“Eco-cities” – Buzzwords and Their Dangers

Weekly reflections as I study urban policy in Asia

Based on the reading(s):

Caprotti, F. (2014). Eco‐urbanism and the Eco‐city, or, Denying the Right to the City?. Antipode, 46(5), 1285-1303.


This week’s readings could not have come at a better time. Just last week, Singapore’s Housing & Development Board (HDB) unveiled its masterplan for a new HDB town – Tengah.

It’s not difficult to spot the buzzwords: smart, sustainable, eco-friendly, and “a whole lot more liveable”.

Eco-…neoliberalism?

As I devoured lines after lines in Caprotti’s critical analysis of the enterprise (yes, not merely endeavour, but “enterprise”) of eco-cities and eco-urbanism, I started to wonder, how far is Singapore from being relegated to a guise for the proliferation of green neoliberalism? After all, it’s not uncommon to hear of how neoliberal ideas have already affected the lives of many in Singapore – the old who are marginalised from labour and social participation, the underprivileged who find it difficult to keep up with costs of living, etc. That said, it is worth noting that Singapore’s done rather well in augmenting the market with strong state intervention, and have largely not left (local) labourers in the lurch as the economy undergoes structural shifts and chases the next wave of capital flows.

Yet there’s definitely room for improvement.

As identified by Caprotti, it is not merely the conceptualisation and justification of eco-cities and eco-urbanism that we should interrogate. The mechanisms through which they are built and governed are also of interest, for it is not in the shiny glass-and-steel structures that we find disadvantaged peoples (they’re wealthy enough to pay for these environmental goods) but in the shadows and at the fringes that we begin to see the fraying ends and limits of existing eco-cities as solutions to our collective urban future.

Am I proud or ashamed of them?

Back to Singapore, I’m reminded of the countless construction and renovation workers I see, everywhere. And while I try to acknowledge their efforts – with a nod, with packet drinks when they work on my HDB block – I know that only goes so far. A part of me wonders if the environmental and economic inequalities between residents (like me) and builders (like them) are justifiable. Of course, they are, to some extent. After all, they presumably earn more than they did back home, wherever home is. Yet, are material gains all we’re concerned with? How about living conditions, social recognition and acceptance for their efforts? Are we as a society proud of these labourers we’ve brought ashore, however transient they might be?

Eco-cities as ungrounded urban fantasies?

On a more abstract level, this reading has prompted me to view eco-developments more critically. Granted, HDB’s new town in Tengah seems to be proposing great applications of technology and urban planning ideas – using simulations and modelling to design for optimal wind flows and urban temperatures, retaining natural landscapes that weave through the estate, and a car-free town centre with spaces for community activities.

Yet, is the social dimension missing, without which the new town might exist only as an urban fantasy to be justified through grandiose visions? Are the spaces planned with the needs of its future residents in mind? On reflection, it does appear that HDB new towns have usually simply sprouted out of thin air with great drawings and visionary ideals, whose new designs are sometimes popular – such as the shift from slab blocks to point blocks – and other times ineffective – such as Casa Clementi’s rooftop garden which has been unpopular anecdotally for its lack of shade and privacy, as compared to traditional void decks with small pockets of activity space.

Consumers -> Co-designers / Owners?

While I do not doubt that HDB planners would have done their homework, I wonder too if there’s value in greater consultation or, if there’s already consultation being done, greater publicity for these consultation exercises, such that future residents might see themselves less as consumers, more as co-designers and owners of these urban environments.

I know I would love to be part of the process.

Postscript: I’ve also realised how my attention on migrant workers was lost so quickly. Something else to reflect on.

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