Book review: Urban Asias: Essays on Futurity Past and Present

edited by Tim Bunnell & Daniel PS Goh and reviewed by Keng-Khoon Ng

5 Feb 2021, 4:33 p.m.
Keng-Khoon Ng

Urban Asias book cover

Book Review: Urban Asias: Essays on Futurity Past and Present

Edited by Tim Bunnell & Daniel PS Goh and reviewed by Keng-Khoon Ng

Jovis Verlag: Berlin, 2018; 304 pp.: 978-3-86859-456-0, €32.00 (pbk)


Urban Asias is an interdisciplinary and intersectional work examining the dynamics of urban future-making from a wide range of domains and agencies. Building upon Arjun Appadurai’s (2004) influential work on The Capacity to Aspire, this edited volume re-engages or expands both theoretical and empirical ground of the idea by focusing on developmental cities (rather than nation-states) in the Asia-Pacific region. The capa-city to aspire, as the editors argued, cannot be reduced to a scholarly selected or popularly assumed range of innovation centres based in Western Europe and North America. Rather, future-making projects have been self-evolving in many (understudied) parts of Asia, both past and present, which is unlike that of the Western futurity’s imagination and route. Central to this debate is the main proposition of the volume.

To give a background to this book project, it was part of the research outputs generated from the Singapore Ministry of Education-funded project, Aspirations, Urban Governance and the Remaking of Asian Cities, of which the editors Tim Bunnell and Daniel PS Goh were among the investigators. By converting most of the conference papers (with several invited papers) into an edited volume, the editors demonstrate a high editorial quality in terms of conception and content organisation. Excluding introduction and conclusion, 24 essays are organised into seven sections, each of which contains three to four essays. Truly diverse and interdisciplinary, this book brings together authors from different backgrounds, ranging from academics, graduate students, researchers, activists, practicing architects and planners, thus representing a diverse range of expertise in the knowledge production to uncover different narratives of urban futurity in Asia. This volume also consists of a balanced mix of established scholars, mid-career academics and those of the younger generation – showing good intentions of the book project/research grant to build a vibrant, continuous network for the promotion of Asian cities research.

‘There are many Asias’ (p. 10) – is a sharp, thought-provoking phrase I found in the introduction chapter. To avoid dividing/generalising Asia into a defined framing of geography or urban form, the editors conceptualise this book project (also its title) as Urban Asias by highlighting the multi-faceted realities and imaginings of a pluralist Asia. Opening the black box of Asia’s urban aspirations, the book reveals how important both a wide range of agencies and forces can be to the production of urbanism, and the possibility of turning everyday life into a tool of future-making practices. Section One, Future Past, and Section Two, Pastness for the Future, deal with future visions rooted in the past, and how various legacies of the past have become a source of aspiration for alternative future visions. The six essays explore remnants of utopian concept, historic building, colonial technology, rural lifestyle, urban heritage and nostalgia – in relation to the making of future-proof cities. Attending specifically to infrastructural interventions, the four essays in Section Three, Infrastructures of Future-Making, expound OBOR-city project, sanitary-sewerage system and high-end tower to reflect such complex, if not contested state-led visions of futurity. Then, Section 4, Future Elsewhere, challenges the notion of fixed geographies through investigations of student mobility, grassroots social forum, technopreneurship and the visionary plan of building a new capital city. Four essays in Section Five, Whose Futurity, take us back to the core of urban justice by visiting aspects of income/welfare, urban resettlement, force eviction and ethnicity–class–sexuality. Section Six, Doing Urban Futures, turns to three globalpolis in Asia (Seoul, Shenzhen and Singapore) to discuss how alternatives of future are derived from civic culture, neglected sites/policies and religious practice. In the last section, Asia in New Geographies of Theory, three essays reflect on the shifting ground of rural–urban transformation, while responding to new ways of studying and theorising Urban Asias. Lastly, the concluding chapter brings questions and reflections of agency to the centre of the discussion, pondering over how agencies are being produced, operated, organised and re-centred in response to the increasingly complex urban spheres in Asia.

While I wish to congratulate the publisher, editors and authors on this well-edited volume, I would also like to raise three concerns – as my personal wish list to the editors. First, some of the essays are relatively short (less than 2500 words), most probably because of the limits of book length. Despite this, all chapters are equally well-structured; however, personally, I think word limit does somewhat reduce the content quality because there is insufficient space for literature review and detailed data interpretation. For further learning beyond this book, readers may extend a search for a particular authors’ relevant work in other publications. Second, there is a lack of methodological suggestions made available in the volume, other than the suggestion in Section Seven regarding inter-Asia comparation. When approaching a site-/agency-based study, a specific range of empirical and methodological inquiries needs to be clarified in order to explore discursive future-making processes. In other words, the critical inquiry of urban aspirations is not simply a call to know more of agencies and cities, but also to (re)discover new methods of knowing/learning cities by placing ‘future-making practices’ explicitly at the heart of research. It would have been beneficial, especially for graduate students and emerging researchers, if the volume put more effort into the discussion of methodology – which will ultimately make this volume stand out from a vast collection of book publications focusing on Asian cities and the Global South.

Third, although it might not be the intention to be a theory-intensive volume, I would have liked an extended, rigorous discussion on the volume’s conceptual framework. ‘Futurity Past and Present’ is the subtitle and arguably also the key concept of the book. However, there is insufficient discussion attributed to unpack temporalities of ‘past’ and ‘present’ in relation to the future-making practices. For those readers who have not come across Appadurai’s (2004) The Capacity to Aspire before, it would be helpful if there were to be a synopsis or review of the work presented in the introduction chapter. Further, the formulation of some of the themes is at times rather diffuse as a result of the hybridity which marks the volume’s engagement with various cities, domains and agencies. Although some of the concepts such as ‘urban aspirations’ and ‘future/futurity’ are not newly proposed, they could have been better positioned and appropriated by making dialogue with other Global South-centric theories which have invigorated the field of Urban Studies more recently. Instead of simply citing the literature, for example, how does ‘future-making practices’ correspond to the seemingly similar concept of ‘worlding cities’ proposed by Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong (2011)? The editors could expand the introductory and concluding chapters into a longer piece of theoretical formulation to contribute new/revised concepts for the studies of Asian cities at large.

Overall, Urban Asias invites wider reflections on the politically, socially and historically specific relationships between people, aspiration and urban future. This rich collection of essays succeeds in advancing our knowledge of future-making projects/processes on a variety of fronts. The essays show how Asian cities are disrupting imaginations of futurity rooted in the North. The richness of their empirical and conceptual insights serves to illuminate not only neglected dimensions of urban transformation but also opens up new intellectual vistas on the multi-faceted experience/experiment of urban futurity. I recommend this book as a significant contribution to understanding the recent debates of theorising cities in the Global South. For all graduate students of urban studies and indeed for being ‘Asians’ itself, this book should be added to the essential reading list.



Appadurai, A (2004) The capacity to aspire: Culture and the terms of recognition. In: Rao, V, Walton, M (eds) Culture and Public Action. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, pp 59–84.
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Roy, A, Ong, A (2011) Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Google Scholar | Crossref


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From resilience to multi-species flourishing: (Re)imagining urban-environmental governance in Penang, Malaysia by Creighton Connolly


Governing urban gardens for resilient cities: Examining the ‘Garden City Initiative’ in Taipei by Jeffrey Hou

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Worlding infrastructure in the global South: Philippine experiments and the art of being ‘smart’ by Morgan Mouton

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