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Messy UrbanismUnderstanding the "Other" Cities of Asia$

Manish Chalana

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9789888208333

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888208333.001.0001

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Epilogue: Sites of Questions, Contestations, and Resistance

Epilogue: Sites of Questions, Contestations, and Resistance

(p.238) Epilogue: Sites of Questions, Contestations, and Resistance
Messy Urbanism

Manish Chalana

Jeffrey Hou

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Abstract and Keywords to be supplied.

We started this book with the objective of better understanding the urban “messiness” in Asian cities, recognizing that the conditions of messiness are often either dismissed or romanticized in both academia and practice. We were particularly interested in understanding the politics of urban messiness; their place in the city and value to the community; and the questions they raise concerning the ongoing production of cities, cityscapes, and citizenship. Several misconceptions, myths, and negative stereotypes color our view of urban messiness, throughout the region and beyond; the state and planning apparatus remain unprepared to address it in any meaningful ways.

While we have tried to conceptualize and investigate the phenomena of urban messiness, it is important to note that we are not the first to coin the term “messy urbanism.” In an article published in Places, John de Monchaux (1989) puts it simply, “Cities are messy places, and on the whole they work well because of that messiness.” He also argues, “The more effective ways of getting things done are more likely to emerge if we accept and use in a positive way the fact that cities are intrinsically messy places” (36). In his chapter in Everyday Urbanism (1999), John Kaliski uses the term “messiness” in reference to the conditions of the present city in contrast to the order and segregation of uses under the modernist paradigm. Later, James Rojas (2007), another Angeleno, used “messiness” to convey his impressions of Toronto—“a sort of less-than-manicured quality to the whole thing, and coupled with a huge diversity of people.” In his chapter in Now Urbanism, Viren Brahmbhatt (2015, 24) applies the term “messy urbanism” to characterize the informal urban landscape of Mumbai and the “vitality that arises from its multitude of contradictions.” Beyond these instances, one can also search online and find many more casual uses of the term. Although we don’t claim to have invented the term “messy urbanism,” we do hope that this volume makes a substantial contribution to better articulating the concept and to better understanding the phenomenon.

As has been previously noted, urban messiness in form of so-called informality emerges in “defiance of rules, ordinances, and regulations, out of necessity, or because of opportunity” (Loukaitou-Sideris and Mukhija 2014, 295). Messy places are not easily decipherable and can be challenging to study, because of their complex (p.239) socio-spatial patterning; their temporal, ephemeral, and tactile qualities; and their locational and use characteristics. Yet the diversity and complexity of urban messiness remain central to understanding Asian cities. Scholars and practitioners need to familiarize themselves with the issues and questions concerning the production of messy places not only because so many hundreds of millions of people live in (or with) them but also because those populations remain the most vulnerable, as Asian cities rapidly transform and modernize.

The chapters in this book address and clarify the various forms of urban messiness from different cities in Asia. Collectively, they reveal shared and notable themes that constitute the main outcomes and contributions of this volume. Each of these themes suggests a way for untangling and understanding the production of messiness in Asian cities and for fostering a greater degree of appreciation and critical response.

Urban Messiness Defies Dichotomy

At the most fundamental level, the phenomenon of messiness defies simple categorization. It transcends the binary distinction between order and disorder, formal and informal, permanent and temporary. As cases from various chapters demonstrate, messiness can occur in both formal and informal settings where order and disorder often coexist and are even nested. In addition, what is once formal can become informal and vice versa. (Not to mention that what is considered as formal or informal is often in the eyes of the beholder.) Many cities, including Bangkok, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Jakarta, have witnessed formalized spaces being appropriated for informal uses by different actors to produce different meanings and pursue different agendas at different times of the day and night. The case of Metro Manila demonstrates that messiness can exist in all spatial planes, from the informal urban understory to the advertising signs and billboards of the upper canopies as well as in the interstices of private- and public-sector urban infrastructure. In China, as Abramson notes in his chapter, the urban visual disorder is a result of not just the informal cityscape but also the “constant environmental upheaval of modernizing cities” through actions by the state. Using a series of observations from Shanghai to Seoul, Hou argues that tactical actions are often performed to circumvent regulations rather than directly challenge them, and as such they often coexist with the formal institutions. In the case of Flower Market Street in Hong Kong, Siu and Zhu argue that such tactics allow the merchants to increase efficiency while avoiding violations and fines. In all these instances, messy urbanism defies simple dichotomies of informal/formal, disordered/ordered, unplanned/planned, spontaneous/scheduled, temporary/permanent. These binary categories are inadequate in capturing the diversity of urban messiness or elucidating its complexity and fluidity.

(p.240) Messiness is a Form of Complex Ordering

As the chapters explicate, the apparent disorder of messiness in fact retains multiple layers of order and meaning that are more readily decipherable to the communities that create and use them. From the inside-out perspective, then, urban messiness is rarely considered as messiness per se, particularly not in the way it is viewed from the outside in—that is, by the affluent class, by planners and policy makers. In her chapter, Kim poses rhetorical questions pointing to the “tenable varieties of orderliness” in the Asian context and suggesting that “what has been called disorder or messiness actually be characterized as misunderstood organization, aspects of which might be meritorious?” Several aspects of messy urbanism are indeed meritorious and valued by their communities, as the case of Delhi’s Kathputli Colony demonstrates. Multiple systems of ordering based on cultural practices and traditional ways of life and livelihoods go into the shaping of the self- and incrementally built dwellings that accommodate large families in tight spaces, while making the best use of the minimal urban infrastructure. Chalana and Rishi’s chapter demonstrates this socio-spatial order in dwelling and clusters. They argue that this order, which is valued by residents, ought not to be undervalued in favor of high modernist redevelopment paradigms.

Messiness is Situated and Contingent

Rather than completely random and spontaneous, messiness is often constructed within specific social and historical contexts. In the case of Ho Chi Minh City, the different development patterns and the contrast of visual order and disorder between the twin cities of Cholon and Saigon under the French colonial rule was part of the colonial agenda to establish cultural and political superiority over the indigenous society. Likewise, New Delhi was created in the tradition of the City Beautiful to showcase the imperial modernity of the British Empire in India, south of but at a “safe” distance from Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), with its tight spaces and narrow winding streets (Chalana 2003). In Jakarta, Kusno traces the presence of informal activities to the incorporation of indigenous quarters into the city in the early twentieth century, as well as the passive, nonintervention strategy of the Dutch colonial state. In these cases, messiness reflects a historical convergence that give rise to particular spatial forms, social conditions, and political processes.

Messiness is Political and Structural

The production of messiness is often political. In Jakarta, Kusno shows us how class position and racial discourses are implicated in the social and political construction of messiness. In Chandigarh, the modernist state capital with its formalized order (p.241) represents a postcolonial political project of a new nation-state. As Prakash notes, the transnational messiness that produced the ordered city was a messy process and must be viewed and examined in the colonial and postcolonial contexts. At Sanam Luang in Bangkok, politics itself contributed to the messy, contested, and contradictory identities of the space, as a site of monarchical rituals, a symbol of state-imposed order and modernity, a civic space for free speech and political activities, a killing field for political crackdown, a marketplace, a parking lot, and currently a secured and gentrified public park. In Quanzhou, China, the fabric of the old city was preserved because of a political decision to allow private ownership for fear of alienating the large number of overseas Chinese who have connections to the city. In the case of Delhi, the state and the planning establishment, through their policies, help produce the slums that they then invest considerable resources to eradicate, instead of providing and improving urban infrastructure and services to these places. In all of these cases, messiness is politically produced and reflects the role of space as a vehicle for the representation and exercise of power—messy spaces included.

Messiness Shifts and Evolves

While messiness may be deeply rooted in history, culture, and politics, its expressions, appearances, and meanings are often not stable. For example, attitudes toward messiness can shift in different historical stages. In the case of Jakarta, Kusno examines how messiness was seen by the authority first as nuisance, then as a form of self-help under a different institutional lens, followed by what he calls the “revenge of the underclass” in the form of motorbikes that roam the city. In Hong Kong, the waves of newcomers (Chinese mainlanders, migrant workers, etc.) have been reshaping how public spaces are used or received. Through the cases of a homeless encampment in Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, Little Manila in Seoul, and street vendors in Taipei, Hou argues that the ability to shift and transform precisely allows informal, temporary activities to adapt to the changing circumstances of the city. In their chapter, Siu and Zhu also argue that these shifting tactics allow stakeholders to solve problems of insufficient space and social conflicts. In the guerrilla wars performed in everyday spaces, they argue, “the state of space is never still; its power dynamics are constantly changing.”

Messiness Represents Agency

Messiness represents the ongoing outcomes of individuals and even institutions acting on their diverse and sometimes conflicting interests and agendas. In Hong Kong, for instance, while the streets are part of the regulated urban landscapes, their boundaries, activities, and meanings are constantly redefined by their users. Such agency can be particularly significant for marginalized social groups in the society. (p.242) From motorbikers in Jakarta to gatherings of Filipino workers in Central, Hong Kong to the homeless in Tokyo and street vendors in Taipei, such actions represent the ability of individuals and groups to shape and reshape the urban environments, often in defiance of their intended purposes. The agency of individuals and collectives enables them to carve out a niche within the otherwise hegemonic urban structure. Messiness in this context provides a space for the consideration of alternative citizenship as defined by the active engagement of urban dwellers with the city regardless of who came first and who get to stay.

Messiness Can Be Productive and Instrumental

The cases of Delhi, Hong Kong, and elsewhere suggest that messy urbanism is not only an integral part of the formal city but also contributes greatly to its economic prosperity and social vitality. As Tam notes, the low-wage-earning migrants of Hong Kong and the spaces they occupy and create are an integral part of the city’s labor force and economy. Similarly, in Delhi, the informal sector is host to the majority of the population in the lower socioeconomic spectrum, who keep the engines of the city running. More problematically, they also save the city considerable money on the social services that it is legally obligated to provide but does not. Similar points can be made of other cities throughout Asia, and, indeed, work by Roy and AlSayyad (2004) among others highlights the many connections between formal and informal urban systems, including the economic connections. Furthermore, messiness can be productive in a different sense, in terms of its instrumentality in challenging the predominant order and structure in the society and inviting further investigation into the intertwining social, economic, political, and spatial complexity of the present city.

Conclusion: Contesting and Understanding Messiness

For a book focusing on messiness, we hope our reflections do not come across as too “clean,” although it has certainly been our aim to bring some clarity to the phenomenon of messiness and its diverse manifestations and struggles. Through this work, we have attempted to present the notion of messiness as embodying multiple worldviews and social and political constructs and processes. When defined and characterized as disorder, messiness represents a form of “othering,” of stigmatization, and of justification for neglect and displacement. In this regard, messiness is often a product of systemic marginalization of a large portion of urban populations that find themselves trapped in the established structural hierarchy. Yet, when defined as challenges to the predominant orders and structure, messiness can serve as a site of resistance and insurgency, particularly by marginalized social actors, against the institutionalized practices of planning, policy, and social control. In between these two ends of the (p.243) spectrum, there are also instances of messiness that have been tolerated, accepted, and even co-opted for and celebrated by those in power, which makes an understanding of messiness even murkier. As a contested notion, then, messiness must serve as a site of continued questioning and debates.

Messy urbanism implies plurality, multiplicity, and contradictions, a condition in which urban forms and processes don’t fit into a singular hierarchy, structure, or meaning. In its role as a site for questioning and resistance against the rigid and stale structure of city making, perhaps urban messiness can also serve as a site of innovations in the pursuit of new modes of actions, understanding, and collaboration among citizens, professionals, and institutions. As cracks and fissures in the postpolitical, homogenous landscapes of contemporary cities, messiness presents opportunities for a new epistemology of city and city making; a mode of contestation, collaboration, and composition; and as a site for rethinking and untangling the difficult tasks of democracy, justice, and resilience.


Bibliography references:

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