Housing Agenda in Inclusive Cities: The Experience from East Asia
Mike Douglass, University of Hawaii
The discussion begins by presenting a framework for housing in inclusive cities that is composed of 4 dimensions: participatory governance, distributive justice, conviviality, and environmental health. For housing to be fully embedded in an inclusive city, the concept of housing needs to be defined as more than a house, or dwelling, to include serviced land, neighborhoods, lanes, common/public spaces, and connectivity to larger urban spaces of associational life and livelihoods. It is more than a functional space; it also becomes integral for the conviviality of friendships and social identities, mutual help, and place-making beyond a dwelling. It also includes human relationships with the health of the natural environment. This conceptualization of housing allows for assessments of current as well as proposed modes of not only producing social and low-cost housing, but also of the city as a whole.
Modes of producing housing in East Asia vary substantially. Yet certain patterns can be observed. One is that for low-income households, self-provisioning laid the foundations of housing in most cities. From the 1970s, mass production of housing began a pattern of construction through the destruction of pre-existing middle- and lower-income neighborhoods, typically with negative impacts on the environment. In some cases, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, the state became the major housing provider. In others, large-scale private land and housing developers took central roles. Even in these cases, differences are striking. In Japan the result has been individual houses and low-rise apartments/condominiums; in Korea high-rise flats have replaced houses to such an extent that Seoul has earned the epithet, “apartment city.”
From the late 1980s three dynamics began to change modes of production and access to housing in East Asia. One is global neoliberalism, which began to transform “developmental states” into “neo-developmental states”, namely, from state command planning to a strong state engaged in public-corporate partnerships and privatization of public assets. The second dynamic, which applies to South Korea and Taiwan (and Japan), is the rise of civil society leading to electoral democracies. The third dynamic is accelerated urban transitions, which began in the late 1960s and reached completion by 2000. Together these dynamics led to pressures on government from civil society organizations to provide social housing in booming cities. Governments responded by turning to the corporate economy to provide housing under state regulations, including vouchers and subsidies for low cost housing. In most instances, these approaches coupled with the spatial polarization of population and national economies in very large cities, has boosted processes of gentrification through speculative housing investments as well. Social discontents about housing in cities were enmeshed in broader neo-developmental outcomes, namely, widening income inequalities, hollowing out of the middle class, precariatization of labor, welfare crises in aging populations, and curtailment of upward life trajectories for youth. Global climate change adds a daunting environmental dimension to the prospect of cities.
In the neo-developmental mode, cities were also being transformed from the idea of the city as a “theater of social action” to a landscape of privatized functions in support of hyper-competition among cities for global investment through large-scale land development that has reached scales of entire cities in the form of new towns, smart cities and eco-cities that have erased entire urban and natural landscapes. While mass housing has been produced, the city of small lanes, intimate neighborhoods of associational life – the tissue of the city of our heart’s desire – is replaced by corporate mega-projects serving global accumulation. The ultimate expression is “U(ubiquitous)-town” where housing is built atop mega-shopping malls with warrens of chain stores and global franchises. The point to be made is that social housing and the inclusive public city need to pursued hand-in-hand.
Over the past decade, more promising movements toward inclusive cities have appeared. The main elements of these newer possibilities are, first, devolution of state power to democratically elected local governments, and, second, the advent of “social elections” bringing greater participation of younger voters in electoral processes. The promise of these dynamics is a “democratic consolidation” toward “civic democracy”, namely, the active participation of city residents in the production of urban space and housing. If fulfilled, such a turn represents a fundamental change from resistance identities to project identities through citizen-local government collaboration and co-production of the city. Such a process of civil society-local state activation can advance the right to the city, including the right to dwell in the city. Where local governments are democratically elected, and devolution of state power to cities has also advanced to a point that accountable, progressive municipal governments are being elected, the results have been a new policy agenda with innovations learned with other cities around the world. Participatory budgeting, social economy, sharing city, community currency, revitalizing neighborhoods, micro-credit for neighborhood revitalization, self-help housing, open public markets, new public spaces, participatory art festivals, no car streets and complete streets, and urban food production are examples. In such a policy context, housing both contributes to and benefits from the social energy of an accountable, transparent process of local governance.
In composing strategies for social housing, care must be taken to avoid using the capital city as the only context. As populations decline in East Asia, the plight of vulnerable people in the capital city might for some time still be characterized as “snails without shells” (but with high vacancy rates nonetheless). But the remainder of the country more likely will be one of “shells without snails”, and access to housing will not be a matter of building new housing but rather of renovating and repurposing existing buildings. In all cities, housing strategies must also be cognizant of changes in the household. Aging populations, more people living alone, depopulation, and changing life chances between generations intersect in ways that call for innovations in housing to best provide for old and new forms of households in the turbulence of uncertain times. Co-living, share housing, inter-generational condos, matching “starving artists” with elder singletons, food gardens, and other innovations in reconstituting the house(hold) and the neighborhood are emerging in forms that speak to this need. Mass produced housing will not be able to do so. Instead, hope must be given to on-the-ground, multi-faceted approaches that emerge from an active civil society engaged in local processes of governance.