Rowan Fraser

Every so often, perhaps more often than I’d like, I catch myself in the middle of a cliché.  And as I get older the clichés seem to become more frequent which says something either about the number of clichés rolling around these days, or my dwindling capacity for originality.  Either way, I recently spent an afternoon discussing globalization in a Starbucks on the outskirts of an Asian capital with an historian from New Zealand.

Malcolm McKinnon is an independent historian of politics and public policy, whose 2011 book Asian Cities I had read with great interest, mainly for the conceptual clarity it brought to three processes which often get lumped together: urbanization, globalization and nation building.  The way city governments, planners and urban communities understand these processes influences how and why they manage urban growth across the region.

‘The eureka point,’ says McKinnon ‘was when I noticed the relative absence of foreigners in big Asian cities.’  McKinnon is sitting in an armchair beside me, an espresso doppio in his hand.  I’ve just asked what led him to undertake the book.

‘Not a complete absence, of course, but compared to what would be regarded as the norm in big European or North American cities.  There were far fewer.’ This happened in the early 2000s when McKinnon began spending extended periods of time in Asia. ‘I realized that if globalization was taking place in Asian cities, then it was something different to what was happening in Europe and North America.’

What is the main issue discussed in Asian Cities?

The central issue is that globalization, which is often regarded as the primary way of understanding urban change nowadays, isn’t necessarily the primary driver of urban growth in Asian cities.  The main driver in fact is usually domestic migration, from rural areas to cities. Now this may be well known inside many of these countries in Asia, but at an international level, in terms of commentary on urban growth in Asia, globalization takes the lead.

So you are making an important distinction between urbanization and globalization.  How are these different?

Urbanization, in simplest terms, is the shift from agriculture to industry and services, and this causes a shift of populations from rural to urban areas.  So it’s about transformation of the labor force and the economy.  This can take place in relatively self-contained societies.  This was the case for some European countries which urbanized under protectionist regimes.  Quite deliberately they built up their own industries, before opening themselves up to the world.  Globalization is this process of opening up and for cities it’s the process of integration of their markets, economies, societies, infrastructure into wider regional and world systems.  These two processes understandably get confused, because they are similar.

So urbanization and globalization are often conflated.  But is this a problem for city managers and urban governments in terms of how they understand their cities and prioritize investment in the city, or is this more of an academic issue?

One of the things that I have observed and have written about is the rhetoric surrounding urban development.  Especially in some countries, China for example. When every second or third city wants to have an international airport, it seems that the preoccupation with globalization is obscuring what these urban managers should be doing. It’s a complex issue of course. But if the city spends a lot of money and builds a new international airport which gets no traffic, because there is no real demand, then there is a problem which is more than academic.

So why is there this preoccupation with globalization in China?

I think because the Chinese economy has long been so export-focused.  Also, China is becoming richer faster than many other countries in Asia.  So city managers have more funds at their disposal and this gives rise to more choices.  My general feeling is that in India and Indonesia, city authorities are not as preoccupied with globalization.  The investment in infrastructure is woefully inadequate in many cities across South Asia, for example.  But in general I don’t think that these city managers are not making required investments and implementing much-needed projects because they’re spending all their time thinking about globalization.  There are other problems and limitations.  About five years ago I was in Bangalore and I visited the main municipal offices.  Outsiders have long thought of Bangalore as this spectacular cyber-city, but inside the municipal office, at least when I visited, there were piles and piles of paper on every desk, and not a huge sense of energy.

So the digitization of city records hadn’t begun in Bangalore at that point.

Exactly.  All the documentation was still on paper.  And this is where people get tricked into myths about cities.  I don’t think that everyone in Bangalore believes the cyber-city hype, but certainly many people from elsewhere have believed it.

That’s a really interesting issue.  The international image a city creates for itself, and the way that it is adopted or consumed by different groups, including the city itself. 

Right.  And I think that you could look into that in Bangalore, for example.  Of course it changes over time, and at the moment in India, with the economy not as buoyant as before, the cyber-imagery of Bangalore may be less powerful than it was.

Are there tools which city governments can use to distinguish between these different phenomena – globalization and urbanization?

I don’t think that I can offer crisp tools, but there is this issue of city governments being preoccupied with image building projects which contribute to their view or desire for their city to be a ‘global city’ but which may not have a great deal of utility for ordinary people in that city.  But it depends on the city and the country.  It may be fine to focus on high-prestige projects, if there is enough investment in infrastructure, people, jobs, public utilities and so on, for more ‘ordinary’ urban development.  It’s problematic when the status projects are happening but there’s an absence of ordinary urban development projects.

In your book Asian Cities you also use a third term: nation building.  Interestingly, it seems that nation building almost never comes up in discussions around urban development in Asia.  Why did you choose to focus on it in the book?

Globalization in its contemporary form promotes the private sector and demotes the state.  The state-development model which was popular over 1950s-1970s is no longer seen to be relevant.  But much of what is happening in Asia at the moment is nation building, a slow the process of building national identity and power.  And within this context, governments and powerful groups are seeking to create cities which are integrated both nationally and globally.

One of the impressions that I get from the book is that globalization tends to happen after urbanization. Can you say anything about that?

Well not necessarily, sometimes they can happen in tandem. Meiji-era Japan would be a good example.

So do you think that the book is raising a potential red flag regarding a preoccupation with globalization in Asian cities?

One of the main debates around globalization is a left-right debate. I’m saying, irrespective of whether you’re on the left or the right regarding globalization, there are other processes or drivers which cities, their managers, and communities, should consider.  So maybe it’s more of a pink flag.

Do you think that globalization is having an effect on secondary cities?

Absolutely. I think the other processes I explore – urbanization, nation-building – are easier to discern in secondary cities but that doesn’t mean that globalization does not shape them too.

I would be interested to know whether there is an issue which you consider should be given more ‘air-time’ within Asian urban development circles?

You know to me, the large cities are often appalling places.  The notion that this is the future, with the traffic, the scale of building, the pollution, is not appealing.  The air quality is unsustainable, in terms of its impact on people’s health.  If we look forward 50 years, this is a critical issue.  Similarly the scale of consumption in these cities.  On a highway once, on the outskirts of a city in China a virtual caravan of trucks went past, truck after truck after truck, full of pigs.  And I thought ‘This has to happen every day.’  All the food these cities require, given the shift from relatively modest rural consumption patterns to more substantial urban ones. And much of the new consumption has serious ecological implications.  The push towards drinking bottled water, for example, in Indian cities, rather than tap or well-water boiled in the home.

We have finished our coffee.  McKinnon looks about the café.  I look around too and see the tables covered with tall laminated paper cups, the straws and the wrappers, the packaging.  Slippered women glide by sipping tea from immense domed plastic cups and lads with indelible haircuts unpack their sandwiches and bagels from plastic containers in plastic bags in disposable boxes.  I look down at our own table strewn with plastic spoons and mixers, wooden stirrers, and half-used packets of sugar.  A small pile of paper and plastic detritus.  Then I multiply this by every table in the café and then by every café in this city of 12 million and I watch an imagined river of unnecessary trash begin flowing.  And so ends the cliché.

McKinnon, Malcolm, 2011.  Asian Cities: globalization, urbanization and nation-building. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

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Categories: Governance, Infrastructure, Transportation