Mike Douglass & UKNA: Envisioning Human Flourishing in Asian Resilient Cities

If I could, I would study disasters 5-10 years later. Systematically

Do you live in an Asian city? If yes, then how would you describe it? Is it a Mega City? Smart City? Eco City? Is it Resilient? Flourishing? Progressive? Is it a Metropolis or a Globopolis? Do all the adjectives above sound similar to you? Rest assured they are not! Important criteria separate the definitions - and lived realities - of one from the other. Curious about those criteria? Then the person you must meet is Prof. Mike Douglass - who has been engaged with both the theory and practice of urban planning in Asia for more than four decades. 

Mike Douglass

Mike Douglass is Professor and Leader of the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at the Asia Research Institute; and Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was recently in Leiden to give a lecture at the International Institute for Asian Studies. He has had a long association with IIAS, ARI being one of the partner institutes of UKNA (Urban Knowledge Network Asia) – which represents the largest academic international network on Asian cities, consisting of over 100 researchers from 14 institutes in Europe, China, India and the US.

In what was a very fascinating and insightful lecture, Douglass emphasized that it is no longer enough, or even advisable, for Asian cities of the 21st century to be ‘mega’ – what they need instead is ‘resilience’ to tackle the onslaughts of climate change, and the understanding to put ‘human flourishing’ at the heart of the urbanization enterprise. Douglass focussed on four key issues in this context - the special challenges facing cities in Asia; the new concepts of the city that have been in vogue in the last couple of decades; what is missing in the current theory and practice of urban planning; and what can be done about it.


One of the biggest challenges facing Asian cities today is natural disasters like flooding and earthquakes - and its management. It is even more challenging when it is a ‘Compound disaster’, whose “sources are incubated long before a disaster and can continue long after through cascading effects”. A good example would be Japan in 2011 – where an earthquake led to a tsunami, which in turn led to a nuclear disaster with long-term devastations. What is most crucial to prevent such tragedies from happening is ‘disaster preparedness’; but unfortunately most Asian cities (including Jakarta, Manila, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, Beijng, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Dhaka and Karachi) are ‘critically unprepared’ in this respect. 

The graph demonstrates the complete arc of disaster – beginning much before the incident, and continuing much after the devastation. The former period is what Douglass calls the ‘incubation’. When a disaster strikes, government effort is usually concentrated ON the disaster - but what should be there instead is preparedness. That is lacking; as is the follow-up of disaster recovery.   “If I could, I would study disasters 5-10 years later. Systematically”, he said in an informal conversation; adding, that now is a very good time to study the long-term effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011.  Graph: Courtsey, Prof. Mike Douglass.

The unpreparedness of cities can take many forms. Douglass gave a telling example – Jakarta: “Why is there flooding in Jakarta?”, he asked, and then went on to give a robust explanation. “Because, Jakarta is sinking. There is over-drawing of ground water. Everybody knows this. It is actually sinking by centimetres per year. It is not about global warming. Something like one-third of the entire city is below sea level. Why? Because the government could never give enough pipe water, so the people would sink their own wells. And the population gets bigger. Then the developers get to put their development in the wrong places – which are very fragile, ecologically speaking. Or building houses in the mountains, deforesting etc. These are all incubating situations in which engineering cannot be the solution. And everybody know these things. But when it comes to what the government response is, none of them are on the agenda – except let’s dredge the river and pour cement along the sides. And that’s exactly what they are doing. But why? Why don’t we start thinking about what I call ‘incubators’? If Jakarta wasn’t sinking, if you had a government able to deliver water… floods could be avoided. So it gets back really to the notion that the actual sources of resilience are not about the disaster. Disaster is a kind of a trigger that magnifies everything.”

The 21st century city

Disasters are however not the first thing that comes to mind when we talk of the 21st century city. What does is a vision of Skyscrapers and New Towns, Malls and Superhighways, with some ‘Mega-project’ or the other always under construction. In effect, what they have led to is the corporatization of cities; and that, in turn, has resulted in increasing disparities in well-being among citizens and decreasing participatory governance. It has also led to the disappearance of the ‘city’ as we know it. As Saskia Sassen rightly pointed out in her 2015 Guardian article, ‘Who owns our cities’: “We are witnessing large scale corporate buying of whole pieces of cities. What was small and/or public is becoming large and private. Corporate mega-projects inevitably kill much urban tissue of little streets and squares, street-level shops and modest offices. They raise the density of the city, but they actually de-urbanise it – density is not enough to have a city. If the current large-scale buying continues, we will lose this type of city making that has given our cities their cosmopolitanism. One that alters the historic meaning of the city.”

The “urban tissue of little streets and squares, street-level shops and modest offices” that Sassen talks about is something that is cherished by most citizens in Asia. Douglass had witnessed this first-hand in Hanoi, when, while working at the Hanoi Architecture Institute, he organized a photo contest for Hanoians - ‘Hanoi: A Liveable City’. It was a great success. But what was striking about the photos was that “about 90% of them were all about a kind of place-making memory that was still living -- a little barber shop outdoors at the end of a building, children hanging in the alleyway, an old gentleman showing a little child how to brush paint on the street.” Seeing them, a fellow organizer had told him, “Soon, they’d all be gone”. The photos thus had two underlying messages – “This is what people cherish”, they seemed to say; and “It’s under threat”. But, interestingly, that ‘under threat’ was not part of the government story about the city. The government story about the city was the modern.

‘Eco’ & ‘Smart’ Cities

The willful erasure of certain urban narratives by governments, notwithstanding, there’s no gainsaying the fact that there has been a concerted effort in the last few decades in many Asian cities towards sustainable development. Hence the recent vogue of ‘Eco Cities’ and ‘Smart Cities’ – the former aiming to live in harmony with, and without damaging, the environment; and the latter being basically ‘wired’ cities, seeking to address public issues via ICT-based solutions. Iskandar, Malaysia; Songdo, Korea; Camko, Phnom Penh; Lavasa, India – are just some of the examples where these new concepts have been/are being given concrete shape.


Despite the noble intentions noted above, what is missing in these new enterprises - according to Douglass - is conviviality. Smart Cities are smart and efficient (at least in theory), but they are also automated and anonymous. They lack a sense of community – which is a basic human need. But “in human happiness”, as Lisa Peattie reminds us, “creative activity and a sense of community count for at least as much and maybe more than material standard of living.” What is thus required is the conception of cities as ‘Convivial Spaces’ – one that is surrounded by human scale architecture, with open public spaces, makes use of local cultural practice and has scope for vernacular place-making, and that is inclusive and allows for spontaneity.

Different Model

In short, Douglass thinks that the need of the hour is a different model: not merely ‘Sustainable’, but ‘Livable’, ‘Progressive’ cities – whose hallmarks (apart from conviviality) are inclusion and justice; and which has ‘Human Flourishing’ (rather than ‘Economic Growth’) as its core objective. In order to achieve this, Douglass is emphatic that Asian cities should NOT follow the UN ‘Sustainable Development’ model, where the Economy, Environment and Society are separate entities that intersect at only one point to give sustainability; instead, what should be nurtured is a more holistic approach, where the Economy is seen as embedded in Society, and human Society is seen as an organic part of Nature. 

Planetary Flourishing in the Anthropocene: Sustainable Development - UN Brundtland Report (1987); One with Nature. Charts: Courtsey, Prof. Mike Douglass.

UKNA & the bridging of theory and practice

Many of the problems of urbanization in Asia actually stem from the fact that there is a huge gap between theory and practice when it comes to urban planning. A gap that Prof. Douglass has tried to bridge through a lifetime of work. And it is precisely in this respect that he thinks the work of UKNA to be very important – as it is an inclusive network that brings together both scholars and practitioners in collaborative research on cities in Asia.

In his words: “There are not many places like it. Inter-disciplinary, for one thing. It takes on contemporary issues, not just historical and others. Then there are many, like Paul himself [Paul Rabé, Co-ordinator of UKNA], who like ‘practice’. So, it’s unique. And it’s providing a realm that no other institution is filling. For example, most Area Studies, if it is in India, it’s about India; if it’s in China, it’s about China. So, they are all very regionally restricted. They are often just pure Humanities, or Social Sciences, and don’t get into any kind of real role actually. And they are not trying to build institutions in other parts of the world. Like UKNA, with double Masters Degrees. So, I think it really needs support. And it’s unfortunate that all of the indicators has to be quantitative. Because its imprint is much more vast. It is a good idea.” 


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