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Professor finds commonalities and similarities in dozens of Asian urban real estate megaprojects


With the urban future of the world lying in rapidly growing cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, a new book examines key questions of land rights at the center of the political battles that are shaping these cities.

Gavin Shatkin, an associate professor in Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, found commonalities and similarities in dozens of urban real estate megaprojects in Asia―massive, privately built planned urban developments. His book, Cities for Profit: The Real Estate Turn in Asia’s Urban Politics, contains insights from more than 150 interviews, site visits, and data from government and nongovernment organization reports, urban plans, architectural renderings, annual reports and promotional materials of developers, and media accounts.

Here, Shatkin explains key findings and how conducting research for this book has changed the way he teaches his “Urban and Regional Policy in Developing Countries” course.

Q: How did you become interested in the role real estate megaprojects play in Asian cities?

A: My interest in these projects emerged from my research and work in various Asian countries over the course of a decade, in the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, China, India, and elsewhere. It seemed that each of these places had seen the proposal of massive new projects, on the scale of new urban districts or even entire new cities, that promised to entirely transform cities. In each case the architectural imagery of these urban megaproject proposals was similar—massive skylines of glass and steel building, including high tech office complexes, shopping malls, condominium towers, and state of the art public facilities. Yet as I began to look more closely, it became clear that many of these proposals never broke ground, and when they did, they rarely achieved the vision their proponents had originally put forth. While they seldom lived up to their promise, they were, however, the grist for controversial battles over land acquisition, eviction and displacement, and planning and regulatory reform. I wanted to dig deeper into these projects, to better understand their meaning for the future of Asian cities.

In the end, I found that these massive projects were related to a broader trend of what I term the real estate turn in urban politics across much of Asia. As cities grow rapidly, increases in land values have come to be an important resource for political leaders. They have subsequently sought to monetize land as a means to achieve goals of economic growth, revenue generation, and political control. The glittering designs of real estate megaprojects have often been used by developers and political leaders to rationalize major efforts to acquire land for what are often quite elitist projects. The controversies that have resulted have strongly shaped political contestations in these cities.


Q: Tell us about your new book published in September by Cornell University Press. What makes it a must-read for someone interested in urban studies?

A: According to UN projections, in the coming decades global population growth will be centered in the rapidly growing cities of the urbanizing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The urban future of the world lies in these cities—places like Shanghai, Jakarta, Mumbai, Lagos, and São Paulo. As these cities grow they face significant questions of social equity, rights to land and housing, infrastructure delivery, and political rights. This book examines some of the questions of land rights that are at the center of the political battles that are shaping these cities.


Q: What are some of the social and economic impacts associated with the controversial projects you examined?

A: Chapter 1 of the book opens with the case of Boeung Kak in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Here, a community of more than 4,000 households living on a lake in the center of the city was summarily evicted so that the lake could be filled for an urban development project. These households lost their homes, livelihoods, and social networks, and the city lost an economically productive community. The filling of the lake changed the hydrology of that part of the city, leading to major flooding. Meanwhile, the real estate megaproject stalled after the eviction set off an international outcry. This case serves as but one example of the issues that these projects give rise to—social and economic displacement, ecological damage, and lost opportunity.

Q: Did any of the findings surprise you?

A: I originally set out to research real estate megaprojects because I thought their designs had revolutionary and potentially very destructive implications for cities. The surprising finding was that these projects so seldom came close to actually realizing their original designs. Their impacts were not only about the way they were reshaping cities in terms of urban design, but just as important was the way that the images of urban transformation that they put forth were being used to rationalize displacement, eviction, and the weakening of property rights of communities.


Q: How do you integrate the research you conducted for this book in the urban and Asian studies courses you teach at Northeastern?

A: I teach a course called “Urban and Regional Policy in Developing Countries.” Doing the research for this book has changed the way I think about how I teach this course. If policy makers and urban planners want to make a difference in helping governments to think through their urban development priorities, they need to address this push towards the ‘real estate turn’ in urban politics. This means that they need to understand urban development from an interdisciplinary perspective—they need to analyze the implications of large real estate developments from the perspective of their economic, social, ecological, and cultural impacts.  Perhaps most importantly, they need to understand the legal and institutional basis of property rights, which are so important in shaping how much power communities have to defend their rights to space and shape their own destinies.


Published On: October 6, 2017 |
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