WUF9: lessons in urban transformations for Asia’s aspirational cities

Published on 9 February 2018

Image of Beatriz Aguirre Martinez

Beatriz Aguirre Martinez

Postgraduate Researcher

In the 2000’s the ten fastest growing cities of more than one million inhabitants were all from the Asian continent. Their urban models have drawn significant attention from other developing cities in Asia who hope to replicate their successes.

Kuala Lumpur Mass Rail Transit. Chris Stowers / Panos
Image: The overhead Mass Transit rail system passing through the centre of the capital. Credit: Chris Stowers/Panos.

For example, in 1992 Chinese revolutionary Deng Xiaoping paid a visit to Shenzhen and, satisfied with the urban model adapted there and its rapid economic development as the first Special Economic Zone, he became interested on creating ‘a few Hong Kong’s’ along the Chinese coastline. Guangzhou, Shanghai and Xiamen emulated Hong Kong’s urban model with the help of planners from Hong Kong and Taiwan. From 1985 to 2015, Shenzhen’s inhabitants rose from 175,000 to 10.7 million.

Urban development models in Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong have become desirable because of their adamant urban normativity – more than 80 per cent of its citizens live on new towns that have been built and planned by the state – and their exemplary clean industries or downtown development. However, the underlying drivers of these mega urban growth projects in some Asian cities are not entirely about increasing welfare. Instead they stem from a political economy shaped by the ambition of capital accumulation on a framework of globalization – as scholars like Gavin Shatkin argue.

The fast development of some cities tells a story of efficiency and success, but also that of urban opulence that provokes inter-city rivalry and the territorial displacement of the poorest citizens.

World Urban Forum and Kuala Lumpur’s inspiring urban innovations

This week, the Ninth Session of the World Urban Forum (WUF9) takes place in Kuala Lumpur with meetings and panels focusing on major issues in the urban agenda such as urban governance, resilience, smart cities, big data and housing.

Kuala Lumpur itself is moving from being an emerging economy towards a developed one and offers important lessons on urban transformation that are pertinent to the WUF9 agenda.

The city has eight million inhabitants and contributes to 40 per cent of the national GDP primarily through the business, finance and insurance sector. It has prioritized a ‘smart growth perspective’ – that which uses Information and Communication Technologies to make urban operations and systems more efficient, stimulating collaborative planning and citizen participation, and increasing the quality of life of citizens.

Current innovations are focused on transport infrastructure and waste management, intended to support not only industrial growth but also sustainability and wellbeing. Car ownership ranks first in Kuala Lumpur citizens’ social aspirations, with public transport used for only 20 per cent of journeys. Consequently, citizens suffer constant traffic jams: The World Bank (2015) reports they spend 270 million wasted hours per year. The city’s newest innovation to combat this problem is called City Brain, an initiative that has improved traffic speed by 15 per cent. It has increased accident detection, traffic signal optimization and urban safety.

City Brain is fed by data gathered in more than 300 cameras and 200 traffic lights installed across the city. The first phase of the project will be completed by May and is expected to expand to other cities in Malaysia. The city is pushing the reticence of commuters to use public transport by constructing a massive rail line that covers a circular perimeter of the Metropolitan Area. The Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit project is viewed as one of the most important infrastructure projects ever undertaken in Malaysia. The project will be completed by 2022.

With rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, the next step towards sustainability was to innovate in waste management. The city experienced a 91per cent increase in the generation of waste over the last decade. After controversy over the location of a waste-to-energy plant (WTE), one is now being built in Kuala Selangor, not too far from the capital. Part of the waste burned at the WTE is converted into electricity, reducing the dependency on landfills. Also, during the process metals are extracted and recycled, and only the remaining ashes are deposited in landfills. A research and development centre on waste management will also be installed. Authorities say that for every 1,000 tons of waste burned, 57,000 houses will have electricity. Experts say this new plant, which already exists in many Asian countries, reduces both greenhouse gas emissions and transportation costs.

In the book Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, Aiwha Ong claims that the admiration of Asian urban models results from the promise of success via the combination of state entrepreneurialism and sustainable infrastructure.

Kuala Lumpur is clearly demonstrating tangible improvements in both these aspects which warrants admiration. However before attempting to replicate such urban models, attention must be given to wider forces at play.

Changing lenses when analyzing the outcomes of the World Urban Forum

Scholars explain that ‘urban modeling’ and ‘inter-referenced practices’ are characteristic of the urban growth phenomena of Asian cities. These two terms provide a useful entry point for analysing the development and outcomes of the World Urban Forum – and event which convenes 20,000 policymakers and urban practitioners from 177 countries to discuss the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

‘Urban modeling’ provides a tool to transform urban contexts into more sustainable ones giving importance to the positioning of the city in a world city ranking. ‘Inter-referenced practices’ occurs when one city aspires to replicate the model of another city to the point where they try to compete to equate their living and working conditions to that of others, raising inter-city rivalry and shaping the projects and purposes of urban planners and government agencies from less developed cities.

The quest is to transform the city by improving transport, public services, among others, but also to attract capital and foreign investment to brand the city. Some policymakers question this trend by saying that urban models cannot just be simply detached and then exported because of the various political scenarios, and urban risks each city faces.

Some cities in India that have adapted ‘world-class’ practices have also contributed to the increase of urban inequality. Ong explains the case of Bangalore and how while converting it to a cybercity, IT corridors were built surrounding areas where peasants lived and worked their lands. Or New Delhi, where the clearing of slums was seen as an urgency to improve the image of the city in the attempt of converting it into a cultural centre, even though the displacing of slum-dwellers violated land-use and environmental codes. In some parts of India the creation of ‘world-cities’ occurred at the expense of the criminalisation of the urban poor and the fragilisation of urban contexts.

The agenda of this year’s WUF and the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, should be contemplated with a perspective that does not intend to replicate for the sake of accumulation of capital in the city and the race of city-rankings. Innovative practices and policies that have been well welcomed in certain urban contexts can impact other contexts and increase spatial inequality and social exclusion.

This is an invitation to view the development and outcomes of the WUF with a different lens: that of the ethical and political elements that need to be considered before replicating inter-city models. As Ong concludes: urban innovation ideas can be emulated but not reproduced.


Image: ‘The overhead Mass Transit rail system passing through the centre of the capital’. Credit: Chris Stowers / Panos.