SESC Pompeia, São Paulo

The end of my trip to São Paulo this month was inflected with thoughts about a simultaneous big news item back home: a controversy involving the BBC and sports commentator Gary Lineker. In between my wanderings (from which one impression is related below), I began wondering if any recent data was available about public views on the BBC, and its funding model. 

For those who don’t know, any UK household wanting to watch or record any TV programmes, whether on BBC channels or others, is required to buy an annual TV licence – currently £159, though free if you are over 75.  Along with some commercial income, licence fees pay for BBC TV and radio to operate.  No BBC television or radio channel plays advertisements – in the UK at least.

I immediately found a YouGov tracking poll on the funding mechanism.  When asked to choose between various approaches (via licence fee, as at present; subscription; advertising; general taxation; ‘something else’; or ‘don’t know’), the licence fee is preferred by just under a quarter of adults at the moment – in second place to advertising (chosen by a third).  Subscription-based funding is less popular (chosen by 15%). 

It seemed a little surprising that adverts were preferred overall – though there are differences across the population. London stands out as the region most favourable to the licence.  Liberal Democrat voters support it most strongly; Labour voters also prefer it by a narrow margin; Conservatives much more often favoured adverts. C2DEs are less keen on the licence than the middle classes. There’s also a noticeable difference between those who voted for the UK to leave the EU. Unsurprisingly, given the populist suspicion of ‘elites’ and the ‘mainstream media’, support for the compulsory licence fee is particularly low among leavers (at only 15%). Meanwhile, only around three in ten overall see the licence fee as ‘good value for money’ overall.  Again, this rises in London, but is lower among Conservative voters and leavers.

I think you could interpret all the above in various ways.  But what interests me is the existence of services which are neither simply provided by the state, nor by consumer preferences alone, but which nevertheless broadly ‘work quite well’.  As well as being potentially very irritating to those who fetishise markets as efficient providers of public goods, their governance philosophy obviates the argument that popularity data such as the above show that they don’t work well. I don’t want to sound as if I have an entirely positive view of the BBC’s output or direction – I’m making the obvious point that justifying its existence need not rely primarily on the criterion of popularity. Something like the BBC is also, then, an irritant to populist notions of ‘the people having their say’, where the preferences of ‘the people’ might straightforwardly be read off an opinion poll or legitimised by some kind of single-choice referendum.

Anyway, in São Paulo, I ended up trying to draw some parallels between the BBC and the SESC (Serviço Social do Comércio) organisation, which operates across Brazil, including 24 centres across the city of São Paulo itself.  These are open to the public, and provide a wide variety of sporting facilities, cultural venues, advice for citizens, community development initiatives, and so on. SESC is a non-profit organisation, funded by a compulsory corporation tax. Like the BBC, SESC is in the odd position of being independent of, but still regulated by, the government. Also like the BBC, it seems every so often to attract heavy criticism in the media and by some politicians (in the case of SESC, for being overly bureaucratic, unaccountable, etc). 

And yet, as far as I could see – and in rejection of market thinking – it works rather well. I only visited two of its centres: Pompeia and Avenida Paulista. Admittedly, these are probably flagship examples.  But they were clean and friendly spaces, with welcoming entrances in an often securitised city (I’m sure the security guards would filter out homeless people, apparent trouble-makers, and so on – but this didn’t result in a shopping mall ambience), smart interior décor, and no corporate logos in sight. They offer comfortable sofas with free newspapers and magazines; they have very reasonably priced canteens and cafes offering unpretentious food – as well as libraries, varied art exhibitions, performance venues, meeting rooms, sports facilities, and dentistry (!). They were busy and sociable when I was there, with people of all ages milling about. 

Overall, a very democratic, non-consumerist atmosphere (and rather more inviting than your average ‘Civic Centre’ – the nearest equivalent in the UK).  In their own way, I see them as constructively blurring perceived boundaries between elite and popular culture, performatively resisting the fragmentation of society, or a sense of fragmentation, and subtly reminding us that all sorts of alternative ways of organising things are possible.  We should have places like those dotted across every city.

SESC Pompeia (a 1940s steel drum and refrigerator factory, converted 40 years ago)

Avenida Paulista from the canteen of the local SESC centre.

São Paulo, March 2023

Residential building in Vauban
Making good use of roofspace in Heidelberg

The city of Freiburg, and more specifically its Vauban district, is commonly used as an example of ‘best practice’ urban sustainable development.  I’ve now had the chance to visit, seeing Philipp Späth, who guided me round Vauban, and architect Wolfgang Frey, who showed me some of his projects in the Rieselfeld area and the new Bahnstadt district of Heidelberg (further down the Rhine valley).

There are plenty of impressions and reflections I could share. But I just wanted to relay one set of thoughts here.  This was a mini-pattern in the stories I heard about gaining stakeholders’ support for new ways of doing things – approaches which, for example, weren’t accommodated within existing regulations, or innovative financing and management models. The point of interest wasn’t that a particular group of actors had been persuaded of a scheme’s merits, but rather that this group ended up mobilising successful achievements as evidence of their own progressive and forward-looking thinking.  And, in some cases, even remembering the idea as their own – when in fact they had initially opposed it.

This brought to mind a book I read over the summer: Remembering Satan, by journalist Lawrence Wright (1994).  The subject matter is entirely unconnected. Wright explores the widespread panic about satanic child abuse in the USA which began in the late 1980s, and drew on suspected victims’ recollections which only surfaced during extended interviews.  He notes that no concrete proof of the satanic abuse phenomenon has ever been discovered. The point of connection, then, is around false memories – or rather, that it’s unhelpful to think about memory as being “like videotape” (p.199).  Instead, memory is “reconstructive…it continually recreates itself, continually reinvents personal history” (p.199).  He quotes Freud’s suggestion that:

“It may indeed by questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time.”

So I was thinking about the implications for certain types of research in my field, which involve a sort of ‘detective work’ using interviews to gain a critical angle on things like promotional materials or policy rhetoric – as if with the implicit ambition of accessing the ‘real’ story of how things came about.  There’s a reality, of course, that humans tend to remember events selectively and in slightly different ways, and to patch this evidence together into narratives with quite divergent framings and chains of cause and effect. There’s never one uncontestable history – and even individual events repel definitive specification (Law, 2004). But what I’m thinking about is not so much the need to take all this multiplicity into account, and try at least to triangulate and so on. Rather, more specifically, I’m thinking about people’s tendency to take credit for successes when they narrate their own past in good faith – and to actually remember their own contributions to this success as matters of fact.

And this seems to link to Michael Herzfeld’s observation on the all-too-human tendency to self-aggrandise by positioning ourselves variously as skilful actors or faultless victims depending on the outcomes of events: “My successes are the result of my character…and my failures simply the effect of malign fate…, while your successes are attributable to a benevolent fate and your failures to ineradicable flaws in your character” (Herzfeld, 1987, p.139).

Freiburg im Breisgau, September 2022


Herzfeld, M. (1987) Anthropology Through the Looking Glass: Critical Ethnography at the Margins of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Law, J. (2004).  After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. London: Routledge

Wright, L. (1994) Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory. New York: Vintage Books.

A quick view from the first of Mexico City’s planned cable car lines.  (I wanted to upload a video, but it seems I can’t do that without upgrading the wordpress package.)

I had some free time around the 2022 IGU annual conference on Local Governance in a Time of Global Emergencies in August, and had heard mention of this ‘Cablébus’, which only opened last year.  It runs from Indios Verdes station at the northern end of metro line 3, to serve the sprawling and congested residential districts running up the hills around there.  I’d heard of other similar initiatives in Latin American cities, imagining these as relatively limited affairs – a short ride up a hill.  But the length of this cable car line was itself remarkable: 9.2km, with 6 stations.  And with a flat fare of 7 pesos (= 29 pence).

I should probably relate some discomfort related to my role here as a ‘sightseer’: the infrastructure aestheticises these semi-informal neighbourhoods; you float above, enjoying a visual spectacle.  On the other hand, that spectacle was enthralling, and an experience I’d never had before.  I wonder if it will become a standard part of a touristy visit to Mexico City in future, but hope it doesn’t.

I’ve not posted anything for a while. Different priorities during and after the pandemic; fell out of the habit. But this year I have the good fortune to be on sabbatical, so maybe I’ll get back into it.  Once a month always used to feel about right, but today I’m posting three things, to reflect three trips I’ve been on since the start of the summer.

The first comes from a visit to Berlin.  I’ve been helping to run a summer school, involving PhD students from King’s College London, Freie Universität Berlin, and Universidade de São Paulo (the original plan, which the pandemic trashed, was for everybody to meet in each place for a week, spread over three years – but we should still be meeting in São Paulo in February).  Actually, the experience of collaborating with other universities in this way has itself sparked lots of thoughts – but that’s for another time.

One place we visited was the ‘Floating University Berlin’.  Or more precisely, the ‘Floating University Berlin’, since they are forbidden from claiming this status in their name.  It describes itself as a ‘Natureculture learning site’, and consists of a series of makeshift buildings in a rainwater collection basin near the old Tempelhof airfield.  One is a lecture theatre, another is a kitchen, another includes an elevated circle of toilet cubicles, one is a social space, etc, all joined by wooden walkways.  They were only ever allowed to erect temporary buildings, so – until this year – they had to demolish the whole place at the end of each year, and then start again from scratch.  I’m always interested in a bit of DIY urbanism, and examples of the walls of the academy becoming blurry.

I last posted something at the end of August. During the six months since then, I’ve done little other than prepare and deliver online teaching. I still don’t understand how that takes up far more time than normal teaching. There was almost no respite: each week just rolled into the next, and any pauses were filled with other admin. But it’s been a sweet Easter weekend. No more lecturing till the end of September.

Still, I did get at least two things done beyond those fixed commitments. First, I finally managed to organise some mini-workshops with people from King’s College London and Westminster City Council, exploring collaborative relationships between universities and local authorities. These would have been held last Easter, but global events intervened. Although what happened had to be scaled back in terms of the number of participants, it was also part of a five-country study, led by the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University. We’re starting to write up our findings now, so more news about that in due course.

Second, final edits were made to a new article which I co-authored with Simon Joss (University of Glasgow). This was published online in December in the Journal of Urban Affairs. It grew partly out of a sense that the shaping role of national government policies tends to be underplayed in commentaries about city-level innovations. Specifically, we were looking for examples of national ‘urban innovation competitions’ from around the world: such competitions seem to be a characteristically contemporary way of enticing local authorities to innovate in what national governments decide as desirable directions. But alongside the ‘big picture’ findings, we also closely traced what had happened during and following the implementation of one such competition in the UK (whose results were patchy). Actually, the article was quite a long time in the making, but it ended up being a very satisfying piece of work. Have a read if you like – details below, or get in touch if you want a copy:

Cowley, R. and Joss, S. (2020). Urban Transformations Through National Innovation Competitions: Lessons from the UK’s Future City Demonstrator InitiativeJournal of Urban Affairs. Online advance publication. DOI: 10.1080/07352166.2020.1828903

I recently went on a day trip to Dungeness – an isolated settlement on the South coast of Kent, widely known as a peculiar sort of place.  In fact, it attracts a constant stream of visitors, specifically because it is such an unusual place.  On the way home, I was wondering how we might account for it as a place.

These days, we tend by default to theorise of a ‘sense of place’ as shaped by connections to elsewhere. A place can somehow ‘hang together’ even if it has multiple resulting identities, and these shift over time, as its relations to the rest of the world change.  Alternatively, it has become common to think of places as ‘assemblages’ (of materials, resources, bodies, ideas, perceptions, historical traces, etc). I can’t help feeling that there is something centripetal in all this: an underlying emphasis on places as acted upon, shaped by the ‘outside’; place as an outcome or result.

But what if we also consider the possibility that some places are more obviously centrifugal. This is one perspective taken by AbdouMaliq Simone, in his (2018) book Improvised Lives, on a series of deprived parts of cities (mostly) in the global South. Such areas are populated by people, activities and things, but their constituent parts aren’t necessarily in tension, conflict or harmony – they more obviously don’t really speak to each other.  People end up there without actively wanting to be there; they function most evidently as ‘platforms’ from which people depart to go about their daily life elsewhere in the city. Things and activities share the space, but largely because there’s nowhere else for them to be. This isn’t place as a coming together, so much as an arbitrary and unenthusiastic coexistence. (I’d do Simone’s ideas more justice if I could have another look at his book – but that’s in my office at work, and not so accessible due to lockdown.)  One analogy that came to my mind was of magnets being forced together so that the same poles are touching.  The two magnets are copresent because they have to be, even though each is oriented towards being elsewhere.

So I was playing with the idea of Dungeness as being a somehow centrifugal place.  One of its key features is an old lighthouse. Lighthouses send out signals to warn people away; they signify a place where you don’t want to be. Sitting in juxtaposition is a nuclear power station.  Nuclear power stations tend to be built in places where very few people want to live; they send energy to elsewhere.  The landscape itself is hardly hospitable: no trees, salt, rocks, sea cabbages.  In fact, the place is full of bad omens: rusting machinery and rotting boats; a sign warns of artillery fire on the beach at certain times; all the roads nearby are bordered with barbed wire; a sign warns that the water there is “deep and cold”. It all shouts at you: This is no place for you to be.  

But all these things are there, together. It’s a very distinctive place, but has no coherence; it is repulsive in a literal sense.  Do we find it so alluring specifically for this reason?  Anyway, a couple of hours there was plenty for me. I wish I’d booked a tour of the nuclear reactor, though.

London, 27 August 2020

Everybody seems to be speculating about the ongoing implications that social distancing will have on urban life. So I thought I’d look at Edward T. Hall’s book, The Hidden Dimension, published in 1969, and seen as the foundational work on the topic of what he called ‘proxemics’.  The ideas first sketched out here have come to influence lots of fields – anybody learning to make films, for example, will be taught all about ‘character proxemics’ (how to position actors and objects in relation to each other), and ‘camera proxemics’ (the effects of having different distances between the camera and the subject). But I hadn’t heard of this book, until I saw it mentioned in a student essay that I was marking.

Hall drew on his research among middle-class white North Americans, to identify four categories of distance (intimate, personal, social and public), each with a ‘close’ and ‘far’ phase:


Close phase (direct contact)

  • The distance of comforting, protecting, sexual relations, wrestling, etc.  Smell and body heat are important alongside vision of small details. Speech typically takes place through whispers.

Far phase (6-18 inches)

  • Still possible to detect smells and body heat.  Conversational volumes are low. Tactics are needed to deal with situations (eg a packed train) which force us to be this close to strangers.


Close phase (1.5 – 2.5 feet)

  • Still possible to touch or hold the other person. A person might feel jealous or suspicious if they saw their partner holding a conversation with somebody at this distance.

Far phase (2.5 – 4 feet)

  • “At arms length” – just outside easy touching distance. Often used to discuss personal topics.

Social distance

Close phase (4 – 7 feet)

  • Common for discussing impersonal business; typical distance between office workers’ seats; or between people at a networking event, etc

Far phase (7-12 feet)

  • “Can be used to insulate or screen people from each other” – the distance at which people can share space without feeling the need to converse. The finer details of people’s faces are lost.

Public distance

Close phase (12-24 feet)

  • roughly the distance between most audience members and a speaker in a small meeting or seminar. Grammar and syntax tend to be more formal than at closer distances. Possibility of easy escape.

Far phase (25+ feet)

  • “the distance that is automatically set around important public figures”. Amplified or exaggerated forms of speech. Body language becomes more important than the details of facial expression.

Hall is keen to emphasise that these distances differ across cultures (in fact, the main aim of his book is to suggest that we should pay more attention to cultural differences when designing the built environment, to avoid problematic forms of overcrowding).  Others since then have tried to measure such cultural/spatial differences more systematically – see eg Sorokowska et al (2017), who also distinguish between men and women’s preferences.

Anyway, the UK’s current regime of 2-metre (or 1-metre?) distancing places all face-to-face interaction outside Hall’s ‘personal’ distance range. I’ve been noticing how uncomfortable I’ve felt recently when conversations take a more personal turn (eg gossiping with a neighbour, or establishing rapport with a shopkeeper), but I and my interlocutor have to stay outside each other’s personal spatial zone. Or that I have to repeat what I’ve said because I’ve been speaking at a low volume, appropriate to the casual subject matter, but not to the physical distance. I feel less obliged generally to enter into informal conversation with others when I’m standing further away than usual (with face masks seeming to amplify the effect even more).

Perhaps that seems obvious.  In parallel, though, I was thinking about how I feel when reading this sort of text– it feels somehow typical of a certain genre of earnest non-fictional (but not academic) book published in the 1960s. I’m sure it would be slated if published today. Hall’s argument often proceeds on the basis of personal anecdotes and generalisations that might cause offence. He makes ambitious speculative leaps between different fields of enquiry, but leaves all sorts of assumptions unchallenged. Some of the ideas he draws on have been widely discredited; other points seem blindingly obvious to a 21st-century reader.  To my eyes, the discussion rambles in places, and lines of argument remain painfully underdeveloped. I might even say it’s not worth reading – except out of a sort of historical curiosity.

And yet, I rather like this type of project, where somebody is sketching out a brand new field, struggling enthusiastically to give written form to an idea for the first time.  I also enjoy the way that Hall’s writing style and points of reference feel a little alien after 50 years, even though the social issues he’s grappling with have contemporary resonance.  He takes aim at car-dependent built environments, and reflects intelligently on the links between urban design and social deviancy and unrest. He deals in presumptive categories and stereotypes, but these allow him to forward a progressive argument against the tendency to treat ethnic minorities as “recalcitrant, undereducated, middle-class Americans of northern European heritage instead of what they really are: members of culturally differentiated enclaves with their own communication systems, institutions, and values”.  He flags up the implications of new communications technologies; he speculates on the role that computing might play. And the activities and settings are all very familar.  His evidence base is populated by characters who work in offices, sit at cafés, travel on the train, have guests over for dinner, speak to each other on the telephone. A recognisable everyday social life that we lost, all of a sudden, at the end of February.

It leaves me wondering whether 2020 will turn out to be the year when the twentieth century finally ended.

London, 28 February 2020


Hall, E.T. (1969). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Anchor Books

Sorokowska, A., Sorokowski, P., Hilpert, P., Cantarero, K., Frackowiak, T., Ahmadi, K., Alghraibeh, A. M., Aryeetey, R., Bertoni, A., Bettache, K. et al. (2017) Preferred interpersonal distances : a global comparison. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(4): 577- 592.

There are obvious difficulties in trying to separate out some kind of objective essence of any phenomenon from the words we use to talk about it: the way we name and frame things is part of their reality. And, in the early days of the Coronavirus crisis, as it gradually began to infect every conversation, the discursive dimensions of its spread were evidently as ‘real’ as its terrifying material ones.

The conversation has moved on since then. I’ve been struck by the way that its most recent discursive phase seems to have had certain overtones which – amid all the fear and worry – might be described as somehow celebratory.  “This is what I’ve been saying all along,” crow the commentators, “COVID-19 has made the truth visible to all!”

Perhaps all major crises are perceived and narrated as having this agency.  But it’s interesting that metaphors of illumination appear so prominently in what is being written. In recent days, I have read about how COVID-19 is shining a light – and often a spotlight – on all manner of varied issues: our unequal housing system; the fractures in global politics; violations inside Qatar’s labour camps; international energy inequality; the inadequacy of statutory sick pay; US economic inequality; the life-saving potential of wearable health tech; water and sanitation challenges; the perils of insecure work; the conditions in our jails; the nature of the science advice system in the UK; and our common humanity and shared vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, it has exposed the “ugly truth about celebrity culture and capitalism”, alongside inequalities in the UK’s food system, and provided a “rare moment of clarity, when we finally recognise how much we owe to the low-paid ‘key workers’”.  It eclipses Greta Thunberg’s influence on reducing carbon emissions; and illuminates “the importance of addressing another looming health emergency: climate change”.

Elsewhere, I learn that COVID-19 reveals the ongoing importance of the nation state; our dread of a shift towards a new world order; national cultural differences; China’s weakness in handling public health crises; the need to bridge the digital divide; the failings of the EU; the fragility of rugby’s finance; our problematic reliance on single-use plastic; the shortcomings of traditional manufacturing and food supply chains; the broken nature of America’s economy; Bitcoin’s broken infrastructure. Indicatively, some have described it as one of the Plagues envisaged in the Book of Revelation. I could go on – and you can add your own examples.

Anyway, it would seem that the virus is very busy showing and teaching us things. We defer to its illuminatory powers. But this is a strange type of light: it casts no shadows. Though irrefutable, measurable, and ubiquitous, it’s not straightforwardly or objectively ‘out there’: it runs through us, and is always shaped by human actions. It tells us whatever truths we want to hear; and yet all these truths seem to co-exist harmoniously. This seems like a very twenty-first century type of enlightenment.

I just wanted to capture this moment in our relation to the Coronavirus (or a pattern, at least, in the way that media commentators are feeding off it). I think it’ll be interesting to look back at how the framings and metaphors used in the global conversation have shifted over time.

Meanwhile, Happy Easter.

London, stuck at home, 12 April 2020

Two vignettes from a fieldtrip with undergraduates to Southern Spain.

Remarkably, until 40 years ago nobody had any idea that the Roman amphitheatre in Cartagena existed: it was covered with houses. I asked our guide whether, even retrospectively, there had been any clues of any kind.  Perhaps a muffled reference to its existence in a folk song, or children’s rhyme; perhaps some submerged meaning in a local place name.  But there was nothing. Not even a trace of a memory. 

Res non verba

On a different day, we visited Sunseed eco-village, near the village of Sorbas. For me, this seemed to be as ‘experimental’ as you can get. It makes no claims to be self-sustaining: funding comes from the EU and their various educational programmes. It’s run on an explicit philosophy of learning by doing. People try things out, contributing any notes and thoughts to a now extensive archive – but nobody really goes back to study that systematically. Things work for as long as people take an interest in them. Although the project has been running for 30 years, there are no ‘old-timers’. In fact, people usually only stay for a few months. Nor does it have a fixed constitution to which residents have to adhere.  There is a ‘rule book’ which new arrivals have to sign – but these rules change over time depending on what the current set of residents agree on. 

Andalusia, 21 February 2020

When I was starting my PhD, back in 2011, a friend asked “So where are these eco-cities then?” I was a bit stumped. What was it that I was actually studying? Something that didn’t really exist? Would I just be doing a kind of journalistic work, delivering easy critiques of inflated rhetorical claims? Anyway, I soon realised that the more interesting questions lay elsewhere. But I’ve remained keen to find out more about urban developments using this sort of terminology to describe themselves.

Relatedly, I noticed some of the newer local train maps in Kuala Lumpur include a station named ‘Eco City’ or ‘KL Eco City’, sometimes followed by ‘(Coming Soon)’. So, of course, I went to investigate.

It turns out this is a new high-rise development, accommodating a new shopping centre, offices, and residential towers. It’s being delivered by a public-private sector partnership between Kuala Lumpur City Hall and KP Setia (a large Malaysian company, and one of the main backers of the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station in London).

The shopping centre has been open for just under a year, and is still filling up its retail units. But when the connector bridges are open, it will be the third in a row of three shopping centres, making it possible to walk all the way from MidValley to Abdullah Hukum train stations without stepping into the non-air conditioned world outside.

There didn’t seem to be anything evidently ‘eco’ about it at first glance.  The official website casually refers to the new residential blocks as ‘sustainable’ – but that’s about it.  After a little more internet searching, a few more credentials emerged. A press release-style article in the national Star newspaper describes its underlying philosophy of “Live Learn Work Play in an urban setting”, and its aim “to be the country’s first integrated Green development targeting both the Malaysian Green Building Index (GBI) and US-based Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications.” It is certainly well connected to public transport – but also to the multi-laned road/motorway system running all around it. Unsurprisingly, its promoters don’t dwell on the fact that the Haji Abdullah Hukum kampung (‘village’) was flattened to make space for it.

Kampung Haji Abdullah Hukum in 2007 (Photo credit: Two hundred percent, CC BY-SA 3.0)

So how should we think about this ‘eco-city’ development? KL Eco-City may not presage a new transformative era of urban sustainability (if anything, it catalyses the structural forces that continue to lead us in the opposite direction). But I think it’s easy to overlook the immense difficulties of getting anything built in the real world – particularly a huge complex such as this. An optimist might argue that it could have been worse: at least they are applying for green building accreditation and investing in public transport.

What interests me, though, is what it says about the trajectory of the ‘eco-city’ concept (and at this stage I would humbly refer you to my recent book chapter on the topic, which is full of further references). The big picture is that an originally radical idea has gradually been compromised as it has entered mainstream thinking and practice around urban development. What you’re left with is little more than the eco-city as real-estate marketing strategy (increasingly only associated with large developments in East Asia): a way of using green credentials to facilitate planning permissions, help shape an urban ‘brand’, add to public acceptability and market value. But what’s fascinating about the KL example is that it barely even tries to promote its green credentials as evidence of its eco-city status.  The eco-city as an almost entirely ‘empty’ label.

And yet this linear story, of a hopeful idea being gradually absorbed into ‘business as usual’, isn’t the only one we can tell. I’d see the eco-city as having always been defined by a multiplicity of heterogeneous practices. Rather than searching for the eco-city as a fully formed urban place, and evaluating what we find against utopian criteria, we can see it as one of many loose labels which come and go, but at least facilitate different types of experimentation and innovation. Some of this innovation may be very modest in its aims; much of what emerges may barely differ from what would happen anyway. It’s not just the case that the hopeful, grass-roots vision of the eco-city has been usurped by the corporate megaproject, but rather than all sorts of varied eco-urban goals and activities continue to co-exist, whether or not they use the eco-city label, or even use the spatial framing of the ‘city’.

In this particular case, it seems a real shame that the KL Eco-City project has (so far) made no obvious attempt to take advantage of one key asset. I think the Klang River, which runs directly beside it, could easily be turned into a more pedestrian- and wildlife-friendly environment – even given the risk (I imagine) of regular flooding. Still, it seems that a group of local residents (the ‘Friends of Sungai Mid Valley’) regularly cleans up the area.

Perhaps we might argue that this clearing-up activity shouldn’t be left to volunteers. But perhaps this group has sprung into action precisely because the river environment has been further degraded by the KL Eco-City development; perhaps both these activities draw on a growing, broader sensibility that cities can be more environmentally friendly. Clearly, the power relationship between the Friends of Sungai Mid Valley and the combined forces of an international property developer and KL City Hall isn’t a symmetrical one. But I think it’s more generative to start by thinking of all this as dynamically interconnected, rather than only in oppositional ‘good guy/bad guy’ terms.

Section of the Klang River, running beside KL Eco City

Kuala Lumpur, 1 August 2019

%d bloggers like this: