The call to decolonize imaginations of city-ness arose from the limitations that hegemonic categorisations impose on planning and policy-making, especially for developing cities. Looking at developing cities through the lens of Western forms of governance, city life, culture and economic success obscures planners from the innovative albeit makeshift and informal solutions that developed cities have created to wrestle with their own problems. Given the importance of this issue, I reflect on what it means to decolonize the imagination of city-ness.
Similar to Robinson, I think that a huge part of decolonising the urban imagination is rethinking the categories that authorities use to frame, analyse and plan for cities, be it transcending formal/informal dichotomy or global/Third World Cities frameworks. Arguing from a Foucauldian point of view, these categories and Western-centric discourse on city-ness are forms of knowledge-power, instruments of power and domination. As long as the subject of power classifies itself and everything related to it to be the standard and pinnacle of existence, everything else apart from it is relegated to the category of the Other, or deemed irrelevant, just like how developing cities are deemed economically irrelevant when they do not fit the narrow criteria of a global city (Robinson 2002, p.534). No matter how hard developing cities work towards achieving the qualities of “global cities”, they are almost always destined to fall short precisely because there is no one-size-fit-all global logic as to what constitutes city-ness. Rethinking these categories allows authorities to better appreciate and learn from the innovations taking place in the various sectors of developing cities and encourage growth that does not occur at the expense of their own people. For example, instead of being blindsided by the informal nature of Bangkok’s informal ambulance service, authorities can learn from its enterprising nature and possibly find ways to support this system with greater professional training. After all, this system came into being precisely because of the inability of the supposedly more proper formal system in efficiently delivering its services. With regards to the nature of economic activities, a decolonised imagination of the urban economy could instead prioritise local economic needs over global economic trade. As Robinson mentioned, despite developing cities’ enormous contributions to the global economy through manufacturing of intermediate components and assembly lines for global brands, they are ultimately still excluded from the global city category (Robinson 2002, p.537-538) under the justification that only cities with high-level and high value-added functions are deserving of that title. To be unbounded by these categories helps developing cities develop their growth agenda according to their own needs rather than being subservient to the agendas of developed cities.
Decolonisation of the urban imagination is a two-way process. As much as it is imperative for authorities to decolonize their way of thinking about city-ness, I think that the people inhabiting the cities themselves need to caution against simply accepting these categories and instead challenge them. As post-colonial writer Nandy writes in The Intimate Enemy, while the colonial power may have physically disappeared from the shores of the colonies, the effects of colonialism are long-lasting especially when they are psychological. Thus, decolonising the urban imaginary requires individuals to avoid passively accepting existing narratives and standards of urbanism and city-ness. As to why the decolonisation process also involves inhabitants of cities, it is because the city is constituted and created by the very actions, the very act of living and inhabiting of the urban space by the inhabitants. The way they think about their own cities is, therefore, significant and can have a profound impact on how the city is imagine and consequently, shaped and constructed (Goldman 2015, p.62). The city-ness and essence of a city is, in my opinion, something that is organically formed, something that emanates from the inhabitants and their social, cultural and economic needs. Granted, in a hyper-connected and highly globalised era, inhabitants of cities are participants of systems nested within regional and global networks of interaction which are bound to influence their needs and ideas about city-ness. However, while influences of this sort are inevitable and unavoidable, I think that a decolonised notion of city-ness is one that is not entirely and uncritically based on narrow and overly generalised ideas. It is extremely heartening to learn that increasingly, people are responding and questioning the masterplans and mega-projects rolled out by their governments typified by “skyscrapers, government palaces (and) soccer stadiums” (Goldman, 63). It indicates that people are increasingly seizing their “right to the city” by being more participative, engaged and critical in the decision-making and planning process of their own cities.
In conclusion, to me, decolonising the imagination of city-ness means the transcending and abandoning of restrictive, Western-centric categories. It also demands and requires urban inhabitants to critically engage in the planning of their cities and constantly challenge universalising notions of city-ness as espoused by various sources such as the media and the global economic hierarchy.
Goldman, M. (2014). “Development and the City.” In Miraftab, F., & Kudva, N. (Eds.).Cities of the Global South Reader. Routledge: p.54-65.
Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books.
Nandy, A. (2005). The Intimate Enemy. Delhi: Oxford University Press, p.ix-xx.
Robinson, J. (2002). Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International journal of urban and regional research, 26(3), p.531-554