Book review: Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice

Reviewed by Jennifer L Rice

14 Jul 2022, 9:40 a.m.
Jennifer L Rice

Form and Flow book cover

Kian Goh, Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2021; 298 pp.: ISBN: 97802625 43057, $35 (pbk)


The importance of cities, local governments and urban actors in climate change governance has been well-established for quite some time now. It takes an incredible effort, therefore, to push this academic conversation forward and establish new understandings of urban climate justice, resilience and activism. Kian Goh’s Form and Flow accomplishes this through a combination of careful theoretical exploration, rich empirical description and personal commitment and engagement. Weaving important and intricate connections between New York City, Jakarta and Rotterdam, Goh offers a unique and comprehensive understanding of the complex global-urban networks of climate change action and planning, but without losing the importance, nuance, beauty of people’s everyday lives – lives that are in communities who are resisting, visioning and building in the midst of global climate disaster.

The book’s Introduction (‘Climate Justice and Urban Futures’) offers a thoughtful and compelling overview of decades of research on climate change and cities. This includes, for example, the scales and spaces of climate action that pose challenges and opportunities at all levels of governance, the deepening connections between neoliberal capitalism and many mainstream responses to climate change, and importantly, the fraught task of planning for resilience and climate justice in a highly uneven world. Goh utilises this firm theoretical foundation to situate and centre one of the book’s main contributions – how ‘new spaces of contestation’ (p. 14) regarding urban climate futures and climate justice are negotiated and enacted in the global arena of professional climate experts, as well as the intimate spaces of everyday urban life. The efficiency and depth with which these complex topics and theoretical explorations are handled is remarkable, refreshing and accessible in the book’s Introduction.

Chapter 1 offers a clear signal of its focus in its name: ‘Disparate Yet Interconnected Cities’. Goh provides rich and detailed socio-environmental histories of New York City, Jakarta and Rotterdam – three cities she effectively demonstrates are in close and complex connection through a world of professional expertise and practice, but also through the struggles of climate action by everyday people in highly uneven landscapes. The chapter also details the political, infrastructural and ecological contexts under which each city has come to engage in climate change action, as well as important community and activist interventions for change and social justice. In each case, the connectedness, as well as the place-based specificity, of the three cities is elegantly described and depicted by Goh.

Importantly, this sets the stage for Chapters 2–4, which serve as the empirical fleshiness of the book. These chapters bring the manuscript’s two themes into conversation: that is the ways that flows, as networks, connectedness and mobility, come into relationship with form, as structure, design and planning – enacted by both professional experts and grassroots activists in the midst of urbanisation, climate change and the pursuit of climate justice. For example, in Chapter 2 (‘Nature of Contestation’) Goh describes how internet access was maintained for the Red Hook community in Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy, while electricity and other communications were out of service in many other parts of the city. This is because it was installed, and is still maintained, by local community members – in a decentralised fashion – bringing into existence a Wi-Fi network focused on, and responsive to, the needs of the community as they navigate ongoing climate hazards. After some discussion of flooding and subsidence in Jakarta, Goh also situates activist movements within Jakarta’s kampungs that resist and contest evictions as part of the pursuit of the great engineering fix: Jakarta’s Giant Sea Wall. Goh concludes Chapter 2 with a compelling analysis of what the two cities tell us about localised struggles for urban climate justice, as they interact with national and international constellations of power: collective understandings of struggle, importance of local knowledge and creation of broad-based coalitions.

In Chapter 3 (‘Nature of Flows’), Goh analyses the role of Dutch experts and professionals in the creation and maintenance of a global-urban climate adaptation network, specifically around water management. The thorough analysis of all the agencies and groups involved brings to life the vast ecosystem of international governance and planning around climate change: an ecosystem of which Goh has an unparalleled understanding. Goh illustrates here how this elite global network of experts is driven by ‘self-reinforcing urban development visions’ (p. 112), but also the creation of alternative ideas and visions by those living climate disaster on the ground.

Chapter 4 (‘Plans and Counterplans’) asks us again to think about form, offering something new and innovative to push the way many academics have often though about urban climate governance and justice: a focus on design. Academics certainty think about the socio-spatial form and function of cities, but Goh brings us a ‘political ecology of design’ to foreground the actual material spaces/places we create, the processes by which these are brought into being, and what these reflect about our ideas and priorities for the future. These contested visions of urban design are always ‘messily mapped onto the socio-ecological struggles of urban change’ (p. 124), argues Goh, because ‘[d]esign connects the emotional to the pragmatic’ (p. 130). In this, we can see how designing for climate changed urban futures brings into being new ‘counterplans’ to address the needs and experiences of everyday residents; counterplans that are desperately needed in the struggle for urban climate justice.

Goh revisits the central themes of the book in the final chapter (‘A Political Ecology of Design’), where the ideas of interrelationships, contestation, global-urban networks and counterplans are recounted and re-examined. Several strategies are offered here, providing the reader with several tools to apply to their own research and experience.

It is notable throughout the book that Goh effectively and elegantly brings her own varied background and experiences into the analysis in productive ways. This presence is relatively small overall, but it is there, it is important, and it is thoughtful. For example, we get a glimpse into Goh’s professional background as an architect and cofounder of an urban design firm called SUPER-INTERESTNG! when we learn of Goh’s close engagement with designing a community centre for the Red Hook Initiative. Goh writes ‘We made a collective sense of ownership by participants a priority’ (p. 145) – a community space that not only survived Hurricane Sandy, but also served as a key community hub after the disaster. Goh offers close and careful insights into how and why this was the case based on first-hand experience and participation, focusing on how the design firm prioritised creative features to build and centre community. In this way, we see that Kian is not just a researcher and academic, but she is an effective and passionate community collaborator, activist and professional urban designer.

The book also contains many important and interesting photographs taken by Goh – images of intimate meeting spaces, activists and community organisers in action, everyday life amid climate disruption, giant climate infrastructures and the local impacts of climate disasters on already marginalised communities. These photos show Goh’s deep engagement and relationship with the communities and organisations about which she writes. They animate the book in important ways, bringing the people and their actions to life. At the same time, Goh’s writing in this book is smooth, easy to follow and inviting. Goh makes her points with precision and strength. You can feel among the pages that Goh really cares about climate justice, not just in an intellectual or academic sense, but in real life and for real people with whom she has deep relation and care. Numerous figures and tables created by Goh map out complex connections and points of contestation as well.

Ultimately, this book beautifully renders visible the connections and tensions between high-profile, expert oriented climate initiatives and on-the-ground, situated activist visions for more just urban futures under climate change. We must not only acknowledge these connections and tensions but engage them for what they can teach us about alternative climate futures, how they challenge uneven vulnerability and marginalisation, and how they confront and resist status quo climate planning. One has to be particularly skilful to be able to experience, research and analyse these complex multi-scalar and multi-sited relationships that span a plethora of expert professional networks, state institutions and activist movements with such depth, with such care, with such a passion for justice, and this is perhaps Goh’s greatest achievement and what keeps the pages turning.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Flows in formation: The global-urban networks of climate change adaptation by Kian Goh

Goh traces the multiscalar connections through which capital, knowledge, and influence flow in urban climate change adaptation: the global links of Dutch water expertise, and tracing relationships within and between Rotterdam, New York and Jakarta.

Governing urban resilience: Organisational structures and coordination strategies in 20 North American city governments by Mary Fastiggi, Sara Meerow and Thaddeus R Miller

Engaging with practitioner partners in and across cities points to new research questions in urban resilience, argue Fastiggi, Meerow and Miller.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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