Book recommendation: I really liked Gavin Shatkin’s Cities for Profit: The Real Estate Turn in Asian Cities

Info first: I am not paid to review books here, nor do publishers seek out my attention, nor do I sell advertising. I’m just hanging out here, talking about what I think.

Here is the cover, which I don’t love but as we know, that’s not the author’s fault. My problem is that it looks like a lot of other covers. I get why book designers do this for Los Angeles, and it’s not as though freeways can’t represent the Asian megacities. But it just makes the book more generic than it is.

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It’s available from Cornell University Press, in paperback (still speedy, but much better than the hardback), and it’s definitely worth a look in your university library if you can find a copy.

Shatkin is a terrific writer and thinker, and in this book he discusses the “real estate turn” in Asian cities with a focus on mega projects in Jakarta, Kolkata, and Chongqing. I didn’t keep track of the number of projects he discusses in each of these cities, but it’s quite a few, so much so that I had to make a little graph to keep track of them. As it is, he finds a lot of common factors across these projects, and one of the most notable is the cities’ willingness to change the value of land underneath people and shake them off it like grains of sand from a beach towel (my characterization, not his, which is much more careful).

In particular, Shatkin highlights the governing dynamics of urban very large planned urban developments (what some of us call MegaProjects). When these cities seek major redevelopment, they aren’t mucking around: the Bukit Jonggol Asri development in just south of Jakarta comprised of 30,000 hectares, which was about half the size of Jakarta’s entire geographic footprint at the time.

Shatkin’s story is one about economic elites controlling city developments agendas in new, brash ways, with CEO politicians driving the decision-making. We’ve always had giant-ego CEOs extending their leadership into city-making and planned urban developments. They are always the smartest boy urbanist in any room. This is different, however, from PUDs of the past, notably for their displacement and market dominance potential.

One case study, Magarpatta City, Shatkin portrays as a qualified success in presenting an alternative model to corporate control over vast swaths of urban land. Instead, a collective of farming families there worked ahead of the development they could see coming from the growth of the Pune, a big IT center. But Shatkin asks the key question: is this model replicable? And the answer is likely no. The families are far from impoverished peasants: they are instead a group of market-dominant, related families who wielded significant political and economic power through Pune’s sugar industry. This is a story about elites swapping horses with other elites instead of what has appeared throughout the rest of the urbanizing globe: step 1 take from poor people based on some modernization or modernization rationale, step 2 build, baby, build; step 3 watch the money fall into specific pockets.

For students reading, please pay attention to his methods. The key to rigor in qualitative research is triangulating evidence from multiple sources, if you can possibly do so. Here are Shatkin’s sources:

interviews, site visits, government and nongovernmental organization reports and data,plans, architectural renderings, annual reports and promotional materials from developers, and newspaper and other media accounts.

And while he’s not strict or tedious about triangulating, he does fine. He’s got the receipts, as they say.