Sunday, 19 June 2011

Urban Decay Phenomena in South East Asian Cities

Ultimately, all cities are in a state of continuous transformation and experience periods of growth and decline, both of which lead to transformation of urban space from one economic and social use to another. Transformation put these cities continually in the process of becoming larger, smaller, better, or worse—in one way or another, different than they were in the past. This process of continual transformation occurs partly in response to the political, social, economic, and industrial changes as cited by Middleton (1991). Decay of inner urban space often occurs within the context of such transformation. According to Clark (1989), inner urban decay, crime, racial tension, riots, mass unemployment, and falling standards in the provision of urban services are some of the more obvious and disturbing indicators of a general and deep-seated deterioration in the social, economic, political, and financial fabric of a city. Middleton (1991) points out that such decay leads to out-migration of younger and more skilled members of urban populations as they seek employment elsewhere. The result is that, the population trapped in inner-city areas tends to mainly comprise single parents, unskilled workers, and elderly persons.

Urban decay is the process whereby a previously functioning city, or part of a city, falls into disrepair and decrepitude (Grogan & Proscio, 2001). Urban decay is akin to the lingering death of a place, in which socioeconomic conditions evolve and opportunities may disappear for the citizens of the place to survive the transformation. Consequently, many people are forced to disassociate themselves from the place and leaving it in a state of disrepair. Urban decay occurs when a part of a city falls into disrepair and abandonment.  Features of a decaying urban place can be in the form of deindustrialization, high unemployment rates, high crime rates, depopulation, desolate-looking landscapes, abandonment of buildings and poor infrastructure. Another characteristic of a decaying urban place is blight – the visual, psychological, and physical effects of living among empty lots, buildings and abandoned houses. Such desolate properties are socially dangerous to the community because they attract criminals and street gangs, contributing to the volume of crime. Urban decay does not have one single cause, but rather a combination of many, including poor urban planning, redlining, poverty, suburbanization and lack of political will to maintain the area into being a decent place to live in. Most of these factors arise as a result of imbalanced socioeconomic conditions, which led to the scarcity of job and economic generator opportunities, thus making most citizens to move away in search of new opportunities. The few citizens who are left behind may compete for scarce opportunities, and seek to draw welfare benefits. This phenomenon inevitably resulted in broken and selfish communities.

Most urban centers in South East Asian countries with market-based economies are often provided with a disproportionate state allocation of human and financial resources. Furthermore, population growth and increasing affluence generated demands for rapid physical expansion of these areas (Lim, 1998). However, most of these urban centers are still not able to accommodate such demands, thus causing unregulated growth and expansion. Where land and financial resources are not well allocated, slums and squatters exist, and led to urban decay. An ideal and healthy city should provide its inhabitants with sufficient space and service. The ratio of space provided should be in balance with the number of the populations. Linkages of places through the provision of good and reliable transportation and public services is important, and the most important function of a good city is to provide the best possible environment and quality of life for everyone who is living and working there. However, this ideal city is rarely found in most South East Asian countries due to many reasons. Such reasons include:

1.     Settlement problems due to the lack of efficiently allocated space and concentration of the population.
2.     Increasing informal sectors, which resulted in influx of low skilled migrants to the city center.
3.     Poor allocation and maintenance of public services and infrastructures.
4.     Wasteful new developments that is not responsive to the real needs of the city’s inhabitants. (i.e. over development of gigantic shopping malls, developments on gazetted public and green areas, etc.)
5.     Inefficient water and waste management systems.
6.     Unsuitable planning policies that fully adopted Western models without any alteration and improvisation to suit local contexts.
7.     Unregulated modification of the built environment that does not respond to the behavioral patterns and culture of the local community.
8.     Weakness in political will and implementation of by-laws and regulations.

In most cases in South East Asian cities, modern developments have transformed historic urban centers into fragmented building blocks that disregard the unique townscape of the place. Sites of dilapidated buildings have been the target for new buildings and often are mediocre in design quality, which fail to respond to the sense of place and its surrounding context. From previous literatures, urban regeneration also includes various definitions that emphasize on different aspects of it. In general terms, it is defined as “a comprehensive and integrated vision and action, which leads to the resolution of urban problems, and which seeks to bring about a lasting improvement in the economic, physical, social and environmental condition of an area that has been subjected to changes” (Roberts, 2000).  Roberts also classified major aims of urban regeneration into the following five elements:

1.     The relationship between the physical conditions of urban space and social deprivation.
2.     The need to attend to matters of housing and health in urban areas.
3.     The attractiveness of linking social improvement with economic progress.
4.     The containment of urban growth.
5.     The changing role and nature of policy.

*Photos above showing the state of decay around the area of Jl. Jenderal Sudirman in Bandung, Indonesia (taken June 2011).

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