According to United Nations estimates, Asia’s urban population will double between 2000 and 2030, adding 1.3 billion people. Asia’s urban transformation has tremendous implications for the countries of the region and for the rest of the world. This growth is occurring as Asian societies have become more intertwined in global webs of trade, investment, and production, and as Asia’s economies have steadily grown, producing more than a third of world gross domestic product. The urban expansion that has accompanied these changes and the increasing importance of cities as sites of corporate investment and production in the global era have given rise to urban development schemes of fantastic ambition. Governments and developers have proposed (and sometimes implemented) the construction of entire new towns designed for populations of between half a million and a million people in China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, while scores more such projects with populations in the mere tens or hundreds of thousands are being planned around almost every major city in Asia.

    BEIJING, CHINA - A Chinese man rides a tricycle filled with goods near the ongoing construction of the China Central Television tower through the air pollution at the Central Business District in Beijing on April 8, 2008. TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images

    BEIJING, CHINA - A Chinese man rides a tricycle filled with goods near the ongoing construction of the China Central Television tower through the air pollution at the Central Business District in Beijing on April 8, 2008. TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images

    Coalitions of government and business leaders have raced skyward, building iconic skyscrapers intended to transmit a message of progress and emergent prosperity to the world. Today, 13 of the 20 tallest buildings are in Asia, and all but two were built in the last 12 years. The region has seen a spate of new transportation initiatives, including highways, metro systems, and flyovers, largely intended to cater to an emerging consumer class. China alone is building more than 50,000 miles of highway and has opened 10 subway lines in Shanghai.

    These phenomena have caught the world’s attention largely because of their global implications. Asia’s economic growth, centered in its cities, has shifted the balance of global trade and investment. The region’s voracious appetite for raw materials has contributed to the rapid inflation of prices for commodities like steel and oil. Of course, rapid industrialization, increasing consumerism, and the explosion of automobile ownership contribute to global warming. Less understood, but of profound long-term consequence, are the implications of urban change for Asian societies themselves. The physical form of cities—the networks of transport and communications, the streets, sidewalks, plazas, parks, buildings, and the spaces in between them—structure the environment in which social, economic, political, and cultural relations and activities take place.

    Spaces of congregation—be they squares, shopping malls, parks, or sidewalks—structure who interacts with whom, and on what terms. Networks of transportation shape who has access to what spaces and, therefore, what activities individuals are likely to engage in, what economic opportunities will be available to them, and with whom they are likely to interact. Both corporate landscapes of office towers and malls and public monuments and buildings play symbolic roles in representing national identities, the role of the state in society, and the meaning of national citizenship.

    The dramatic changes witnessed in Asian cities are a product of changes in politics and social relations in the global era that have created new kinds of interests and new sources of power to shape urban development. For those interested in the way Asian societies are changing and what implications this has for the rest of the world, understanding the issues confronting Asia’s cities is critical. How is urbanization in the global era, and its associated physical and social transformations, reshaping life for people in the region? How is this change experienced by people from different walks of life? What does this mean for the social, political, cultural, and economic transformations these societies are experiencing?


    The current spate of urban development projects in Asia has some parallels to the post-World War II period, when countries around the world, many emerging from colonial rule, undertook massive urban development and infrastructure initiatives. Yet the role of the state constitutes a critical difference between contemporary projects and these earlier efforts. The postwar projects, which were inspired by the ideas of modernization theory and fueled by multilateral and bilateral aid and lending, were largely state-driven efforts at nation-building and political consolidation. One of the iconic projects of this period was Chandigarh, the new capital of the Indian state of Punjab. Conceived by the French modernist architect Le Corbusier, the city’s design represented an effort to signify the country’s future as a modern, economically advanced nation. The plan for the city focused on creating new kinds of neighborhoods designed to encourage civic-mindedness in the population, injecting rationality and efficiency into the transportation network and patterns of land use, and projecting a progressive and powerful image for the nascent Indian state through the iconic design of major public buildings.

    In this picture taken November 19, 2007, an Indian guard stands beside the Assembly Building of Chandigarh designed and built by Le Corbusier. NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

    In this picture taken November 19, 2007, an Indian guard stands beside the Assembly Building of Chandigarh designed and built by Le Corbusier. NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

    In contrast, most contemporary urban development projects exhibit the emergence of a more entrepreneurial approach to governing and represent an effort to stimulate global investment by tapping into the financial and technological capacity of the corporate sector. The projects that result are much more commercial in nature and are premised on a view that, with globalization, state and corporate actors have come to share an interest in a globalization-led strategy of economic development. A number of forces have led to this shift. First, in the global context of heightened competition for investment and the new ethos of fiscal austerity this has engendered, lavish spending on state-driven urban development projects is likely to be punished by multinational banks and international aid and lending institutions. The exception is spending grounded in an economic rationale such as the need for major infrastructure pieces like ports, airports, and national highways to develop the import-export economy and expand internal markets.

    Second, as labor emerges as a global commodity, governments have come to view the attraction of investment, the attraction and retention of skilled workers, and, increasingly, the export of labor and the creation of remittance economies as key elements of national economic development agendas. In the view of many decision makers, getting highly skilled citizens to stay, or at least to come back and spend their money, has become a central aim of urban planning and architecture. The focus of such efforts has been on the creation of amenities and landmarks of prestige—world-class housing, shopping, entertainment, office space, and high-rise buildings, among others.

    Third, with the globalization of finance, the world is awash with money in search of fruitful investments. Enthusiasm among lenders for the “emerging economies” of Asia has led to investment of large sums in Asian real estate, creating an opportunity for private developers to conceive of projects on a much larger scale than was previously possible. The net effect of these changes is that governments no longer dominate the practice of large-scale urban design and infrastructure development, and indeed they have embraced a role for the corporate sector in these activities. As a result, we are seeing large-scale, commercially driven real estate projects reshape Asian cities to an unprecedented degree.

    One of the most conspicuous and intriguing outcomes of this dynamic has been the proliferation of proposals for entire new cities or urban districts to be built and managed by private real estate developers. These projects, most of which have emerged in the last 15 years, are conceived of as new “cities within the city,” often containing their own industrial parks, downtowns, shopping malls, schools, hospitals, and convention centers. To name one example, Lippo Karawaci outside Jakarta is a new city planned for an eventual population of a million residents, although the current population is perhaps 50,000. Developed by the Lippo Group, a major Indonesian developer, it is being built on 10 square miles of land and includes a downtown district, one of the largest shopping malls in Asia, a university campus, and an international hospital. In India, the Dankuni Township project in Kolkata is planned for eight square miles, with a projected population of 600,000. Reliance Industry’s proposed Maha Mumbai project outside Mumbai would cover 40 square miles and house a population of over a million. Neither has broken ground, and their future is uncertain. If developed, each would have a dramatic impact on life in these cities.

    This model of profit-driven planning of theoretically self-contained cities within the city has few precedents. It parallels trends in infrastructure provision, particularly in the area of transportation, as many societies have moved toward public-private partnerships as a means to deliver high-quality metro systems, tollways, and bridges at minimal cost to the government. Interestingly, in some countries, property developers have created subsidiary infrastructure companies, and vice versa, as companies have realized the potential synergies between the two sectors. In Metro Manila, for example, Ayala Land, the developer of several major real estate projects, formed a consortium with other developers and successfully bid to build a new metro line that passes by two of their major holdings in the center of the city, including a new town planned for 200,000 residents called Bonifacio Global City. The company also proposed but later abandoned a scheme for a regional rail line that would have connected its Metro Manila projects to major projects in a nearby province. It seems, in this case, that we may be witnessing the layering of one city, composed of privately built islands of prosperity connected by high-end transportation infrastructure, on the existing form of the “public” city.

    It should be noted that, while these projects represent an increased role for corporate actors in urban planning, they nonetheless do represent a strong government role, as government assistance is generally required in the process of land acquisition, infrastructure provision, and regulatory relief. Hence they manifest the changing nature of urban politics, in which coalitions of governments and corporations combine forces to promote shared agendas of creating economic growth and opportunities for profitability through globalization-led development. This takes different forms in different contexts. In China, for example, it has become common for municipal governments to plan new cities and then carve these projects into several large parcels and auction off leases for their development. The end result is sometimes as commercial in nature as the new cities mentioned above.

    The physical and social changes wrought by these projects raise many questions, most notably concerning potential issues of exclusion and segregation. It is worth dwelling on the questions they raise about the role of government in urban development and the changing nature of urban politics. Throughout Asia debates rage about the propriety of local and national government use of state power to promote projects that cater largely to a wealthy minority and that potentially enrich powerful corporate actors. Should governments regulate these projects more carefully? Should they try to distribute their financial benefits more evenly? Should they allow them to be built at all? Or are these simply vehicles for corruption that must be stopped through popular opposition?

    Equally contentious have been issues of displacement that arise with many of these projects. To cite just one example, in West Bengal, India, the political fallout is still being felt from the state government’s efforts to acquire land for a major industrial development in the town of Singur that many believed would eventually evolve into a new city project. The plan engendered significant opposition from civic groups and prominent intellectuals, and there have been a number of incidences of violence against protesters and local residents by backers of the state government.

    The project was at the forefront of activism by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which has dominated West Bengal politics for decades and recently has pursued an agenda of economic growth through efforts to encourage property development. This trend obviously creates challenges for the CPI-M in managing the contradictions between the party’s newfound entrepreneurialism and its origins as a mass-based communist movement. The party has suffered the consequences in recent elections; indeed, this case has had an impact on national political debates about the role of India’s government in the age of globalization and urbanization.

    In the Singur case and elsewhere, governments that have backed major real estate development projects have launched significant public relations initiatives to present these projects to key constituencies as essential to economic and social progress. In many cases, opponents of these projects have stopped or stalled their development and, in some cases, have instigated significant change. The politics of the new urban development agenda and, therefore, its impact on urban form continue to be contested, and the balance of power remains very much in flux.


    What kinds of urban spaces result from the increasingly commercial models of architecture and urban planning being employed in Asian cities? The popular media has focused much of its attention on the seeming Westernization of urban form in the region. One popular image is that of Orange County, China, a planned suburban community outside Beijing that copies its California namesake in intimate detail. Any visitor to China will quickly note that such novelties are the exception—population density and high land prices dictate a denser, high-rise, mass-transit-oriented, and utilitarian urban landscape for most parts of large cities. It is undeniable that Western planners and architects have a tremendous impact. Most of the very large new city developments, high-rises, and architectural landmarks are master planned or designed by American and European architecture and planning firms, but their proposals inevitably go through a process of adaptation to local needs and preferences. One example of this is Bangkok’s Muang Thong Thani, a new city planned for 750,000 that stalled about 20 percent of the way through construction due to the Asian financial crisis of 1997–1998. The Australian architectural and planning firm that designed the project drew on its interpretation of Thai models of urban development, providing a city of high population density with ample space for small shops and stalls at the street level intended to foster the intensive use of streets for shopping and social interaction.

    Chinese construction workers labor to build a shopping center in Beijing in June 2008. China’s retail sales went up by 21.6 percent in May from a year ago to 870.4 billion yuan (126.1 billion dollars), the government said June 13, 2008. Retail sales are the main gauge for consumer spending in the world’s fourth-largest economy. TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images

    Chinese construction workers labor to build a shopping center in Beijing in June 2008. China’s retail sales went up by 21.6 percent in May from a year ago to 870.4 billion yuan (126.1 billion dollars), the government said June 13, 2008. Retail sales are the main gauge for consumer spending in the world’s fourth-largest economy. TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images

    In addition, research I have conducted in India and the Philippines indicates that local developers, planners, and architects are quick to dispense with any aspect of a master plan that is impractical, is not suited to local conditions, or, most importantly, does not enhance the political viability and profitability of the project. In Kolkata, for example, developers of one large project have, in contravention of the recommendations of the American firm that drew the master plan, left a significant portion of the site as a public park that surrounding low-income communities can access with ease. This was seen as necessary because of the cultural significance of this area as the site of the neighborhood’s annual Durga Puja ceremonies.

    In Metro Manila, Ayala Land has completely changed a central feature of the master plan by HOK, a San Francisco-based architecture and planning firm, which centered the project on a circular park surrounded by concentric rings of boulevards and axial roads extending outward from the core. They replaced this element with a grid because this maximized the amount of developable land and facilitated transportation circulation. In none of these cases does the planning of these projects represent a simple case of globalization as the imposition of Western models.

    What can be said about most of these new developments is that, as they are built on a for-profit basis, their planning and design is relentlessly commercial. The housing they provide and the shops and restaurants they contain are, for the most part, targeted at a wealthy minority. In the Philippines, for example, the primary market for most major developments is overseas contract workers and Filipinos living abroad. Developers consequently focus their sales efforts on junkets overseas and opening sales offices in Hong Kong, Dubai, New York, and other major cities with large Filipino populations. They market their projects as self-contained enclaves of convenience, consumerism, and modernity, oases from the congestion and chaos of the rest of the city. There is no space here for those of more modest income unless government regulations or pressure from neighboring communities necessitate the provision of affordable housing or public space. Where these developments are not gated, they are often deliberately cut off from the street grid of the surrounding city in order to maintain an exclusive character. They often maintain their own security force. Their streets, parks, and public spaces are usually carefully regulated to prevent the incursion of street vendors, beggars, and other “undesirables.”

    There are other manifestations of increasing social separation and contestation over the use of city spaces with Asia’s globalization. Private universities in Metro Manila employ state-of-the-art security facilities to control access to campuses. In one infamous incident in Delhi, a young man from a nearby low-income community was beaten to death by a mob in a park in a wealthy community due to suspicions that he had defecated on the grounds. To reiterate, most of the more ambitious development proposals are but a glimmer in a developer’s eye, and the transformation of Asian cities into an archipelago of enclaves of the wealthy surrounded by a sea of poverty is far from complete. Nonetheless, the changes that have occurred and, indeed, the very appeal of the vision that these new city projects represent raise a host of questions about contemporary change in these societies. What does this vision mean for relations between social classes? How do changes in the way cities are developing redefine who has access to well-maintained and well-planned spaces like parks, plazas, and streets? Is there increasing separation between the wealthy and those of more modest income? What does this mean for social, cultural, and political life, and for who is able to access economic opportunity?


    At the heart of the issues of state and space outlined above is the question of citizenship: Who has access to what kinds of spaces, and under what terms and conditions are they allowed to utilize these spaces? Who has access to the power to shape urban development, and toward what objectives do they use that power? Urban citizenship has recently become a central issue of debate in the social sciences, most notably in anthropology. Anthropologists James Holston, Arjun Appadurai, and Aihwa Ong, among others, have argued that globalization fosters cross-national economic and cultural linkages among an urban, globalized elite of highly educated professionals. They contend that this class has become increasingly assertive and influential in national and local politics as its centrality to globalization-led economic growth has become apparent. In the area of urban development, the result is that urban planning and architecture have increasingly been employed to differentiate access to social opportunity. In this view, the development of new cities, export-processing zones, and other urban initiatives is part of a larger trend in which states are moving away from the distribution of their resources and power based on goals of equity and national economic growth, and toward their distribution based on perceived economic productivity. In other words, the rights and privileges of citizenship are increasingly distributed based on an individual’s status within a globalizing economy rather than on the norm of national citizenship.

    A modern high-rise building looms behind slum residents outside their home in India. ROBERT NICKELSBERG/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

    A modern high-rise building looms behind slum residents outside their home in India. ROBERT NICKELSBERG/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

    To the degree that any model of urban change is contested and altered when it meets local political resistance, then this change in the nature of citizenship is not yet complete and may never be so. The task for academics is to deepen understanding of these issues through research and debate and to foster discussion of what urban change means for future action in the realms of planning, policy, design, and political and social mobilization.

    By bringing together some of the most thoughtful scholars and practitioners of urban development in India during our theme year (see inset below), we hope to contribute to debates that are ongoing in the streets, shops, and dwellings of Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, and Bangalore. We hope that these events will create new understanding at the University of Michigan and beyond of the issues facing Indian cities and will lead to new agendas of research and action and new partnerships between scholars at U-M and other academic institutions in the United States and Asia.

    Gavin Shatkin is Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Associate Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and a Faculty Associate at the Center for South Asian Studies.