Rita Padawangi

Cities as places for transformation

What are the roles of cities in social-ecological transformation?

Urban transformation in Asia is inevitable. The change of socio-economic structures, climate change adaptation and mitigation drive change in cities across the region. But what this transformation will look like, is not a fixed process. People from all backgrounds should get a say in what their urban future needs to look like to be socially and ecologically just.

In this paper, Rita Padawangi brings together the discussions from our regional exchange platform which took place from 22-24 June 2022. It is also enriched by existing literatures as well as other published materials on the role of cities in social-ecological transformation. The discussion covers regional issues, alternative solutions for urban development-induced social-ecological crises, as well as possibilities and challenges in building cities as places to cultivate social-ecological transformation. Each panelist at the event brought diverse perspectives from their own experiences, research, and involvement in social-ecological transformation in their respective city (or cities), in addressing the set of fundamental questions:

  • What are the roles of cities in social-ecological transformation?
  • While the urban development-induced environmental degradation seems to be widespread, to what extent are cities still able to become places for social-ecological transformation?
  • What are examples of social-ecological crises in and of cities in Asia? What has been done, and what more could be done to achieve social-ecological transformation towards sustainable environment and societies?

The ethnographic film Not Just Roads directed by Nitin Bathla and Klearjos Papanicolaou reflects on issues faced by people affected by highway developments in India. It captures the contradictions between promises of urbanisation, represented by images of the incomplete highway and sky towers, and the continuation of farmers’ livelihoods that are interrupted, dislocated, yet still continued by adjusting to the new landscape.

Examples from Nang Loeng in Bangkok and from the banks of the Red River in Hanoi have showcased the potential for social-ecological transformations of relatively small spaces in cities. Art activism in Nang Loeng advocating for housing tenure security has shown that any urban planning paradigm should be assessed from both social and ecological justice perspectives, since market-driven urban development can potentially result in contradictions between social elements and environmental sustainability. The Red River green space, initiated by Liveable Hanoi Network, has demonstrated a starting point of social-ecological transformation by providing a place for people to come together for environmental sustainability. It has also highlighted the importance of building trust between the government and local communities.

Bangkok and Hanoi, among Southeast Asia’s cities, are facing increasing challenges for urban development. They are exacerbated by impacts of climate change, affecting the well-being, health and livelihood opportunities especially of the poor. The Climate Outlook Survey conducted by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute has found citizens’ perceptions of the appropriate role of stakeholders in addressing climate change and their view of current actions by policy-makers. The respondents see governments and private sector as the main stakeholders holding the responsibility.

Padawangi argues that, “rather than seeing the city as a finished product or a project to build, a viewpoint that looks at the city as a process and one that looks at cities contextually, is necessary to find the starting point of a social-ecological transformation”.

Social-ecological transformation in cities in Asia

Padawangi, Rita

Social-ecological transformation in cities in Asia

Cities as places for transformation ; Discussion paper
Hanoi, 2022

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