Book review: Predatory Urbanism: The Metabolism of Megaprojects in Asia

reviewed by Ayyoob Sharifi

9 Aug 2023, 2:07 p.m.

Predatory Urbanism: The Metabolism of Megaprojects in Asia book cover

Agatino Rizzo and Anindita Mandal, Predatory Urbanism: The Metabolism of Megaprojects in Asia, Cheltenham and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2021; 168 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-80088-106-8, £75.00 (hbk)


Today, the world’s population is concentrated in urban areas with over 4.3 billion people residing in cities, which accounts for more than half of the global population. It is anticipated that this trend will continue to grow in the upcoming decades. Urbanisation has brought about numerous advantages; however, it has also led to various negative consequences with issues such as social inequality, high crime rates, environmental contamination and congestion mainly prevalent in developing countries. Given the backdrop of climate change and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, discussions on cities and their future have regained prominence over the past few years. On one hand, concerns regarding how vulnerable cities are to climate change impacts and other stressors, including pandemics, have gained attention. On the other hand, proponents argue that effective implementation of urban management policies and practices can effectively address these escalating challenges faced by cities while simultaneously aiding global efforts towards combating climate change (Sharifi, 2022).

Agatino Rizzo and Anindita Mandal’s objective in their book, Predatory Urbanism: The Metabolism of Megaprojects in Asia, is driven by similar concerns regarding the social, economic and environmental impacts of cities in the Global South. The authors utilise the metaphor of ‘predatory urbanism’ to raise concerns regarding the long-term viability and sustainability of large-scale urban projects in Qatar, Malaysia and India. They have particularly focused on megaprojects developed in Doha (Qatar), Johor Bahru (Malaysia) and Mumbai (India). These cities have widely invested in megaprojects as they strive to secure and uphold their positions in today’s rapidly evolving market economy. This metaphor operates as a critical framework through which they assess the potential ecological, social and economic consequences of these megaprojects. By labelling them as predatory, the authors underscore apprehensions related to issues like exploitation of resources, loss of local identity, degradation of natural surroundings and uneven distribution of benefits among different segments within society. These reservations gain particular relevance given the rapid rate at which these megaprojects are being developed in the Global South. Departing from traditional approaches to examining urban development processes that focus solely on physical aspects, the authors take into account socio-political dynamics that significantly shape sustainable cities.

The authors present a comprehensive discussion on the impact of megaproject development, highlighting its tendency to overlook historical and cultural contexts in cities. They put forth the argument that these projects heavily rely on accessing and exploiting human and natural resources at low costs, which consequently leads to imbalanced growth. This unbalanced growth has both local and global implications for society and ecosystems. Megaprojects often prioritise progress without adequately considering the unique characteristics that define a city’s history and cultural identity. By neglecting these important contextual factors, potential negative consequences arise – altering the urban fabric and perpetuating inequalities within communities. Furthermore, these extensive projects facilitate economic expansion through cheap resource exploitation. In order to meet construction demands, significant amounts of human labour are required while simultaneously putting strain on already scarce natural resources. Such practices have substantial ecological repercussions at both regional and global scales.

The book effectively applies the idea of ‘urban metabolism’ to assess and analyse the various factors that influence the functioning of urban areas. It provides both qualitative and quantitative evaluations, offering a comprehensive understanding of how urban drivers and patterns could impact urban metabolism in case study cities. The authors discuss how such projects can potentially alter metabolic flows in the future. They provide valuable insights into the crucial aspects of sustainable urban development. By conducting a thorough evaluation, they pinpoint essential factors necessary to achieve successful implementation of large-scale initiatives while taking into account their long-term impact on metabolic processes in established urban areas.

The book has eight chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the concept of ‘predatory urbanism’ and offers a concise account of the rapid urbanisation that has occurred in Asia. By discussing both these themes, it lays down the foundation for understanding how predatory urbanism has emerged within the context of rapid development in Asian cities. Chapter 2 discusses the significant changes that have occurred in rural and urban land across Asia over the past four decades. It characterises megaprojects as the primary means by which governments have sought to reshape their economies amidst neoliberalism. Chapter 3 examines the primary ecological challenges faced by cities in Asia and focuses specifically on large-scale urban developments taking place in the region. The chapter also explores the interconnectedness of environmental and social injustices through an analysis of the rentier state mechanisms, where local elites maintain their allegiance to ruling regimes through targeted redistribution of resource revenues. Chapter 4 explores the state of global resources and their utilisation in cities, along with the resulting effects on urban and environmental quality. The chapter emphasises the necessity to go beyond resource consumption by perceiving urban areas as ecosystems to effectively address environmental issues. Additionally, it provides an overview of metabolism and ecosystems within an urban framework, accompanied by a literature review encompassing research conducted over the past five decades concerning urban metabolism. Moving to discussions on case studies, in Chapter 5, the authors discuss the planning system in Qatar and its main deficiencies. They emphasise the insufficiency of local planning expertise, which has led to a dependence on international consultants. Consequently, there is a fundamental dearth of understanding regarding local conditions and available natural and human resources. To further explore these issues, the authors delve into an analysis of two prominent megaprojects: Education City and The Pearl. Chapter 6 discusses the Malaysian spatial development plan and examines the conditions of the ‘transit space’ in Nusajaya, which is a newly developed town situated on the border between Malaysia and Singapore. The chapter delves into various boundaries, landscape features and social conflicts that have emerged due to disruptions in ecosystems that were based on indigenous communities engaged in activities such as palm cultivation and fishing. Chapter 7 explores the vision for Mumbai’s future development along with its limitations, followed by an introduction to the mega-redevelopment projects that are planned as a part of this vision. Moreover, it provides an in-depth analysis of the metabolism of Mumbai’s Island City if the current urban renewal process is carried out.

In the final chapter, the authors restate that master planned mega projects are not sustainable. In terms of socio-economic implications, these state-orchestrated large-scale initiatives follow top-down decision-making approaches which disregard the diverse requirements and desires of different societal groups. As a consequence, they have resulted in exclusive residential enclaves predominantly serving affluent foreigners or privileged locals who constitute only a fraction of the overall populace. Rizzo and Mandal assert that the incorporation of smart city technologies along with efforts to increase urban density has hardly had a positive impact on promoting resource efficiency or ecological sustainability in the cities analysed in their case study. On the contrary, as these cities have experienced growth, there has been an accompanying rise in resource consumption which inevitably leads to depletion of natural resources and degradation of ecosystem services within their surrounding areas. This confirms previous assertions made in scholarly literature regarding the importance of avoiding the fallacy associated with physical and technological determinism (Sharifi, 2016). Cities are complex systems and reductionist approaches based on isolated physical and technological solutions have limited capacity to address societal challenges. Achieving increased density can generate numerous advantages for socio-economic and environmental sustainability (Batty, 2009). However, it is important to note that these benefits can only be realised if certain optimal thresholds are upheld. Moreover, it is crucial to consider density as a component of broader compact city initiatives which take into account various other critical factors such as connectivity, land use mix, job–housing proximity, housing affordability and public transportation accessibility. Only such integrated approaches can lead to sustainable and resilient urban forms (Sharifi, 2019). It is also crucial for policymakers and urban planners to embrace more inclusive approaches when devising large-scale smart city projects. This entails actively involving stakeholders from diverse backgrounds and integrating their viewpoints into the decision-making procedures.

Overall, this book raises thought-provoking issues and provides a solid foundation for further discussions and analysis regarding the future of cities in the Anthropocene. It is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in cities and their future.



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Related articles

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

Urban megaprojects, nation-state politics and regulatory capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe: The Belgrade Waterfront project by Monika Grubbauer and Nebojša ńĆamprag

Power relations and modes of governance in urban development politics in Belgrade and Serbia: The Belgrade Waterfront project.

Megaprojects and the limits of ‘green resilience’ in the global South: Two cases from Malaysia and Qatar by Agatino Rizzo

Rizzo analyses how green resilience often fails to take into account the socio-political and spatial processes that pertain to the exploitation of land for urban development particularly in the global South.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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