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  • Author or Editor: Creighton Connolly x
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Governing Urban Transformations in Penang

Connolly uses ongoing urban redevelopment in Penang in Malaysia to provide stimulating new perspectives on urbanisation, governance and political ecology.

The book deploys the concept of landscape political ecology to show how Penang residents, activists, planners and other stakeholders mobilize new relationships with the urban environment, to contest controversial development projects and challenge hegemonic visions for the city’s future.

Based on six years of local research, this book provides both a dynamic account of region’s rapid reshaping and a fresh theoretical framework in which to consider issues of sustainable development, heritage and governance in urban areas worldwide.

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This chapter will explicate the landscape political ecology framework, as well as the attendant methodological approach developed alongside it. It is broken into six main sections. The first three provide the conceptual background underpinning the LPE framework developed in this book. The first of these discusses the conceptualization of landscape from a political ecology framework, before reviewing relevant literature on urban political ecology and how it allows us to understand contemporary processes of urbanization. The third section identifies the commonalities between these approaches that make create productive synergies when combined into an LPE framework. The subsequent three sections discuss how this approach is useful for understanding extended forms of urbanization, heritage and infrastructure, respectively, which are the primary themes running throughout the controversies being analysed in Penang.

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Chapter 3 analyses the spatial strategy for the George Town conurbation, which seeks to condense and centralize future urban development into the historic centres of George Town and Butterworth, on the mainland side of the state. The chapter adopts insights from ‘megapolitan’ political ecology approaches to examine the form of ‘regional urbanization’ envisioned in this plan, and in doing so, facilitates dialogue between urban political ecology and ‘planetary urbanization’ approaches to studying the contemporary explosion of urbanization processes. The chapter thereby maintains that cities are not discrete entities, but rather deeply interconnected to surrounding metropolitan environments through large-scale infrastructure networks, which are in turn promoted through state- and nation-making schemes. A further objective of the chapter is to highlight the discursive frameworks that have sought to develop new infrastructures, settlements, property markets and planning strategies to integrate – but also differentiate – communities within Penang’s wider urban fabric.

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This chapter examines controversies over the extensive urban redevelopment projects that have emerged since 2012, with a specific focus on the PTMP. Through examining this case, the chapter highlights key technologies of governance that are being used to counter neoliberal ‘global-city’ making strategies put forth by city managers which can have disastrous socio-ecological consequences for cities and their inhabitants. As I will show, the competing visions for Penang’s future rely on competing understandings and imaginaries of the landscape and reflect the ways in which citizens of the global south are resisting the aspirational and hegemonic visions of their future imposed by city leaders. The chapter thereby highlights key technologies of governance that are being used to counter neoliberal ‘global-city’ making strategies put forth by city managers which can have disastrous socio-ecological consequences for cities and their inhabitants.

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This chapter moves out to the hills of the city, to document the growing development pressures on Penang’s hills, which have been increasingly threatened by new development projects associated with the PTMP, including the PIL1 highway. It also discusses how the state government’s approach to the compounding effects of hillside development has been premised upon mitigation strategies to enable further development. It thereby points out the contradictions in Penang’s vision of becoming a ‘green and smart state’, by illustrating how this has acted as a facade to veil the continued degradation of the broader urban ecosystem through development. The chapter argues that it is important to move beyond concepts of resilience, which advocate the implementation of technology and engineering measures to adapt to, rather than resist, the environmental shocks associated with intensive urban development.

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Chapter 6 evaluates the potential of emergent urban environmental governance initiatives in Penang for achieving more socio-ecologically just forms of urban development, particularly with regards to its forested hillsides. It demonstrates how invocations of Penang’s rich natural heritage are often framed alongside urban and cultural heritage in local resistance to ongoing development projects on the island. In particular, the chapter focuses on Penang Hill, which is the most well known of Penang’s hills, and is a symbol of the island’s history, heritage and identity. In doing so, the chapter seeks to highlight the potential of urban heritage research in contributing to sustainable development initiatives through the integration and conservation of cultural and natural components of heritage landscapes. It also seeks to highlight the integration of cultural and natural forms of heritage and landscape as an important focus for UPE scholarship.

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Chapter 7 considers the spate of large-scale land reclamation projects that are are now proliferating along Penang’s coastlines as a means of financing infrastructure projects for the state. The chapter relates these projects to wider reclamation that has been taking place across much of peninsular Malaysia in recent decades at increasingly greater scales, and questioning the socio-environmental costs of such development. In contextualizing these transformations and their proliferating scale of development, the chapter will also make reference to large-scale Chinese-funded land reclamation schemes taking place in other parts of Malaysia and East Asia more broadly, while questioning the sustainability and feasibility of these projects. As such, though the chapter is focused on Penang, the analysis will have relevance for other rapidly urbanizing and developing cities in the Asian region and beyond.

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The concluding chapter uses the case of Jerejak Island, which is a small, uninhabited island off the southeastern coast of Penang, to reflect on the key themes discussed in the book. The island has been the subject of various competing plans – either for development or conservation – in recent years. While, nothing has yet come of these, it is suspected that the island will be developed, which may be an omen for the future of Penang Island as a whole, despite the plethora of grassroots research and advocacy done to protect it. Nonetheless, the creativity of urban governance processes in Penang provide important lessons for urban practitioners and activists more broadly, in their search for integrative ways of managing and (re)shaping the built environment of their cities.

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This chapter introduces the main themes covered in the book, including the landscape political ecology (LPE) framework, and how it helps to make sense of the type of controversies taking place in Penang. It also provides important scholarly context for the Penang case study, situating the book within earlier research on Penang and Malaysia in the urban studies literature. In particular, the chapter discusses the challenges that Penang’s urban centre of George Town has faced in balancing its considerable built heritage with its urban redevelopment aspirations over the past three decades. This tension is linked to broader aspirations at the national level with regards to modernization and urban development. Finally, the chapter introduces the significant civil society sector in Penang, and how they have shaped urban governance in the city-region.

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