Smart cities and the plight of cultural authenticity


The Dragon has met the Lion, with the partnership generating a predictable spectacle of showy infrastructure and corporate glitz. The Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city, a development designed for 350,000 residents and featuring malls, schools, and hospitals, has since 2007 attracted nearly US $400 million in private commercial investments, of which almost half are from Singapore-based companies. A further US $3.4 billion from China and Canada will support new industries including media, design and publishing. However, even with investment flowing and developers claiming to focus on social harmony, economic vibrancy, and environmental sustainability, the city lacks a unique cultural identity and has been slow to attract residents.

Projects like the Tianjin Eco-city exemplify an increasingly popular phenomenon: new town development through collaboration and co-branding among governments. Unfortunately, such projects frequently overlook the peculiarities of indigenous culture in favour of a commodified landscape designed to serve commercial interests. When thoughtfully considered, the term “smart city” often proves to be a veil for standardised planning visions that are neither smart nor culturally attuned. In many respects, this contemporary development model is a cavalcade of colonialist planning tenets rebranded for modern sensibilities. Historic experience indicates that this type of smart city model is scarcely sustainable and overlooks the very elements  — culture, connection, and community — that support thriving cities.

Political feasibility dictates that today’s new towns be more than prosperous; they must also be green. A fresh spin on an old strategy, the "eco-city" variant on the smart city concept merges environmental concerns with time-tested development strategies such as economic clustering and infrastructure-induced growth. Given the Tianjin project’s location in an environmentally sensitive wetland, leaders have established a suite of performance indicators focused largely on sustainability. The majority of these indicators and 15 of 22 quantitative metrics directly relate to environmental concerns (e.g. water quality, green space, recycling, and renewable energy). The masterplan reads like a green design textbook, with language about compact development, public transport, and well-worn but under-explained metaphors such as "green lungs."

Despite its focus on sustainable liveability, Tianjin Eco-city’s population boom has not materialised. According to a 2014 BBC report, infrastructure capacity for transport and housing has far outstripped demand, generating an environment of vast but empty public spaces. This ghost city phenomenon is reminiscent of Ordos, another exemplar of China’s often overly-optimistic urban planning efforts. Growth prospects in Tianjin Eco-city are looking increasingly less optimistic in light of recent projections about a national economic downturn in China. Nevertheless, the project is faring better in its infancy than a similar collaboration between China and Singapore in Suzhou in 1994, in which early financial troubles — resulting partly from local authorities channelling prospective investments towards a rival industrial park — compelled Singapore to withdraw from majority ownership by 2001.

On the heels of this moderate success, Singapore signed a deal with India in 2014 to collaborate on urban development, just as India announced plans for 100 "smart cities." As a marketing catch-phrase, "smart city" seems to imply an element of advanced technological infrastructure, sweetened by a whiff of environmental sustainability. Nevertheless, renderings of India’s new cities appear to be little more than postmodern takes on Corbusian monumentalism, with broad highways bisecting districts of tower blocks. Furthermore, a critical element is missing: culture. During a visit to India organised by the Singapore International Foundation, Singaporean Senior Minister of State (Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs) Masagos Zulkifli emphasised the operational aspects of smart city status (e.g. land acquisition and legal mechanisms) but also argued that urban plans should emerge from an understanding of "cultural nuances." Minister Zulkifli’s point — although lacking in detail beyond a vague mention of housing and transport — implicitly acknowledges the chequered history of exported models for urban development. Understanding the historical experience of contrived urbanism is useful for contextualising the challenges of projects such as Tianjin Eco-city, including attracting people to new large-scale settlements and enabling the emergence of genuine cultural authenticity.


International linkages — economic, social, and diplomatic — have long driven urban development, with colonialism playing a particularly forceful role. While going far beyond the benignly developmental goals of modern planning, colonialist urbanisation shares with many current collaborations a scant regard for the importance of cultural authenticity. The design and operation of regional capitals have historically served a variety of political and financial interests. Modern collaborations often support economic goals but may compromise local identity by imposing an inadequately contextualised vision of development that focuses on economic and environmental indicators to the exclusion of cultural authenticity. Projects such as Tianjin Eco-city and India’s smart cities risk making this mistake in their ostensibly enlightened adherence to trendy planning axioms. The fate of such projects is arguably dependent more on cultural adaptability than on illusory developmental milestones claimed by spot-level environmental innovation and iconic "starchitecture."

Throughout history, urban development has often failed — at its own peril — to accommodate cultural dimensions. During the Roman Empire, a commercial agenda supported military campaigns to extract resources, annex territories, and develop markets. Urban planning and design complemented these efforts by expressing colonial might, and in subjugated regions efficient infrastructure "pacified" urban settlements. Aesthetic majesty was not only a vivid exhibition of Roman order but also a means to facilitate military mobility and control. The United States interstate highway system was likewise developed with the secondary purpose of enabling troop movements. The purposive multi-dimensionality of Rome’s colonial capitals informed an urban planning strategy that ignored local context, including the "cultural nuances" cited by Zulkifli, and in particular dismissed the sincere preservation of vernacular design and indigenous lifestyles. It is historically evident that the adverse impacts of imposed urban development compromise social cohesion and cultural authenticity. A similar but more recent example is the United States’ urban renewal projects of the mid-20th century, which decimated numerous historical neighbourhoods in the interest of infrastructure expansion.

Later empires extended Rome’s brand of forceful colonisation and urban development. The planning strategies of France’s colonial era appear to have sterilised cities with a combination of historic preservation and spatial monumentalism. Tongue placed firmly in cheek, French colonists expressed reverence in protecting local authenticity and spared from demolition the traditional urban cores of North African cities (e.g. Medina in Casablanca). However, this strategy effectively perpetuated a mystique of "other-ness" by spatially isolating culture on islands of fetishisation, not unlike today’s commercialised historic precincts such as Dubai’s Gold Souk, Seoul’s Bukchon Village, and San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. Under plans for both Casablanca and Algiers, outer urban neighbourhoods were cleared for Parisian thoroughfares and the sprawling estates of colonial officials. In an oddly contradictory strategy of both preservation and redevelopment, Le Corbusier’s Algiers also featured a modernist curvilinearity from residential towers to transport infrastructure, stridently dismissing local cultural context. As in modern-day Brasilia, such structures would likely have become time capsules for a bygone era’s unrealised futurist visions, but may also have found renewed purpose serving local populations in meaningful if originally unintended ways. These design programs — conceived with little trace of nuance — are the tools of urban planning strategies captured by political interests but passing for aesthetic evolution. Indeed, this legacy continues to thrive in the thinly-veiled economic interests of "smart cities" that boast environmental sustainability in pursuit of global legitimacy.


Colonial districts survive in various states of repair, many with the lingering aura of lost purpose. Some have returned to local culture or even to natural landscapes. Dilapidated sidewalks and chipped monuments whisper of the ambitious plans that once governed their development. In other cities, a tide of modern design has overwhelmed traces of both the authentic past and the more recent colonial efforts to redefine it. In increasingly rare cases, the remnants of all eras have survived only by the grace of preservation. Symmetrical street patterns and the intricate layouts of administrative complexes have a pleasing aesthetic from high altitudes and on the drawing boards of planners, but they are rarely experienced as positively by displaced citizens. Social exclusion, economic exploitation, and cultural marginalisation have been the by-products (at best) or strategies (at worst) of urban planning. Critical urbanists often call for more progressive development paradigms, yet planning remains vulnerable to ulterior manipulation. The modern incarnation — commercial opportunism — masquerades as international collaboration and now increasingly as "smart." It also shares an enthrallment with fantastical design and architectural shock-and-awe, as exemplified by the UAE-Belgrade waterfront collaboration.

From Singapore’s development partnerships in greater Asia to China’s infrastructure programs in Africa, urbanisation is a thriving export industry. The difference from previous epochs is the absence of an aggressive colonial ambition that was driven not only by governments but also by enterprising capitalists with an interest in forcefully expanded markets. The ambitions of Singapore and China today are purely economic, with collaborations providing investment opportunities for domestic firms. Nevertheless, modern visions of planning — couched in the agreeable but clichéd parlance of sustainability — still embody global standards of development that have a deep and troubled history. By definition, many such visions are resistant to cultural contextualisation due to their focus on a commodified aesthetic of commercialism and their perfunctory regard for environmental concerns that could only be labelled "sustainability theatre."

On a positive note, there is no defensible reason that planned developments should fail to accommodate and even support the preservation of cultural authenticity, but such efforts must go beyond the drawing boards of urban designers. Planning for public life does not involve only plazas and parks. Institutionalised systems for collaboration and citizen feedback can imbue projects with unique, place-based identity. Public buy-in and engagement are crucial for embedding culture, and therefore become a natural source of stability and sustainability. This strategy not only meets the needs of vulnerable populations but serves the interests of developers by establishing a unique context not easily replicated elsewhere. In commercial terms, authenticity is a competitive advantage, providing experiences for citizens and visitors that are absent in universal, commodity-stock developments. Planners on both sides of urban collaborations should therefore be mindful of cultural dimensions, lest the smart city lose its local wisdom.

Kris Hartley is a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore. For more details about his argument, see his book Can Government Think? Flexible economic opportunism and the pursuit of global competitiveness.


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Επιστημονικός Υπεύθυνος της προσπάθειας αυτής έχει οριστεί ο κ. Κωνσταντίνος Τσάντζαλος, Δικηγόρος Αθηνών, πτυχιούχος της Νομικής Σχολής του Εθνικού και Καποδιστριακού Πανεπιστημίου Αθηνών, κάτοχος μεταπτυχιακού τίτλου σπουδών (MSc) στο γνωστικό αντικείμενο Χωροταξίας – Πολεοδομίας – Περιφερειακής Ανάπτυξης του Τμήματος Μηχανικών Χωροταξίας, Πολεοδομίας & Περιφερειακής Ανάπτυξης της Πολυτεχνικής Σχολής του Πανεπιστημίου Θεσσαλίας και υπ. Διδάκτωρ του Τμήματος Πολιτικής Επιστήμης και Δημόσιας Διοίκησης της Σχολής Οικονομικών και Πολιτικών Σπουδών του Εθνικού και Καποδιστριακού Πανεπιστημίου Αθηνών.