In August 2016 we left Singapore by bus and landed in Johor Bahru, a city that seems to exist solely for the purpose of supplying Singapore with goods by truck. We spent one night there before heading to Melaka (also sometimes referred to as Malacca.) Here we found a small city rich in history, diversity, personality, beauty and with a lot of character.
Part of its history is that it was under Dutch occupation or control for a long time, and there is evidence of this throughout the city. In the architecture and the way things are named (like the Stadthuys or city hall in the middle of town.) I found myself wondering if this is the part of the world that so many Cape Malay people in South Africa can trace their heritage back to. And it turns out that there were slaves sent from Melaka to Cape Town. I found the experience that much more personal to think on it; that there was such a distant and yet very real link between this city that I had stumbled upon, and my home town.
The 100 Resilient Cities initiative lists the following as Melaka’s resilience challenges:
Declining or ageing population
Overtaxed/ under developed/unreliable transportation system
Poor air quality/pollution
Rising sea level and coastal erosion
Coastal flooding/Rising sea level and coastal erosion/Rainfall flooding
These concerns are easy to understand. The city is centred around the Melaka river, which winds its way around the city and flows out to the ocean. It flows right through the heart of the touristy section of the city, and buildings and infrastructure are built right up to the water’s edge.
There is clearly a lot of history connected to the river. A beautiful water wheel, ship exhibition, and tourist attractions and activities are set up around the river. It is therefore not hard to imagine that the city is vulnerable to the effects of flood and sea level rise.
Overtaxed/ under developed/unreliable transportation system
We stayed in the city centre. We had arrived by bus from Johor Bahru and had used a bus to get from the main bus terminal to the hotel where we were staying. This worked well and was very cheap. But that is as far as our experience of the public transportation system went. For the rest of our time, we walked around the city. We didn’t brave the brightly coloured and adorned tourist tricycles. But it’s not hard to imagine that the transport system is stretched and stressed.
I’m not really sure what diseases they are referring to with this, but this was one of my favourite signs in Melaka. My guess is that they’re more worried about non-STD related diseases, but still, play safe folks.
Bangkok is an incredible monster of a city. We spent ten days there at the beginning of 2016 and saw a tiny fraction of it. A friend of ours was staying in an apartment block where the roof was accessible on the 45th floor, with panoramic views of the city. It goes on and on and on. High rises as far as you can see. Shining lights, the constant buzz of traffic.
The 100 Resilient Cities initiative describes Bangkok’s resilience pictures as the following:
“In addition to a bustling tourism industry, Thailand’s capital city is home to 10 million residents within 1,500 square kilometres. Nearly half the population comes from other provinces and countries, seeking better opportunities, and many are considered poor and vulnerable. In 2011, Bangkok experienced a severe flood with estimated damages of $45 billion to global supply chain, out of which only $10 billion were insured. This sparked the development of a manual for flood management that includes lessons for resilience building. However, technical expertise and financial resources for creating and executing resilience strategies remain limited.
Overtaxed/ under developed/unreliable transportation system
Pollution or environmental degradation
Poor transportation system
Riot or civil unrest”
Sounds like a lot of cities. Here is what I found, in my short stay there.
The smell of Bangkok is not for the faint of heart or nose. On one particularly smelly day, we walked over a stormwater drainage line and it smelled like an open sewer. There are a number of channels running through the city and they also smell. I’m not sure if this is linked to the age of the infrastructure, but it seemed to me that the city was not adequately equipped to manage its wastewater or its stormwater. There is water all around and through Bangkok. It is not hard to imagine that flooding can happen quickly and that its impact could be quite severe.
As with a number of Asian cities, the electrical and communications infrastructure looks like a real challenge. A bird’s nest or spider’s web of cables.
Thailand is not poor though. There was a stark contrast between Bangkok and the cities in Vietnam and the Philippines that we had just been in. We experienced one power outage while I was there, but that appeared to be from maintenance work on the local grid. Not from capacity issues.
We stayed in Chit Lom. It’s an easy, if a bit long, train journey from the airport into the city centre. Our apartment was within easy walking distance to the train station, and the elevated walkways that link one shopping centre with another (shopping is not taken lightly in Bangkok…) On one particularly touristy day, we took the train to the water’s edge, and then caught a boat to one of the temples. That was my experience of Bangkok’s public transport. Fast, regular, air-conditioned and predictable trains, and boats.
On one day we tried to take a taxi from Chit Lom to a neighbouring suburb, but the driver turned us away, and recommended taking the train as it would be faster. On another day we took a taxi to their secondary airport, to go to Chang Mai, and we crawled through the traffic. From this one taxi ride, and from our walking around the city, it’s clear that traffic is an issue. I am not sure what the public transport system is like once you are out of the city centre. There are a number of bus routes operating, some of which run all night but the city is enormous, with millions of people needing to move around every day, all day.
So when 100RC lists poor transportation as a challenge, I can understand why. The train system is set up for people to move from the airport to major hubs easily. It can’t possibly handle 10 million people. It’s monstrous infrastructure running through the city. It can’t have been easy or cheap to build, and any expansion to it must be a gigantic undertaking. The city is hot, and it’s not easy or comfortable to walk around.
The city is hot, and it’s not easy or comfortable to walk around.
Plastic is the tragedy of Asian cities (with Singapore the major exclusion – possibly Seoul too, but I’m yet to go there). It’s everywhere and it’s heartbreaking. No stretch of road, or expanse of water, is free from it.
The air quality was also not great. Our friends who live there have commented that at times they have to stay indoors because the air quality is too bad to be outside, particularly as they have a young child.
The SkyTrain is built above roadways, and this infrastructure naturally traps vehicle exhaust fumes. I was four months pregnant while we were there and it made me feel quite conscious of what air I was breathing in.
This was not our first time in Bangkok. We spent a day there in December 2013. It was around the time of civil riots in the city, and we were quite conscious of this as we made our plans for the day. In August 2015, the Erwaran Shrine, located within the city centre, and a short ten-minute walk from where we were staying in Chit Lom in 2016, was bombed.
Then in October 2016 the national monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, died at the age of 88, after reigning for 70 years. This has led to more concerns regarding civil unrest in the country.
For all of these threats and the knowledge in the back of our minds that the country, and therefore its capital, was experiencing this discontent, we never came face to face with it. We were conscious while we were there that it’s recommended that tourists avoid talking about the king, the military junta or politics in general with local Thai people. It’s difficult to get a sense of what local people are struggling with, or living with if you aren’t really able to talk to them about it openly. That says a lot itself I suppose.
While we were in the Philippines I saw a sign which broke my heart a little bit. It was in a public lavatory, and said something to the effect of ‘Our children are precious, please protect them’ and made reference to child trafficking. I was reminded of that sign when walking around Bangkok. Old white males sitting at tables being served by young, beautiful Thai women or men dressed as women. Viagra (or a cheap knock-off) for sale by street vendors. The sex industry seems to be alive and well in Bangkok.
It’s hard to see this and not feel that local Thai people are being exploited by wealthy westerners. Surely this has an impact on a place’s resilience? If your people are objectified and targeted by a certain demographic of tourist, it must have a knock-on effect.
Last week I went to a talk hosted by Melbourne Conversations and the Resilient Melbourne Initiative. The president of Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) programme was the main speaker, and it led to an interesting discussion on the challenges that Melbourne is facing.
I was involved in the development of the Cities Resilience Index (CRI) when I was in Cape Town and I’ve written a bit about this before. The CRI is a tool that can be used to assess a city’s resilience, and help to highlight where they may be vulnerable, and it was a project that was running in parallel to the 100RC programme. So this is close to my heart.
It became even more personal this morning when I had a look through the 100RCs and realised that I had been to 15 of them. So over the next while I will be casting my mind back to these 15 cities, talking about my experience (where I can remember them) and what kind of resilience priorities these cities have.
Once this is done, perhaps I will carry on, and look at some of the cities I haven’t yet been to. Maybe starting with cities where those close to me have travelled.
So far, my travels have taken me to these cities looking to improve their resilience:
The list of the 50 most violent cities in the world has been making the rounds recently, with a lot of people being surprised that Cape Town has come in near the top of the list.
In 2012, as part of the Rockefeller foundation’s study into cities’ resilience and the indicators that can be used, the company I work for carried out a series of workshops, focus group sessions and interviews with various city stakeholders. From government officials, to NGO representatives.
The findings were fascinating and unsurprising. Cape Town suffers from chronic stress issues. Violence, hopelessness, hunger. Stemming from a legacy of inequality that is systemic in all things we do.
The City Resilience Framework was issued in April 2014 and you can find it here. http://arup.com/cri
This framework incorporates findings from a desktop study and from the field based research and is a very interesting read. What I wanted to share were 8 qualities or functions of a resilient city. Read through them and think about your city. If you’re in Cape Town, maybe think about this with the problem of violence in the back of your mind. Where do you come across these functions failing? Does your daily life impact on these areas of life for either you or someone else? Can understanding these help you to have more empathy for other people and the things they struggle with? What role does our municipality have to play in addressing these? What responsibility do we have? Where should we be applying more pressure?
A resilient city:
1. Delivers basic needs. Can people get access to food, water, energy?
2. Safeguards human life. Can a city respond to shocks and stresses to protect its inhabitants?
3. Protects, maintains and enhances assets. Are man made and natural assets treated and maintained properly, and are they utilized efficiently and equitably?
4. Facilitates human relationships and identity. Are cultures, heritage, language, religion and genders celebrated and empowered? Is diversity encouraged?
5. Promotes knowledge, education and innovation. Is the empowerment of our civil society promoted? Is education a priority? Is it easy to access, of good quality and available to all?
6. Defends the rule of law, justice and equality. Is the response to a violation of the law fair, reasonable and consistently applied? Are laws, policies and regulations fair, and are they implemented appropriately? Is there recourse for victims?
7. Supports livelihoods. Do people have hope that they will be able to provide for themselves and their community? Are there opportunities? Can they get to those opportunities?
8. Stimulates economic prosperity. Is trade supported?
What I feel could also be included under 8 is does it stimulate social prosperity? Are people happy.
After reading the above with my Cape Town hat on, I find it very easy to believe we are so high on that list. In a place where people have had their sense of identity eroded for decades, where the education system has been first unfair and then incompetent, where the rule of law is ineffective, where economic opportunities are thin on the ground, and people have to travel ridiculous distances to get there, and where basic needs are sporadically available. How then in the face of this can a city respond to continuous stresses; increasing drug use, the legacy of inequitable urban planning and segregation, continued immigration, global economic events… Without bending, cracking and breaking in parts.
But if we know where those pressure points are. If we are aware of what leads to a strong, flexible and resilient society are we not able to take action, collectively, to help pull us out of this list if shame. Let us be shamed to be ranking so high. Let us use that shame to get us to act.