Various Expressions of Civic Urbanism in Four Asian Cities

Yung Lin

Im Sik Cho, Blaz Kriznik, and Jeffrey Hou argue that the civic urbanism emerging in Asia is a result of an evolving relationship between the state and civil society. They point out that civil society in the West is a balance to the state and corporate power, which together constitute the three aspects that form a functioning of democratic society. On the contrary, civil society in East Asia is a community rooted with Neo-Confucian ethics emphasizing collectivism and community welfare, which the state has jurisdiction over. However, with modernization, citizens’ rising awareness of improving the living environment and states’ intent to advance social economic development, civic urbanism is sprouting in these cities transforming from the past market-driven model to evolving alternatives in the state and civil society. Moreover, civic urbanism in Asia is further contextualized in multiple case studies in four cities: Hong Kong (3 cases), Seoul (2 cases), Singapore (3 cases), Taipei (2 cases).

Hong Kong

Mee Kam Ng reveals the socio-spatial justice for non-indigenous villagers in Hong Kong’s Choi Yuen Village. Social vulnerabilities under the state-led economics-first developmental model can be counteracted by building a resilient community learning to communicate between the power play of society and politics. Melissa Cate Christ and Hendrik Tieben highlight the shift from agency-driven models to citizen-inclusive and even to citizen-driven placemaking in Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Fund programme. Though COVID-19 restricted the on-site engagement and meetings, the socio-spatial improvements continued to develop with civil society initiatives. Cecilia Chu and Marta Catalan Eraso reveal the Filipino and Indonesian women’ individual and collective aspiration shaped and mutually affected by the local life, which local citizens and younger generations have been promoting diversity and inclusivity to include foreign domestic workers and to eliminate discrimination against them.



Blaz Kriznik and Su Kim compare four community building projects in Seoul: Songhak Maeul, Seongmisan Maeul, Seowon Maeul, and Samdeok Mael. They find that state-enabled models lead to weakening the transformative potential of community movement; hence, grassroots community building needs to become more self-reliant by collaborating with other communities, civil society organizations and the state in order to sustain the shaping of the living environment. Taehee Lee and Sukyoung Han unwrap the institutional conflict in Seoul’s Haebangchon Urban Regeneration Project process from planning stage, implementation stage to succession stage. Although the number of citizen participation increased in 2010-2020 in this project, the number actually decreased sharply already after the planning stage. In this project, though more space was given to citizens, authorities of the state-led model were prevalent.



Shiau Ching Wong presents civic urbanism in Singapore by two cases: Queenstown walking tour and Geylang adventures community heritage. Despite concerns over becoming state-controlled institutions, it was mostly students and volunteers in this bottom-up approach, a gap-bridging between citizens and policy makers that opened up an alternative to evolving state-society relations. Jan Lim, Larry Yeung and Pieter Van den Broeck investigate the Strategic-Relational Institutionalist Approach in the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme in Singapore. They acknowledge that the hybrid governance model allowed residents to contact multiple government officials despite the fact that the institutional framework risked deterring residents’ participation and the complexity of governance dynamics creating obstacles for community bonding and advocacy. Huiying Ng, Monika Rut, Vivian Lee, Marcus Koe and Chingwei Chen view placemaking as a process of citizen learning and identity formation in the case of New Food Systems in Singapore. When food production drives landscape transformation, the process of citizens learning this linear change from food to their living environment also drives the formation of the place’s identity.



Liang-Yi Yen visualizes the conduct of achieving spatial justice by depicting the heritage activism in the case of Lo-Sheng Sanatorium Preservation Movement in Taipei, which revealed the interplay between public interest in cultural preservation and government-led development on public transportation. Moreover, the student groups were empowered in this process by advancing from boundaries of expertise to tackling with real world struggles. Jeffrey Hou points out that one obstacle of the Open Green Programme in Taipei was insufficient government funding, which not only weakened the community organizers’ capacity but also resulted in relying on a local university’s initiative; however, he acknowledges the importance of social learning among multiple actors, such as community stakeholders, agency staff and members of professional firms that propelled the development of civic urbanism.


Democratization of State-led Development Model

These various expressions of civic urbanism in these four Asian cities point out the gradual awareness and ownership of citizens to their living environment. These cases are not suggesting a shift from a top-down approach to a bottom-up model, but rather a shift toward a more collaborative and inclusive model. Despite challenges in cooperation and institution, the participation in the process is a symbol of democratizing urban development. This democratization of urban development is not making it accessible to all people, but at least to the citizens in the environment as well as multiple actors such as civic activists, volunteers, local communities, neighbourhood organizations, NGOs, NPOs, and advocacy and expert groups. The number and type of participatory actors highlights the dynamics of civic urbanism. For example, in Chapter 8, the Seoul Urban Regeneration Project, which began in 2013, after selecting a site for the regeneration plan, the city government signed a contract with a consultancy company and established a residents’ committee at the planning and implementation stage. It was in these two stages that citizens were given access to cooperate with the consultancy agency and government authorities, which turned citizens from consumers to “prosumers.” However, most importantly, it was their cooperation with government authorities rather than completely turning over the government-led system that marks a critical milestone for democratizing the conventional state-led, market-driven developmental model. As the global developmental goal has been exploring the element of sustainability, the cases in this book enrich the sustainability of urbanization in Asian contexts.


Sustainability Development of Cities

The UN Sustainability Development Goal 11 highlights the need to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Achieving a safer and inclusive living environment is to be achieved by empowering citizens to join in the place-making process. Hence, democratizing the urban development is to involve people but also to increase their capacity to maintain an organic living environment that protects their lives. In addition to including the citizens, the inclusion of migrant workers in these cities would also reflect the sustainability development of the city. The book has also shared cases of migration in civic urbanism. For example, Chapter 2 examines the Singapore Geylang case, known for low-cost housing for migrant workers as well as fancy apartments for expatriates. The initiative Geylang Adventures successfully reached over 70% millennials volunteering to engage policy makers to understand and interact with migrant workers in this area. Besides increasing the local migrant workers integration, the research acknowledges the further impact on bottom-up nation building for Singapore. This enriches the socio-political understanding of civic urbanism in Asian context.


Inspiring Collaboration in Education Context

Beyond visualizing the democratization and sustainability development in these four Asian cities, one key takeaway from the book is the younger generation’s and university students’ participation in exploring these cases. For example, Chapter 3 (on Hong Kong Choi Yuen Village) and Chapter 4 (on Taipei Lo-Sheng Sanatorium) both encompass universities in generating awareness of preserving the area and passing on the advocacy experience to students, which results in enabling students to acquire knowledge of local heritage preservation. This book has not only delivered experiences of civic urbanism in four 21st-century Asian cities, but most importantly, it has successfully passed on the knowledge, practices and experiences about civic urbanism to future generations in a sustainable way.