Form and Flow: the Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice poses critical questions at the heart of urban studies with relevance beyond urban-spatiality, writes Naimah Lutfi Talib
Kian Goh’s Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice has sharpened the debates on urban (re)making by highlighting the importance of contestation of imaginaries (reflected on design), of an increasingly interconnected, yet disparate, world in the 21st century. Goh offers an incisive analysis by combining three established scholarships: architecture design, urban studies, and critical geography. This book illuminates what it means to be “connected low-lying cities” on the verge of climate change while carrying the old baggage of shared-but-particulars spatial and political marginalisation, race and class-based segregation, social and economic inequalities, and fragmented urban governance.
Form and Flow: the Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice poses critical questions at the heart of urban studies with relevance beyond urban-spatiality: “How could we explain the even more visible social phenomenon of similar-narrative and pattern towards aiming and translating ‘urban resilience’ as planning processes and practices across nations-bounded territories? And under what circumstances counter-pattern can emerge and thrive?”. In other words, this book attempts, and in my opinion succeeds, to reveal the underlying complex processes and drivers of why similar approaches are found in different places, while sharing similar urban characteristics, and are accentuated by elements of their particularities. Goh, who went beyond discussing the processes of urban development to achieve the problematic objective of “climate resilience”, also contributes to explaining why those similar approaches, driven by dominant paradigms, values, and ways of knowing, often fail to respond to social problems.
Form and Flow is divided into five chapters, discussing five large yet interconnected topics in building the book’s key argument and understanding the interconnectedness of the three cities in a relational manner through a multilevel and multiscalar analysis of how ideas, actors, and actions are formed. Each chapter the analysis that explains why urban climate change design, policy, and projects were taking these paths, i.e., returning to ‘convenient and politically feasible’ solutions, and how the organisation of counterplans works as resistance. This message, thus, gently reminds us not to take for granted the path-moulded of urban “(re)development”.
In Chapter 1, “discusses the selection of three cities as case studies, their specific differences, and how the three are interrelated through the role of network-actors (international, regional, local, and state and non-state), who facilitate the exchange of ideas, hopes, and capital-flow.
In Chapter 2, “The Nature of Contestation”, Goh discusses the current approach to climate disasters, the network coalition formed to respond to such disasters, and which disasters work as windows of opportunity to introduce what is perceived by dominant actors as solutions. Solutions, while intended to solve the problem in technocratic ways, she argues, are imbued by identity politics of the nations, colonial/postcolonial relations, and geopolitical-economic interests. In this chapter, Goh also shares her thoughts on how and why political and social grassroots organisations could take certain forms, which is a cogent question for social, environmental, and climate justice researchers. She includes the history of shared struggles and visions, the organisation of local knowledge, and effective coalition formation as the underpinning factors of coalition formation. The stories of the development of ‘counterplans’ and ‘counternetwork’ in Jakarta and New York City are particularly fascinating and insightful. The network-coalition to form counterplans was elaborated through two case studies. The first one is the collaboration among grassroots actors that forms a network, including Ciliwung Merdeka, Urban Poor Consortium (UPC), and RUJAK Urban Studies, who worked together with academics, architects, and advocates. This network of actors formed a socio-political organisation in Jakarta during the normalisation project of the Ciliwung-Cisadane rivers and succeeded in offering alternative imaginaries by developing a counter-design of neighbourhood/ housings by the riverbanks. The second case study is the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) and Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) in New York, which work with architects and community advocates and provide social spaces for the communities (through the open-space design, and in-our-neighbourhood location) during and post-recovery from Hurricane Sandy. While these relationships are far from static, the counternetwork provides an important standpoint in situating the network of actors by weighing power dynamics within power relations in the (alternative) visions contestation.
In Chapter 3, “Nature of Flows”, Goh elaborates on networked-governance, which involves actors, interests, ideas, imaginations, desperation, and hopes in multiscalar and multilevel ways, interwoven beyond nation-state boundaries, and state and non-state actors (pp.112-113). The global-urban network, the heart of this chapter, was driven and defined by interrelated factors, namely economic relationships, situational relationships (postcolonial relations and geopolitical power relations), and interference conditions (cultural narratives and invocation of urgency). This chapter is attuned to the scholarly debates on cosmopolitanism (Benhabib, 2008) and, at an operational level, on policy diffusion across nation-states, of which “global policy entrepreneurs”, such as think tanks, multilateral development banks, philanthropies, and private sectors taking roles in facilitating the exchange of ideas (Benson and Jordan, 2011; Marsh and Sharman, 2009). Fundamentally, this book also responds to the call from critical theorists to go beyond biophysical-and spatial-boundaries, and beyond ‘distribution of costs and benefits’ of ‘development’, in understanding justice, and to examine who could participate in making the decisions (Fraser, 2009; Schlosberg, 2013; Sultana, 2021; Young, 1990).
In Chapter 4, “Plan and Counterplans”, Goh discusses the nature of design and what it means for “space-production” in spatial and social arenas. What does design mean to people, particularly geographically and historically marginalised groups? The elaboration of three levels of understanding design is particularly helpful (p.119), especially for readers unfamiliar with urban development scholarship. , projected in space. Departing from this differentiation of levels of abstraction in understanding design, the chapter elaborates well on the roles of design in its three levels in justifying cities as spatial, social, and imaginative, which are (always) in the making and contested.
The last chapter wraps up the book neatly by offering a tailored framework, “the Political Ecology of Design”, which proposes to view a network of actors, influences, and (counter)narratives in forming design – and design is understood as an intertwined, envisioned, and contested social and spatial politics of urban climate change responses.
This book is extremely insightful, with sensitivity to cultural, social, and political differences across each site of analysis without compromising the understanding of a larger picture.
Marginalisation and oppression occur across geographies, and its underlying factors are well elaborated – a diverse set of place-based specific factors, influenced by global geopolitics and economy, situated within and exacerbated by a postcolonial context. Furthermore, the book’s strength lies in discussing power relations and power structures in the construction of visions, i.e., the inclusion of values and participation during the co-production of design, both as a technocratic plan-document, social spaces, and visions. Further back to several critical questions, such as, what is “resilience”? For whom was this design made? And who was involved in the processes of making such a design? Whose values and set of knowledge are reflected in such design?. These questions have become even more critical to scrutinise the spatial, ecological, and infrastructural design of space in the era of “inclusive” and “resilient” usage as brands to advertise urban development for “all” – and it is even more relevant to scrutinise the jargon, ‘build back better’, from the Covid-19 pandemic hardship, as a global temporal conjecture in the 21st century.
On a minor note, readers could have benefitted more from a more sustained analysis of how design works to embellish the spatial with the political (p.148), which is a critical link to introducing . Design has been one of the core units of study for cultural geographers and feminist scholars. Its study includes how things such as houses (e.g., kitchens, living rooms, chairs), public transport (e.g., trains, aeroplanes), and public space (e.g., airports) shape human lives and social relationships and may reveal power relations. Sara Ahmed (2019), in her book What’s the Use, also highlights the design of things, which forms a certain material and social space that speaks to humans, enabling or un-enabling certain behaviours, and in turn, setting and sustaining perception and emotions (hope, disappointment, anger, unfitted, rejection).
In conclusion, Form and Flow is a highly insightful book that provides breadth and depth of discussions on how contestation is made possible and how to gain legitimacy over counterplan. The selection of the three cities, with their different characteristics but also sharing some common features and interconnectedness in a more networked world through the flow of ideas, funds, people, culture, and feelings of fear and hope, succussed in highlighting Goh’s arguments. As Goh neatly shows, thinking of urban governance may require us to think differently: “scaling up” local initiatives, as what has often been sold, may or may not be workable, yet, scrutinising the underlying processes to figure out relevant aspects to be rescaled may help to pave the way to find appropriate solutions. This splendid book contributes to the significant questions of “City for whom? City desired by whom?” through delving into the multifaceted – but often unequal in the political contestation – meanings of “desired urban planning”.
Lastly, this very accessible book, indeed pleasurable to read, is highly recommended for a broad range of readers from various academic disciplines, including geography, arts, social and political science, architecture and urban design, development, anthropology, and public policy.
* This book review is published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books blog as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.
* Banner photo front cover of Form and Flow: the Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice, Kian Goh.
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.