: “migrant workers do not vandalize the face of Hong Kong. They are what makes Hong Kong” (133), and that has now been understood by local authorities who sanction and regulate the gathering after failed attempts to move the workers out of sight. A similar study is on the Flower Market Road in busy Mong Kok, based on empirical research on the spot. The desire of the flower sellers to use the sidewalks to display their merchandise conflicts with the demands of pedestrians. Authorities try to balance conflicting interests through land use and business-operation ordinances. The essence is, write Siu and Zhu to: “maintain a careful balance between regulatory control and everyday needs to avoid the escalation of conflicts ... and keep messiness within a controllable range” (148).

Conflicting interests reach a rather existential level in Kathputli colony, a squatter settlement in Delhi, introduced by Manish Chalan and Susmita Rishi. Kathputli is on the brink of market-oriented redevelopment (in 2009), as many informal settlements before. Housing for emerging middle classes, etc., will replace dwellings of squatters, who will be displaced to a faraway fringe. However, and new for Delhi at that time, low cost rehabilitation apartments for a small number of squatters will be built in situ. Chalana and Rishi picture in detail housing, working and living of some households in Kathputli. Notably their instructive sketched floor plans of a few dwellings add definitely to the existing knowledge of the impact for dwellers of dislocation and redevelopment processes in Delhi under the banner of the city’s ambition to attain world class status. The authors conclude, however, that aesthetic reconfigurations of “messy spaces of the poor into regimented, geometrically ordered spaces”, have proven to be “sweeping, expensive, ineffective and disruptive” (172). Surprisingly, Chalan and Rishi do not label the urban politics in Delhi leading to the squatter settlements in the city as messy.[i]

Jeffrey Hou presents a few brief cases of temporary economic, cultural, leisure, etc., activities: ‘temporary urbanism’ or, ‘urban flux’ in the form of ‘snapshots’ to explore flux in East Asian cities. His snapshots are taken throughout day and night, describing daily street dancing at 8 am in Shanghai’s major shopping street; the Sunday noon congregation of Filipino servants in Seoul; the 2 pm musicians during the weekends in a park in Tokyo; the daily 5 pm street market in Taipeh; the daily 9 pm arrival of the homeless arranging their shelter in a central railway station in Tokyo, after the closure of shops; and finally the 11 pm daily night book market, again in Taipeh. Hou observes that such activities may be considered a “messy urban nuisance” (195), and may need compromise in managing limited urban space. He concludes, however, that they “bring to light the ability of ordinary citizens to shape and reshape the cities in which they work” (212) and calls for a better understanding of urban temporality. From 1999 onwards a project took place on participation in decision-making in urban planning in the city of Quanzhou, China. It was undertaken by the local administration, and among others Chinese and N. American universities. Its purpose was to train citizens in community engagement, notably in urban development. A first objective was formed by the question how to harmonize conservation of historic urban importance with ‘neatness’: the wish of concerned residents to modernize their homes. Daniel Benjamin Abramson describes how residents, authorities and other parties tried to reconcile their respective messy interests, in the context of a messy Chinese urbanization (formal, informal, semi-formal property rights, etc.).

Finally, there is an unexpected (messy, perhaps?) contribution in this book. Vikramāditiya Prakāsh explains in flamboyant staccato the history of the design of the new state of Punjab capital Chandigarh after India’s independence under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947. Nehru’s desire for modernization of India led ultimately to Le Corbusier drawing an almost universal urban master plan, far remote from the Indo-Saracenic, British colonial styled town planning of colonial British India. Le Corbusier and a range of Indian and foreign disagreeing architects and town planners ultimately designed quarrelling Chandigarh, coined by Prakāsh as a transnational undertaking, and “enmeshed in the transatlantic, transnational traffic among competing modernist urban ideologies” (181), a “transnational mess” (190).


Both the editors and most of the authors of the case studies defend messy urbanism in a pursuit of messiness that colours the book. But, what is it after all and in view of the kaleidoscope offered in cases of many cities? Messiness defies any simple dichotomy, such as order/disorder, which cannot capture its complex diversity and fluidity, conclude Chalana and Hou in their epilogue. That is what Oshima also literally and lyrically observed for Shinjuku, Tokyo (see above), echoed by several other authors in this volume. Perhaps one could be satisfied with the final remarks of the editors that messy urbanism may stand for the “cracks and fissures” (243) in contemporary townscapes. But unavoidably, the question arises: what are the merits of understanding contemporary (and past) Asian urban conditions and processes? It may represent systematic and dramatic marginalization of large portions of urban populations (messy politics or so) and its – indeed – messy results. It may as well stand for tolerated (slight) deviations from dominant, institutionalized behaviour. Should it therefore not make sense to make an analytical distinction between existential deviations from a norm such as squatting, and ‘gentle’ and perhaps post-modern deviations like street dance or a midnight book fair? Is it therefore not more fertile to analyze all these phenomena, now coined as messy and messiness, separately and properly with the available analytical tools in the social sciences?

[i] The editors do so in their epilogue where they assert that the state itself produces its messy slums.