Neighbourhoods for the City in Pacific Asia

Neighbourhoods for the City in Pacific Asia


Reviewed by Creighton Connolly

First Published:

30 Jul 2020, 3:22 am


Neighbourhoods for the City in Pacific Asia

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020; 236 pp.: ISBN: 9789462983885, €89.00 (hbk)


Cities are becoming increasingly important as centres for politics, citizen engagement and governance. Major capital cities tend to be the engines of their countries’ economic growth, seats of national and regional political power and repositories of the nation’s culture and heritage. As KC Ho illustrates, these economic, political and cultural dynamics underlying urban changes often take root in the neighbourhoods of the city. His book Neighbourhoods for the City in Pacific Asia examines forms of local collective action and city government responses at the neighbourhood level and discusses their implications for the development of liveable cities. An ambitious, multi-sited comparative approach is taken in studying local action in neighbourhoods across five important cities in Pacific Asia (defined as East and Southeast Asia) – Mahakan (Bangkok), Langham Place (Hong Kong), Sungmisan (Seoul), Tampines (Singapore) and Tangbu (Taipei). These neighbourhoods are studied as examples of building blocks for collective action by considering the forms of community activism that have emerged from them.

The book examines the interconnections between the neighbourhood and the city by highlighting the relationships that are formed amongst neighbourhood residents and the city government. This enables a nuanced analysis of collaboration between different levels of government, and how actions at neighbourhood and city levels can in turn have implications at the national scale. For Ho, the neighbourhood thus poses an interesting third way to state-driven and market-driven ventures that seek to improve amenities and place-making within cities. This in turn requires urban and national governments to be more responsive to aspirations at the neighbourhood level.

The first chapter, ‘Neighbourhoods for the City’, takes a broad sweep of the urban studies literature to highlight the issues that are linked to the process of neighbourhood mobilisation: relationships between neighbours; the tension between moving versus staying; place-making; and the organisation of local interests. Following this introduction, a literature review chapter provides the conceptual orientation for the book, surveying literature from urban heritage to policy and politics and redevelopment, which are key themes surfacing throughout. Indeed, the book enables comparisons across a number of key issues confronting the city: heritage conservation (Bangkok and Taipei), the provisioning of neighbourhood amenities through both grassroots and state-driven mechanisms (Seoul and Singapore) and urban redevelopment-induced displacement (Bangkok and Hong Kong). While the book draws on fieldwork conducted as far back as 2003, all of the sites have received shorter follow-up visits between 2010 and 2016.

Subsequently, Ho turns to an overview of the comparative, multi-sited research framework employed for the research. Here, he discusses the virtues of the collaborative approach employed, whereby field sites were chosen by colleagues and interlocutors in each city. This allowed for an initial introduction to the site and key informants that would not otherwise have been possible. Research in each site was conducted during a sabbatical stay in the respective city (apart from Ho’s ‘home’ case of Tampines, Singapore), which allowed for an extended stay, and helped to provide a more ‘local’ perspective than would have been possible on a typical short-term field visit. Much of the discussion in this chapter usefully reflects on the benefits of a multi-sited vs. single-site approach, particularly given the need to relate local phenomena to external dynamics and processes in urban studies. The chapter also explains how the particular neighbourhoods in each of the five cities examined were selected, and compares key characteristics of each neighbourhood.

The book’s subsequent chapters focus on each case study in turn, wherein neighbourhood issues in each site are explored through interviews with a variety of stakeholders involved in neighbourhood building and change. Chapter 5 on Mahakan, Bangkok, presents a familiar story about neighbourhood change in the inner city, whereby a socially disenfranchised community is displaced to make way for urban redevelopment. The chapter discusses the struggle of Mahakan residents, academics and NGOs to preserve the site and its cultural and architectural heritage. Ultimately, however, the economic, market-based use of the land was favoured by the government, as opposed to the preservation of local histories, ways of life and cultural practices. This chapter is followed by another study of a heritage preservation movement in Tangbu, Taipei, where century-old sugarcane warehouses were conserved and transformed into a Cultural Park for the use of local residents and visitors. In comparing this case to that of Mahakan, Ho points out that there was a similar coalition of local residents, community activists and academics, but that the local government was much more responsive. This has to do with wider political and cultural dynamics in Taipei that differed from Mahakan. However, Ho cautions that the case also indicates how relationships between communities and city governments must be continuous, rather than just stopping once the initial motivation is addressed.

Chapter 7 is the only one in the book to examine a public–private partnership that was formed between the Hong Kong government and a development corporation in redeveloping a site at Langham Place. This chapter also adopts a more methodological focus by revisiting the field site 10 years after the initial redevelopment and following up with informants to see how their lives have been affected. The final case study, focusing on Tampines Central, Singapore, presents an example of a more active government in the process of community building through the enrolment of residents in the co-production of neighbourhood amenities. The Tampines case also provides a contrast to the first case study discussed in the book, Sungmisan, Seoul, which was an example of an entirely community-led movement to provide neighbourhood amenities (an alternative school, kitchen and food co-op) with local objectives in mind. Tampines, however, was a government-led initiative to improve amenities in the new town, motivated by national objectives. While this was a successful initiative, Ho cautions that the lack of community-led mobilisations can result in a sense of complacency or inertia among residents which can erode social ties, requiring continuous attempts at place-making on behalf of the government.

The book’s final chapter reflects on the lessons learned from the five cases. In all except for Singapore, the initial impetus for community action and engagement came from the threat posed by redevelopment. Ho suggests that the Sungmisan (Seoul) case is in some ways the main success story, as it is the only one which has managed to sustain community engagement through the formation of neighbourhood co-operatives. While Mahakan had a similar level of community engagement, there was ultimately insufficient support from the local government, which resulted in the residents’ displacement from the neighbourhood.

As the above cases illustrate, the collaborative efforts of city governments with local communities become an important means of addressing the liveability of cities. The book provides examples of several different typologies of neighbourhood–city relationships that have formed around redevelopment projects or the provision of neighbourhood amenities – all with markedly different outcomes. In all cases, however, Ho argues that the collective participation of residents in neighbourhood projects can provide the basis for the emergence of democratic citizenship. As such, the book shows the ways in which the neoliberalising impacts of the global economy on major cities can be moderated by the social networks developed in active neighbourhoods, in collaboration with NGOs and city governments.

Neighbourhoods for the City should therefore make a significant contribution to the comparative urban and Asian studies literatures, and meaningfully extend understanding of the intricate relationships between neighbourhoods, cities and processes of urban change. The book is broad enough to interest scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, including sociology, geography, political science and of course urban and Asian studies. While all of the cases are Asian-based, insights from the book can be useful for scholars without a specific interest in the region. The book may be of limited use to undergraduate students, but would certainly be good reading for postgraduate students and researchers in the above disciplines.


Related articles

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

Youthful socialities in Australia’s urban multiculture

Anita Harris

Friendship as a form of urban relation for young people living in working class areas of Australian cities.

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

Creighton Connolly

Connolly uses the concept of multi-species flourishing to evaluate the potential of emergent urban governance initiatives in Penang, Malaysia, for achieving more socially and environmentally just forms of urban development.


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

Jeffrey Hou

The Taipei Garden City Initiative: Implications for the discourse of resilience governance.

The post-political state? The role of administrative reform in managing tensions between urban growth and liveability in Brisbane, Australia

Andrew Clarke, Lynda Cheshire

Investigating how government responses to problems arising from urban population growth perpetuate post-politics in cities.



Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.