Episode 161      18 min 49 sec
Stretch and squeeze: Sustainability vs. sprawl in crowded Asian cities

Dr Sidh Sintusingha discusses the phenomenon of urban sprawl and approaches to enabling sustainability in increasingly crowded Southeast Asian urban corridors. With host Jennifer Cook.

"But again economic development issue comes in, or the issue of inequity comes in because the poorer countries have that right to say that you know, we want to be rich like you, we want to have a lifestyle like you." -- Dr Sidh Sintusingha




           



Dr Sidh Sintusingha
Dr Sidh Sintusingha

Dr Sidh Sintusingha is Coordinator, Landscape Architecture Major, Bachelor of Environments at the University of Melbourne. Prior to joining academia, he practiced as an architect and landscape architect in Thailand and Australia. His research focuses on addressing socio-cultural, environmental and scalar problems relating to urban sprawl and the speculation of retrofits towards urban sustainability in Southeast Asian cities. His research also addresses the evolving formal cultural landscape expressions, both planned/designed and unplanned/undesigned, in response to those broader phenomenon of urban sprawl. He has widely presented and published in these areas both locally and internationally. He is also a Research Associate at the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab and on the Architects for Peace editorial board.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JENNIFER COOK
I’m Jennifer Cook, thanks for joining us.  What happens when a city becomes a brand?  Do citizens become consumers of a product that then promises them things like world class sustainability?  Indeed has that term been used so often that it’s in danger of becoming nothing more than an empty catch cry.  Is it even possible to build cities that can cope with increasing population, the demands of industrialisation and globalisation?  How can architects and planners hope to hold back the rising tide of sprawl?   Is this episode of Up Close we’re focusing on Southeast Asia and examining how the cities in that region are tackling the demands of more people and less space.  With us in the studio is Dr Sidh Sintusingha, Facility of Architecture Building and Planning, University of Melbourne.  Sidh, thank you so much for joining us.

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
My pleasure.

JENNIFER COOK
No you were living in Thailand; you left there in ’97.  Could you take a moment and tell us what’s it like living in a city like Bangkok?  It’s just an unofficial population of between 11 and 12 million and in its densest areas there’s between 15,000 to 20,000 people per square kilometre.  What is it like?  

SIDH SINTUSINGHA 
Of course density itself, you know, as you’ve mentioned the densest part of Bangkok is 15,000 to 20,000 people per square kilometre and that manifests in every open space, in every street.  Bangkok is world famous for its street life and I would say the same applies to cities like Jakarta, Manila for instance.  You see the streets brimming with markets and vendors, selling every type of goods, mostly food of course and every type of clothing.  It’s like having a department store lined along the streets.  Of course, we know that road infrastructure isn’t that good yet so traffic jams are a normal part of everyday life.

JENNIFER COOK
Yes.

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
Back in the days that I lived there I lived like 25 kilometres or 30 kilometres into the suburbs.  If I leave home too late it can easily take over two hours to get to work.  So you just have to leave earlier, like 5.30 in the morning for instance.  That’s not such a good life.  But in other aspects the great thing is that it’s almost a 24 hour city so access to many things is just very easy.  Like food, you know you can almost find good food anytime of the day.  

JENNIFER COOK
Tell us what first drew you to this issue of sprawling cities back when this now ubiquitous term urban sustainability began to make itself heard.

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
Well, when I left I was working as an architect then and of course contributing a lot to this sprawl.  When I say sprawl I mean every sense of the word, it’s not just sprawling cities, it’s also the sprawling of human development into the natural realm.  I felt it was doing much more harm than good and hence I was driven to reassess myself and I thought maybe I should study landscape architecture and learn to design with nature.  
JENNIFER COOK
Can you give us an example of where you were building and what triggered this change in you?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
Well I was building all over the country, including very pristine locations such as Koh Chang which is in kind of the south east of Thailand and it was promoted to be sort of the next Phuket and everyone knows what Phuket has turned out to be now.  Also, in the very far flung suburbs - essentially if you are sprawling in Bangkok you’re actually sprawling into some of the best prime agricultural land in the world.  Of course, this is a common phenomenon in any cities which usually begin by settling in a place with good access to both water and arable land.  I think before knowing about sustainability, growing up in Thailand in the eighties and nineties which back then was actually the fastest growing economy in the world, averaging maybe double digits every year growth in GDP.  The big catch phrase there was development and modernisation.  You know just a few decades ago they were actually associated with positive change.  But then to a certain point we actually reached the tipping point in many ways, over the past three decades, in the way it affects both the environment, and actually tears societies and cultures apart.  Hence this emergence of the new catch phrase which is sustainability which at least, to the present moment, is still associated with positive development.  So I’d like to see sustainability as maybe the more humane face of globalisation and modernisation.

JENNIFER COOK
So Sidh who is doing it well?  Is anyone doing it well?  Who would fail a sustainable city test?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
Well many academics are saying you know sustainable cities are cities that often have the smaller size and often modelled on, you might even say, pre-modern, you know with dense clear centres.  So, some are saying, you know, smaller than one million, others are saying it has to be much smaller, 500,000.  But the present trend is that cities are still expanding.  Mega cities are still multiplying.

JENNIFER COOK  
Let’s talk about that term mega cities.  What are they?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
Well mega cities are considered gigantic cities but the exact definition is not that clear because the cut out population is quite debated.  But in simple terms say that they are supersized cities and they are still constantly growing.  Today, the biggest mega city would be Tokyo, including its metropolitan area it would have a population of over 30 million, that’s more than the whole of Australia.  So very few cities in the world will qualify as a sustainable city.  But, if you break the city down and say okay, which parts of the city is sustainable then it’s another question of course.  Maybe I’m being simplistic in that sense, that the denser you are the more sustainable you are.  But that is part of the equation.  You know the more denser you are – you are at the very least occupying less land resource.  But of course the other factor is your ecological footprint or your consumption footprint which is often in more developed cities or in the inner cities of developing cities itself.  You know, it consists of more well to do wealthier citizens who have a much larger consumption footprint.  
JENNIFER COOK
If we gave you a blank slate what would you need to make some real change?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
That is a very hard question, especially if you put it to a designer who once in a while thinks they’re God.  Actually one very famous one did, Le Corbusier who essentially is one of the fathers of modern planning in the way we kind of understand it.  You know, very much driven by highways and modern technology.  But in this day and age it depends on most of all the political context in each country.  Like in places like China they are able to implement mass transit projects much more quicker than say we here by nature of being a totalitarian top-down state with a highly top-down planning approach.  Places like the Middle East, Abu Dhabi you know that, where in fact they’re experimenting with zero carbon cities.  Masdar for instance which in fact designed by European architects with those God dreams and you know, they can’t do that in Europe but in the deserts of Dubai it’s a possibility.But whether that has any implications in any pre-existing cities - particularly the mega cities around the world which has multiplied over the past 50 years, there were only I think two mega cities in 1950, New York and Tokyo.   But, today there are probably more than two dozen.  

JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close coming to the you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I’m Jennifer Cook.  Our guest today is Sidh Sintusingha and we’re talking about urban sprawl.  So, let’s talk about how do income levels of the population impact upon development, what kind of housing is needed to meet the needs of different income groups?  

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
Yes, it depends on which model you go into.  If you take the example of Singapore it’s at least 70 or 80 per cent government-developed flats.  Its former policy to have people live in high-rise apartments and that’s because of very finite land resources.  Some countries in South East Asia see that as the model but often it’s not implemented the way that Singaporeans do it with that level of discipline.  So the market is kind of more mixed.  It ranges from government production of housing which is actually relatively a very small proportion, the majority would be market driven.  For the low end of the market of course it will be just very small and probably very low quality too.  Outside of the formal market there’s a lot of informal housing happening as well, the slums and you know, squatter settlements.  

JENNIFER COOK
Now Sidh doesn’t all of this discussion hinge upon an understanding of population growth?  Is it a case of just too many people and there’s just not enough land?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
To a certain degree that’s becoming some sort of consensus.  But as I mentioned before the other side of the coin is consumption too.  You may have a small population but if you consume the lot you could easily be as unsustainable as, you know, having a very large population but consume little.  But again economic development issue comes in or the issue of inequity comes in because of course the poorer countries have that right to say that you know, we want to be rich like you, we want to have a lifestyle like you.  That also contributes to the problem of un-sustainability in many ways.

JENNIFER COOK
So in your view is urban sustainability even possible and what are the consequences if it’s not?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
Well putting an idealistic hat on it is possible but we human beings have to be given the big stick, you know a very serious environmental catastrophe for instance might push us towards that direction.  But…

JENNIFER COOK
You think it’s going to take something that serious for people to change?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
I would say so, at least change soon enough to address the problem before say the worst affects of climate change happens.  But if not I think we are destined unsustainable but we are also destined to keep coming up with technological quick fix to address it.  But at the same time always creating more or newer problems for future generations to deal with.  

JENNIFER COOK
Can you tell us about some of the other factors that feed into this urban sprawl, things like immigration.

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
So it’s very much interrelated.  You know it’s the modern religion of development that drives each of us individually to seek a better life, to seek better wages.  Be it moving from rural villages to the city or be it moving from a lower income country to a higher income country to make more money and probably send remittance home so your whole family can have a better lifestyle, a larger house and car, for instance.  

JENNIFER COOK
Now Sidh some analysts say in order to check the sprawl more money needs to be spent in rural areas and others say the key is to spread the development more evenly.  What’s your response to that?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
Well it’s been known that yes, to stop the rural in migration to cities why not just develop the rural areas more, they’re saying it’s actually an issue inequity in development.  But what often results from doing that is in fact turning those rural villages into cities themselves, so into towns and new suburbs.  So especially, if those villages are not actually that far from urban centres it’s inducing sprawl.  It’s not fixing the problem but ends up contributing to it.  

JENNIFER COOK
Sidh, South East Asia it’s a such a diverse region as you’ve explained but are there differences in the way the different cities deal with sprawl?  Can we draw any conclusions from it or do they all just follow the same pattern of its development, its development?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
At the broadest level I would say yes, everyone follows in that pattern of development.  Everyone also is on the lookout for solutions and obviously looking at European, American and Australian cities assuming that they’ve been further down this path of development that they will come up with solutions.  So that happens in very varying degrees but the solutions there are often more piecemeal such as in Bangkok, the roads are clogged now.  Should we be doing something differently?  Should we build 500 kilometres of mass transit system which is now what they are aspiring to do over the next 15 to 20 years.  Or it could be about open space per head which is very small in places like Bangkok or Jakarta or Manila.  So, you know, is it about trying to find more recreational space and parks for urban inhabitants?  Or the problems of slums or squatter settlements, again very different responses in each country.  In Malaysia which is, one might say, semi-democratic, it still often chooses to force people to move into high rise flats.  In Thailand and the Philippines it’s quite different.  In Thailand it’s more a public/private model in which the government gives money to this independent body which is related to the government and their role is to facilitate a network of slum communities in the city to empower them and encourage them to participate and be the decision makers themselves in terms of what they do with that money.  It’s not a giveaway.  They would also have to form a savings group.  So it’s kind of encouraging a habit of savings amongst the very poorest.  It’s savings towards their future housing and continued security, it’s always savings towards repaying their informal debts.  

JENNIFER COOK
So Sidh is there an argument for building another separate city near Bangkok which would shift that centre of gravity or another centre of gravity for the population?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
Yes, I would say so. And in planning literature, especially for very large mega cities, to encourage the cities to develop multiple centres and they call this the polycentric city.  But it’s actually a huge challenge in trying to implement this model.  One: of course it requires a lot of capital because these other small cities have to be linked by a network of very good highways and ideally mass transportation.  In many ways these cities are becoming multi-centres themselves but very imperfectly.  There’s also the additional challenge of the tendency for very large cities to become much more fragmented.  Many are saying if you encourage polycentric city you are also encouraging fragmentation of cities further and the diminution of parts of cities based on socioeconomic income.  The example of the banlieues of Paris comes to mind where the level of unemployment in those satellite cities are like 30, 40 per cent compared to within the centre of Paris itself which is much less.  

JENNIFER COOK
So it’s not just as simple as let’s build another one?

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
No, unfortunately.  

JENNIFER COOK
If you could talk to us a bit about this concept of cities as brands.  It makes them sounds like commodities and consumables like a can of Coke.

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
Well it is in many ways.   You would dream of going to certain places because of the experience and qualities.  Everyone wants to go to New York, everyone wants to go to London or Paris.  But very few people would want to go to Lagos in Nigeria because it’s considered not such a good brand yet.  

JENNIFER COOK
Sidh thank you so much for joining us.

SIDH SINTUSINGHA
My pleasure and thank you for having me here.  

JENNIFER COOK
That was Dr Sidh Sintusingha, Facility of Architecture Building and Planning, University of Melbourne.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our web site at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  This episode was recorded on August 26, 2011 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Ben Loveridge.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I’m Jennifer Cook and until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close.  We’re also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2011, the University of Melbourne. 


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