Development Projects: Elite / Non-Elite Discourses

By Benjamin Sacks

Astana's futuristic city centre. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Astana’s futuristic city centre. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Civil projects constitute some of the most visible and symbolic actions of the state. Buildings, monuments, bridges, urban reorganisation, and dams, amongst nearly countless other programmes, can serve a wide array of functions: propaganda, potent displays of public resource allocation, political manipulation, civic pride, improvement of health, welfare, and education. Their development (usually) necessitates job growth, and their completion can do much to promote regional and national interests in the international community. Civil projects are also a near-universal behaviour. From Los Angeles’ expansion of its fledgling public transport system and the 2012 London Olympic Games, to Pyonyang’s infamous (and unfinished) Ryugyong Hotel, public projects can heavily influence local and global conceptions of national power, stability, priorities, and culture.

Who decides how a city – especially a national capital – is going to look? What image(s) of itself does the city want to project or obscure? Who gets a say, and who doesn’t? Natalie Koch (Syracuse University) tackled these questions in the most recent Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. In ‘Bordering on the modern: power, practice and exclusion in Astana’, Koch examined the remarkable creation and expansion of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet capital, which creatively, is Kazakh for capital. Long-serving president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s flagship programme, Astana has come to at once symbolise Kazakhstan’s meteoric rise as a regional power and the country’s increased notoriety as a centre of cultural creativity and experimentation, as well as an enduring example of the problems of (even relatively benevolent) authoritarian rule.

Scholars have been fascinated by the ‘Astana phenomenon’ since construction began on top of the small Soviet-era city of Tselinograd in the mid-1990s. Most recently, Charles E Ziegler, Isabelle Facon, and Jean-Pierre Cabestan, writing in Asian Survey, identified Astana’s successful 2010 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit as symbolically demonstrative of the city’s rising importance in Asian international affairs. But these specialists, by and large, have conceived of Astana in strictly ‘top-down’ terms, without examining how intricate sociopolitical negotiations between various factions continuously develop the city.

Koch’s approach is substantively different. In both ‘Bordering on the modern’ and a series of previous studies on Kazakhstan’s urban development, she has sought to recover the voices and desires of average Kazakhs, not just those who control the capital’s space age-looking skyscrapers and monuments (p. 433). To accomplish this goal, she identified and collected data from both elites and other urban actors to paint the most comprehensive image of Astana’s development culture we yet have.

Cities, by their very nature, are constructed of borders and bordering. These borders are not the traditional rigid, red-coloured lines we usually see in atlases, but rather active, discursive, processes of inclusion and exclusion, acceptance and ‘othering’. When particular (group)s press for change, redevelopment, expansion, or shifts, they are attempting to redefine who and what gets accepted or othered. When Nazarbayev’s engineers set out to erect a new capital for a newly-independent state, they didn’t entirely know what they wanted to achieve. They did know, however, what they wanted to ‘other': Astana would not be a Soviet city. Ironically, the elites who designed and funded the first, new wave of capital construction drew on Soviet-influenced models to establish a distinctly non-Soviet city:

[T]he Astana project draws on similar visions and has been an important site for enacting Nazarbayev’s vision of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet modernity. And yet, these elites are heavily influences by a distinctly Soviet-era understanding of the ‘city’ – in terms of both its function and its symbolism (p. 434).

With that in mind, however, Kazakh elites also used this opportunity to raze thousands of poor Kazakhs’ samannyi, or mud-brick buildings that had been built on Tselinograd’s periphery. Both Soviet practices of architectural standardisation and low-income housing were deemed incompatable with Nazarbayev’s vision of a culturally representative, deliberately eclectic urban aesthetic. This development would suggest that elites have simply imposed a top-down reinvention of Kazakhstan’s capital, but the truth is more complex and interesting than that. Even as Kazakhstan deals with the many problems of capitalism without significant democratic liberalisation – a conundrum that promotes a rich, powerful oligarchy at the expense of relatively poor masses – many city spaces are being designed with the collective public in mind. Malls, in particular, serve as a popular social rendezvous, even for those without sufficient means to purchase many of the higher-end products sold in their stores. Architects are gradually accepting this social phenomenon, creating indoor/outdoor fixtures that promote social interaction.

Nevertheless, much of Astana’s middle- and poorer-classes increasingly resent the iinordinatecontrol of Astana’s elite over the city’s future political and cultural directions. Fault lines divide Astana between ‘northerners’ (traditional, ‘Russified’ urbanites), and ‘southerners’ (rural and recently urbanised Kazakhs), who wrangle for political and financial power, redistributing funds to their own, respective urban projects and political balances shift (p. 438).

books_icon

See special issue of Asian Survey 53.3 (May-Jun., 2013).

books_icon Koch N, ‘Bordering on the modern: power, practice and exclusion in Astana‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 39 432-43.

Frontiers as Dilemma

By Po-Yi Hung, National Taiwan University

Ancient Tea Forest, Image Credit: Po-Yi Hung

Ancient Tea Forest, Image Credit: Po-Yi Hung

From relative obscurity a few decades ago, tea from Yunnan, especially Pu’er, has become a fashionable, must-have variety in the tea shops of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Surging demand for Pu’er — often advertised as wild tea even if it is from the plantations has made farmers here rich and encouraged entrepreneurs to carve out more plantations from jungle-covered hillsides…Tea from Pu’er was popular around the region in ancient times: historians describe “horse tea trails” that radiated from Pu’er, the main trading center for the tea, into northern and eastern China, Tibet and beyond…The recent surge in popularity is attributed to newly affluent, health-conscious Chinese who believe that Pu’er tea lowers cholesterol, cures hangovers, helps fortify teeth and trims away fat.”

Above is an excerpt from the article,  A Tea From the Jungle Enriches a Placid Village, by Thomas Fuller of The New York Times. It discloses a juxtaposition of both “ancientness” and “fashion” of Pu’er tea, a tea produced on China’s southwest frontier. This juxtaposition, in fact, conveys current dilemma regarding development on the frontier.

Frontier (bianjiang) carries the connotation of ‘backwardness’ (luohou) in China. On China’s frontier, including southwest China, this connotation of ‘backwardness’ applies not only to the physical frontier landscape, but also to the people, especially China’s ‘minority nationalities’ (shaoshu minzu). China’s southwest frontier, paradoxically, also denotes a place where pristine nature is well-preserved due to its lack of modern development. As a result, frontier landscape becomes the material form of ‘unpolluted’ nature, where the minority nationalities live harmoniously with their ‘primitive’ lifestyles without damaging their environment. The paradoxical meanings of landscape on China’s southwest frontier, being ‘backward’ as well as being ‘natural,’ have situated development on China’s southwest frontier in dilemma. On one hand, development seems imperative to counter the prevalent ‘backwardness’ in southwest China. On the other hand, development seems threatening in terms of its potential to destroy the landscape of pristine nature on the frontier. Primitive nature and modernized development become two incompatible desires coexisting on China’s southwest frontier.

In a paper published in Area, I use tea production on China’s southwest frontier as an example to demonstrate that dilemma is not an end result, but a mechanism to rearticulate the relationship among frontier, the state, and the market economy. Data are based on ethnographic research in the village of Mangjing. Mangjing is located in Jingmai Mountain (Jingmaishan), a renowned tea mountain in Yunnan, a province on China’s southwest frontier. Most of the villagers in Mangjing are one of the minority nationalities of China, Bulang (or Blang). Specifically, I discuss the state-led project in transforming the modern tea plantation to “restore” a landscape deemed as “ancient tea forest” (guchalin) or “ancient tea arboretum” (guchayuan). In Mangjing, the ancient tea forest was considered by the state as form of backward culture and lagging-behind economy. As a result, many ancient tea trees were clear-cut for planting either the “modern” terrace tea (taidi cha) or other crops. Nowadays, the growing market of ancient tree tea, in turn, has substantially created new economic, cultural, and political values of ancient tea forest. In consequence, the state, ironically, has launched a restoration project to bring back the missing ancient tea forest.

Looking into the tea story in Mangjing, I found that dilemmas on China’s southwest frontier have been forged by the Chinese state with its incompatible desires between “modernization” and “primitiveness” of the tea landscapes in Yunnan. Meanwhile, the incompatible desires and the resulting dilemmas on China’s southwest frontier have further mobilized the state to flexibly rework its power to reconstruct the frontier to meet contingent market demand. Based on the shifting meanings of tea landscapes, the state has flexibly “shuttled through” the dilemmas between development of modernization and preservation of primitiveness on the frontier.

About the author: Po-Yi Hung is an Assistant Professor in Geography at the National Taiwan University. 

 Hung, P.-Y. (2014), Frontiers as dilemma: the incompatible desires for tea production in southwest China. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12120

60-world2 Fuller, T. (2008) A Tea From the Jungle Enriches a Placid Village. New York Times. Last accessed 9 September 2014

New free to access virtual issue on ‘Devolution and the Geographies of Policy’ in The Geographical Journal

In two weeks time Scottish people will be taking to the polls to answer the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No”

"Scotland decides" Image credit: Scottish Government (CC BY-NC 2.0)

“Scotland decides” Image credit: Scottish Government (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Geographical Journal has published a new virtual issue on ‘Devolution and the Geographies of Policy‘. Papers will be free to access for a limited period.

Ben Clifford, the editor of the virtual issue, says:

“On 18th September, the Scottish people will vote in a referendum whether to become an independent nation-state or not. Whatever the result, the political geography of the United Kingdom will never be the same again. The referendum is, however, just part of a broader process of change to the UK’s political geography ongoing ever since the implementation of devolution under the Blair government. The collection of papers in this virtual issue form a special issue of the Geographical Journal on ‘devolution and the geographies of policy’ due to be published in 2015. Devolution has created a changed policy landscape in the UK, with new spaces of policy-making and questions emerging as to the relationships between these new (and existing) spaces. Many of the issues raised, such as the future of the nation-state, the influence of supra-national institutions such as the European Union, the role of state actors (and others) in mobilising policy, and the drivers/inhibitors of policy divergence, are of great relevance not just with regards to Scotland’s future but in light of devolutionary processes seen across the world”.

The Devolution and the Geographies of Policy Virtual Issue contains six papers which are free to access for a limited period:

 Clifford, B. and Morphet, J. (2014), Introduction to devolution and the geographies of policy. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12113

 Pemberton, S., Peel, D. and Lloyd, G. (2014), The ‘filling in’ of community-based planning in the devolved UK?. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12075

 Clifford, B. and Morphet, J. (2014), A policy on the move? Spatial planning and State Actors in the post-devolutionary UK and Ireland. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12064

 McGuinness, D., Greenhalgh, P. and Pugalis, L. (2014), Is the grass always greener? Making sense of convergence and divergence in regeneration policies in England and Scotland. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12090

 Woolvin, M., Mills, S., Hardill, I. and Rutherford, A. (2014), Divergent geographies of policy and practice? Voluntarism and devolution in England, Scotland and Wales. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.1206

 MacKinnon, D. (2013), Devolution, state restructuring and policy divergence in the UK. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12057

60-world2 For more information about the Scottish referendum see the Electoral Commission’s website.

How to educate about sustainable cities?

By Yvonne Rydin, Bartlett School of Planning, University College London

Image credit: UCL Media Services - University College London.

Image credit: UCL Media Services – University College London.

It is the time of year for A-level and GCSE results to be announced. Geography students at both levels will have learnt about sustainable cities and case studies will have featured prominently in their studies. The BBC Bitesize website, for example, provides a profile of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi as an exemplar of how cities can be developed to have a lower carbon footprint, zero waste generation, prioritise pedestrian movement in the city centre, and so on.

The idea is clear – there are concrete examples of ‘best practice’ that students can learn about. As educational programme moves into the graduate and postgraduate levels, this learning is increasingly linked to potential professional practice – learning about best practice in order to implement more of it in the real world.

But in our article in Area, we raise some fundamental questions about this approach. We see an important tension between, on the one hand, the desire to teach skills and knowledge that is mobile and able to travel and, on the other, the realisation that implementing sustainability can only occur in specific sites and will inevitably be shaped by local features. Higher education institutions have a strong commercial and perhaps ideological imperative to emphasise the global transferability of their knowledge; we draw associations here with the policy mobilities literature that analyses the way that policy ideas circulate around the world.

But pedagogy should recognise that local implementation will always involve the re-use of knowledge in new contexts, not its simple transfer. Do universities currently stress this enough, problematising rather than recycling the idea of best practice? We also raise the question of whether students are sufficiently involved in the overt co-production of sustainable city knowledge by reflecting on how it is reframed in new contexts. Should they perhaps confront the results of research ‘back home’ or on fieldtrips more directly with the learning in the classroom, querying where principles-based learning does not work actually in practice?

Finally we urge the prioritisation of education over the marketing of qualifications although we recognise that the harsh financial realities facing many universities makes this seem somewhat idealistic. But if sustainable cities are to become a reality, perhaps one should be allowed to dream.

About the authors: Yvonne Rydin is a Professor of Planning, Environment and Public Policy at the The Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. Yvonne co-authored her Area paper with Dr Susan Moore, who is a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Planning, and Brian Garcia who is a PhD candidate at the same institution. 

 Moore, S., Rydin, Y. and Garcia, B. (2014), Sustainable city education: the pedagogical challenge of mobile knowledge and situated learning. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12127

60-world2 BBC Bitesize Case Study: Masdar City in Abu Dhabi

The production and circulation of climate change knowledge: science, expert judgement and the visual image

By Martin Mahony, King’s College London

The recent publication of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR5) drew a great deal of interest from journalists, public commentators and the political community. While perhaps not receiving the same level of media attention as previous reports, the AR5 has bolstered the claims of those arguing that time is running out to prevent dangerous climate change.

But what does ‘dangerous’ climate change mean? Whose job should it be to define danger for the entire world? And how much scientific knowledge and certainty do we need about a complicated issue like climate change before we are motivated to act? These are some of the questions I take up in a new article in Transactions of Institute of British Geographers which traces the history of a particular scientific graphic which was designed in the late 1990s to help people come to their own definition of ‘dangerous’ climate change. The image, known colloquially as the ‘burning embers’, has since had a chequered institutional history. Embraced by some as a support for arguments that global warming should be limited to 2°C, the diagram has been challenged by others for being too subjective, and for straying into areas which should be reserved for political – rather than scientific – judgement.

The updated version of the burning embers diagram left out of the IPCC's 2007 report, and eventually published by Smith et al (2009)

The updated version of the burning embers diagram left out of the IPCC’s 2007 report, and eventually published by Smith et al (2009)

I link this story to the history of the notion of scientific objectivity, which historians have shown to vary over time and space. This opens up geographical questions, as the circulation of the ‘burning embers’ diagram saw different questions asked of it in different places, while diverse  expectations of the meaning of objectivity conditioned the spaces around which the diagram travelled. Left out of the 2007 report, the diagram has since made a comeback, with a new colour pallet pointing to the increasing magnitude of risks society is understood to face. The diagram was described as the “key product” and synthesis of the Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability section by Working Group co-Chair Chris Field at a UK Department of Energy and Climate Change event in April this year.

The IPCC plays a crucial role in offering to society visualisations of what a climate-changed future might look like. But despite the institution’s prominence, we know little about IPCC knowledge production as a social process. The paper is an attempt to grow this kind of understanding. As debate about the future shape of the IPCC continues behind the scenes, understanding how, why, and for whom different knowledges are produced and circulate remains a key task for social scientists. As a discipline which straddles conventional boundaries between physical and social science, geography is well placed to contribute to such a project.

About the author: Martin Mahony us a Research Associate within the Department of Geography at King’s College London. Martin’s research interests include the history and geography of climate science, visual cultures of climate and epistemic geographies of the Anthropocene. 

 Martin Mahony, 2014, Climate change and the geographies of objectivity: the case of the IPCC’s burning embers diagram. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, DOI: 10.1111/tran.12064

 Joel B. Smith et al, 2009, Assessing dangerous climate change through an update of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “reasons for concern”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 11, 4133-4137

60-world2 Why 2007 IPCC report lack ‘embers’, Dot Earth Blog, The New York Times, 26 Feb 2009

60-world2 Climate change report ‘should jolt people into action’ says IPCC chief, The Guardian, 31 Mar 2014

60-world2 Will the new IPCC report help climate action? Southern Crossroads blog, The Guardian, 1 Apr 2014

60-world2 Reactions to the IPCC climate change report from business leaders and experts, Guardian Sustainable Business blog, 1 Apr 2014

The scalar politics of infectious disease governance in an era of liberalised air travel

By Helen Pallett

British_Airways_G-XLED,_Hatton_Cross-Heathrow_Airport_(14082633427)

Image credit: Au Morandarte

Fears about the continued spread of the incurable Ebola virus have reached new heights in recent days, linked to uncertainties about the ability to contain diseases in an era of liberalised air transport. Over the last eight months around 916 people have died of the disease in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It now appears the disease has spread to Lagos in neighbouring Nigeria, with eight confirmed cases. In recent months several international aid workers, healthcare workers and missionaries have also fallen victim to the disease, travelling back to Europe and North America for treatment, prompting fears about the greater spread of the disease. Subsequently, the WHO has now labelled the current outbreak as an ‘international emergency’.

In a paper from 2011 in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Lucy Budd and colleagues considered the impacts of liberalised air transport and changes in infectious disease governance in the aftermath of the SARS and H1N1 infectious disease scares. They argued that vast increases in air passenger numbers and the growing frequency and geographical extent of long haul flights raised new challenges for international disease governance and sanitary preemption. This increased global mobility of human populations creates within itself the potential for this mobility to be disrupted and curtailed through the spread of pathogens. Infectious disease governance and prevention depends on the cooperation of a web of national, regional and global agencies – with different and sometimes contested responsibilities – while practices of disease containment must be performed within in an increasing number of highly localised sites, from the airport security line, to the local clinic and the morgue.

The ongoing Ebola outbreak points to further scalar concerns around the governance of deadly infection diseases. Recent debates have focussed on the potential for using experimental treatments imported from the West to treat Ebola victims in attempt to improve the disease’s 50% mortality rate and curtail its further spread. A key question around this is to what extent standards of bioethics within the countries where these experimental treatments were developed should also be imported to the affected countries, counselling caution around the use of untested treatments. Furthermore, whilst the treatment of the disease requires the participation of international agencies, experts and technologies, it must also understand and respect the specific values and practices of Ebola victims and their families in order to be effective.

So whilst there are clear ethical dimensions to the governance of the Ebola outbreak there is also a strong scalar dimension. The successful containment and treatment of the disease depends not only on international and national cooperation, but on the micro-practices within the multiple locations of the sanitary border.

books_icon Lucy Budd, Morag Bell & Adam Warren 2011 Maintaining the sanitary border: air transport liberalisation and health security practices at UK regional airports. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(2): 268-279.

60-world2 Nigeria fears fourth Ebola frontline after infected man lands in Lagos The Guardian, August 13

60-world2 WHO: Ebola ‘an international emergency’BBC News, August 8

60-world2 Dan O’Connor Terrifying as the Ebola epidemic is, we must not use our research ethics The Guardian, August 14

New journal, Geo: Geography and Environment open for submissions

by Fiona Nash, Managing Editor: Academic Publications at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

UntitledGeo: Geography and Environment is a fully open access, international journal published by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and Wiley. It is dedicated to publishing high quality articles from across the spectrum of geographical and environmental research and has an interdisciplinary focus that spans the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Geo welcomes research contributions that bring new understandings to geographical research agendas, advance spatial research, foster methodological development, and address geographical enquiries in contemporary issues.

Reasons to publish in Geo:

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Automatic Article Publication Charge waivers and discounts will be given to authors from countries on the Waivers and Discounts List. Authors should submit a waiver or discount request during the submission of their article.

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