The importance of the urban question outside of Western contexts is no longer debatable. Over the last 60 years, the vast majority of the world’s urban population growth (3.5 billion people) took place in these regions, and this process is far from over: the UN (2014) projects that by 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people will have joined the ranks of the world’s urban dwellers, with up to 90% of this growth expected to occur on the Asian and African continents. There is now a widespread recognition that the rate and scale of this growth, coupled with broader environmental issues, such as climate change and resource depletion, pose critical problems. This ongoing urbanization of the south not only requires a new scale of intervention, but also a fundamental review of urban planning policies and practices.
The Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Urbanization in the Global South takes stock of this pressing issue by recognizing, from the outset, that the historical urban transition currently taking place in and around the towns, cities, and mega-cities of Asia, Africa, and Latin America presents planning practitioners and academics with an array of problems they have never before faced. Most importantly the ongoing southern urbanization calls into question the ability of the predominant planning theories, models, and instruments—most of them derived from the Euro-American urban experience—for understanding and regulating urban development in the south.
In light of the gap between existing urban planning models and theories, and the real-world imperatives facing urban residents and governments in the global south, how can urban planners and other built environment professionals help cities meet the growing needs for housing, transportation, energy, jobs, etc., of their rapidly expanding and overwhelmingly poor populations? And how can these professionals ensure, at the same time, the development of sustainable urban settlements—understood in this research program as places where economic growth and social development which foster wealth creation, social equity, and human flourishing are in balance with the carrying capacity of the natural systems on which they depend?
In an effort to answer these two pressing—yet daunting—questions, the Chair's research program explores the ‘real-life’ urban development dynamics unfolding at the periphery of rapidly urbanizing cities (with a particular focus on the East–Southeast Asian region). Indeed, whether Southeast Asian urbanizing regions (and those of many other countries of the global south) will succeed in creating sustainable urban living environments is still unknown, but the responses of urban planners to the maelstrom of changes occurring in the transition zones of the periurban will be highly influential in this. Understanding the real-life experiments in city-building unfolding at the periphery of large cities is all the more important since these zones are the site of profound transformations of existing governance frameworks, financing mechanisms, and spatial development models, including more decentralized and entrepreneurial urban planning approaches, and new forms of working with the private sector in the production and management of the built environment.
The Chair currently focuses on four interrelated facets of the periurbanization process in Southeast Asia, which are the locus of intensive planning and regulatory experiments:
- Forced appropriation and conversion of farm land to urban land during the outward expansion of urban functions (transportation, housing, recreational areas, etc.)
- The production of master-planned communities geared towards an emerging middle-class;
- Livelihood adaptations of former rural populations during their integration into urban territories; and
- Transformations in the production, use, and management of urban public spaces.
The common objective in studying each of these theme is to understand how localized encounters between the urban development intentions of the state, actually existing governing practices, and everyday life, shape the periurbanization process and its outcomes in terms of sustainability. It also entails attending to the interrelationship between official urban development discourses and policies often put forward at the national level, and ways in which these discourses and policies are appropriated, redefined, or even resisted during their implementation by the diversity of state and non-state actors driving the periurbanization process at the local level.
The systematic and broad study of periurban dynamics in a rapidly urbanizing context of Southeast Asia, along with comparative south-south and north-south initiatives, is expected to advance interdisciplinary knowledge on the contemporary urbanization process in the global south and critical thinking and epistemological reflections on urban development policies and practices in these contexts. Ultimately, it is hoped that the Chair supports the development of a cross-disciplinary research network able to generate alternative ways of thinking about sustainable urban development that are more relevant to the education and practice of the professionals who face the daunting task of shaping the human settlements where the majority of the world’s population will soon live.