Making Future Cities was the first international conference of the SEC (Singapore–ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability – see my blog post of 5 September for further info on the SEC). The three-day conference was held 12–14 September 2011 out west at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The event was not open to the public. It called for “understanding and evaluating the contemporary urban system, its recent history, its present dynamics, and its possibilities.”
The program was heavy, befitting the seriousness of the subject. Up for discussion were Asian urbanisms, transport, zero-carbon-emission buildings, air travel and border conditions, food, the political economy of territory, resilient cities, and more. The opening addresses preluded the challenges that would inevitably be debated; Professor Kees Christiaanse of ETH commented that it is not possible to create a manual for making sustainable cities.
I managed to catch two half-days of presentations, and sat among a full house of academics, researchers, PhD students, and URA representatives. The work presented included the research of PhD candidates from ETH and the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL), FCL researchers, ETH professors, and invited academics. The focus was global, but some presentations were dedicated solely to research on Singapore.
The first morning’s presentations by PhD candidates discussed the urban environment of Singapore’s Little India and Kampong Glam, Changi airport and its surrounds, enclaves in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the consumptive aspects of Shanghai’s built environments, and the strange border condition of China’s Pearl River Delta. During the session’s summary, the suggestion was made that the Rochor area is Singapore’s only remaining ‘urban’ area – with mixed use, varied building forms, mixed social groups, some secrecy, and some filth.
During the last afternoon of the conference, I heard Assistant Professor Milica Topalovic of the FCL present some of her research into the conditions of ‘city and territory’ in Belgrade, the Netherlands, and the Nile Valley. Her presentation served as a precursor to the research she’ll be undertaking at the FCL on Singapore’s relationships with (and impacts on) the areas beyond its borders.
With regard to Belgrade, Milica highlighted how political forces have changed the nature of the city, its territory, and its meaning. Her discussion of planning practices in the Netherlands revealed how territory is traditionally viewed there as a space of social practice – never pre-given and natural. Her research in the Nile Valley discovered the influence of resources on the condition and perception of cities and territories.
‘Social and urban economist’ Professor Dieter Läpple presented a keynote address titled ‘Perspectives of Resilient Cities.’ He suggested that our modernisation processes, production regimes, and modes of consumption have eroded resilience – not only of many natural systems but also of many social systems. Resilient cities, he said, make room for diversity, redundancy, and contingency. They have robust, adaptive, inclusive, and innovative structures. The reconciliation of development and sustainability will need different strategies in every city, but global guidelines can be derived, he suggested. He challenged the FCL to embed itself in global sustainability.
During the closing round table forum there were provocative remarks and passionate voices of disagreement. You might say it’s the sign of a fruitful exchange of ideas. Before the audience got stuck in, Professor Chua Beng Huat talked about ‘the Singapore model’ as a series of practical decisions made in response to circumstances, rather than a replicable template. Professor Wong Yun Chii mentioned “virtual water” – the water Singapore would consume if it grew its own food. Professor Tay Kheng Soon talked about ‘rubanisation’ and hurled some dirt too. Carolyn Steel uttered words such as “richness” and “love of life” – surprising but welcome.
There exists the hope that the FCL research will result in guidelines and policy recommendations for a positive impact on Singapore’s built environment. I wish the FCL the best of luck. I hope its work can find regular and digestible coverage in popular forms of media in order to encourage sustainable thinking from the bottom up as well as from the top down.