The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

ASEAN’s New Towns: Housing the Middle-Class Urbanity through Rural Dispossession

Posted in ASEAN-Canada Partnership by NTSblog on June 3, 2013

Half of ASEAN’s 600 million people now live in urban areas, a figure expected to continue to increase in the coming decades. To accommodate this rising urban population, public planning agencies throughout the region encourage a rapid—but controlled—expansion of urban activities, built forms, and populations into the urban hinterland. While this strategy is not new in the region, it is changing with the widespread adoption of planning policies favouring the construction new so-called new towns; i.e.; large-scale, planned, suburban redevelopments geared towards middle and upper-middle-class urban households.

While they contribute to accommodate growing urban populations and while they benefit various real estate economic actors, these large residential redevelopments put intense pressure on pre-existing populations, who must adapt to rapid socio-spatial changes. At the urban periphery of Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok and, more recently Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, new town developments entail forced acquisitions of large tracts of land, the displacements of populations, a profound land and housing market restructuring, and the afflux of suburbanizing dwellers into erstwhile rural places.

The capacity of pre-existing populations to adapt to these profound social, economic and spatial transformations is limited. Land expropriations, in particular, have been shown to disrupt the everyday life, social networks and livelihoods of erstwhile agrarian households. While many households on the edge of large Southeast Asian cities have already diversified their livelihood into off-farm activities, a significant proportion continues to depend on agricultural land. Despite land compensations, the most vulnerable segment of this population (women, the elderly and the less educated) struggle to find adequate livelihood alternatives once they are dispossessed of the land on which they sustained their living.

The negative effects of land dispossessions are worsened by the exclusionary designs, amenities and management styles of ASEAN new towns. Physical barriers, such as poor road connections or guarded gates, limit movement between the new and old periurban places and this, in turn, restrains social and economic interaction between incoming suburban dwellers and pre-existing periurban households.

Moreover, newly built amenities and services in periurban residential developments (schools, medical clinics, community centres, etc.) are often privately managed and, given the concomitant high fees these charge, are generally out of reach for the poorer population. In some cases, this socio-spatial segregation is reinforced by surveillance mechanisms that prevent periurban villagers and migrants from practicing traditional urban economic activities (e.g., street vending) and from using public spaces in the new suburban neighbourhoods.

Throughout the ASEAN, the construction of new towns tends to marginalize populations living on the peripheries rather than providing them an entry point into the urban economy. Weak physical and functional linkages and limited opportunities for socio-economic interaction result in the gradual fragmentation of periurban landscapes, economies and populations. This lack of integration widens social gaps between wealthier suburbanizing dwellers and the thousands of villagers and domestic migrants “left behind” by the urban encroachment process.


This blog post has been written by Danielle Labbe. Danielle is Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Montreal and a Junior Fellow for 2012 under the ASEAN-Canada Research Partnership. For more information on the ASEAN-Canada Research Partnership, please click here.


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