Lanes and Neighbourhoods in Cities in Asia

Conference dates: 30 June 2016 - 01 July 2016

Organisers: Michael DOUGLASS, Marie GIBERT

This conference is jointly organised by the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and IIAS.

The conference

The purpose of this conference is to focus attention on the concept and social meanings of one of the smallest social spheres of the city, the neighbourhood.  The immediacy of this topic can be found in recent urban research positing that the neighbourhood is at substantial risk of fading into history as global mega-projects with vast footprints, master plans, and large-scale privatization of urban space are “kill[ing] much of the urban tissue” of smaller urban spaces.  These are the place-based geographies of the city that have long provided for cosmopolitan diversity and in which marginalized populations are able to assert their agency in city-making (Sassen, 2016:1). Pursuing the “art of being global” (Roy and Ong, 2011), cities in Asia fall more and more within what can be called an “urbanism of projects” (Goldblum, 2015: 374), leading to a rupture with their historic organic urban growth. In that context, urban figures are given priority over urban texture:  “While the pieces of cities are occasionally spectacular, the parts do not add up to anything larger nor do they contribute to the extended setting” (Chow, 2015: 4). The urbanism of projects also acknowledges the primacy of a “super urban network” over local urban territories, opening the way for a “splintering urbanism” (Graham and Marvin, 2001). Once low rise and organic, cities in Asia have engaged into a verticalization process in a functionalist perspective, especially in new urbanized areas flourishing at its edge. These steady transformations affect social cohesion and lead to re-compositions of the historical and structuring forms of lanes and neighbourhoods.

The richness of the highly polysemous notion of “neighbourhood” is linked with its reference both to built and social environments. It corresponds to the smallest social unit for urban place-making, a dimension that John Friedmann synthesizes as “a small urban space that is cherished by the people who inhabit it (2009: 5). This universal definition focuses on three main criteria: its small scale, its inhabited dimension and its local attachment and appropriations by local communities. It can be seen both as an intimate place of social encounters and a field of expression of social forces, which is practiced – and thus performed – on a daily basis (Lefebvre, 1991). As such, appropriated lanes and neighbourhoods generate local centralities in the city they belong to.

The conference seeks to reflect on the specificity of the socio-spatial production – and its current evolutions – of neighbourhoods in the Asian context. Theoretically, the objective is to question the everyday nature of the urbanisation process, from the specific perspective of cities in Asia, historically characterized by the “smallness” of their plots division and the richness of lanes’ appropriations, both of them leading to a specific sense of local territoriality. Beyond this theoretical frame, the conference seeks to broaden the debate from a civil society perspective and to engage the discussion with locally rooted activism experiences, working on “reclaiming [the] cities neighbourhood by neighbourhoods” (Friedmann, 2009). In doing so, we are eager to revalue the productions of everyday urbanism and to decipher the richness of local urban and social fabrics from historical as well as contemporary perspectives.   

Focusing on an in-depth exploration of neighbourhood formations in city-making, the conference will address the following three lines of inquiry. We encourage papers and narratives that engage with one or several of the following themes.

1. Questioning Neighbourhood “production of space” (Lefebvre, 1991) in cities in Asia

  • In historicising the notions of neighbourhoods in Asia and contextualizing palimpsest games in the “neighbourhood-making” process, how can we identify and decipher the meanings of various morphological patterns of neighbourhoods in Asia?
  • How can we report and theorize the interactions between urban networks (e.g., lanes) and neighbourhoods as territories in cities in Asia?
  • What can we learn from comparative reflections on the various “back-alley neighbourhoods” in cities in Asia through history?
  • How does the concept of neighbourhood relate to such terms as slum, squatter settlement, kampung, informal settlement?

2. Everyday Urbanism

  • Does the formation of neighbourhoods offer possibilities for radical citizenships? How can the dwellers potentially “reclaim their city, neighbourhood by neighbourhood” (Friedmann, 2009)?
  • Can we conceptualize local forms of resilience to ecological, political and economical challenges at the scale of the neighbourhood?
  • How are neighbourhoods managed and governed within themselves and in the context of higher levels of government?
  • How are neighbourhood identities formed, contested, and projected beyond the neighbourhood through media, literature, art, theatre or other practices?

3. Neighbourhoods as sites of resistance and alternative city-making

  • What happens to the idea of “neighbourhood” in super-scale urban projects such as gated housing enclaves, smart cities, eco-cities or similar corporate production of urban space (Tedong and al, 2014)?
  • How can threatened neighbourhoods effectively respond to processes of gentrification and/or corporatization of urban space?
  • In an era in which tourism and cultural economy are put forth as ways to boost urban economies, can heritage or historical preservation be used as an effective platform for countering the dissolution of neighbourhoods as life-spaces (Friedmann, 1988)?
  • What are the tools for action that neighbourhoods under siege innovate to create alternatives to the emergent super-scale functional city of consumption?


Dr Marie Gibert
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
E | arimamg@nus.edu.sg

Prof Mike Douglass
Asia Research Institute, and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore
E | michaeld@nus.edu.sg

Dr Philippe Peycam
International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), The Netherlands
E | p.m.f.peycam@iias.nl



Ms Sharon Ong
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
E | arios@nus.edu,sg

Inline photo © Masyudi Firmansyah