On October 20th I participated in the launch of James Cook University’s new Tropical Urban Design Lab (TUDlab). The launch was both intellectually engaging and great fun. It included keynote presentations by Chuck Wolfe (author of Seeing the Better City), and Richard Briggs (http://richardbriggs.com.au), as well as a Seeing the Better City Masterclass in the Cairns CDB.


More information on the Lab can be seen here: https://www.jcu.edu.au/TUDLab


As some of you may know, the tropics is home to nearly half the world’s population, has rapid population growth forecast, and significant economic and social inequality.


The focus of our new TUDLab is on developing research and design capability in areas related to urbanisation in the Tropics.  We assist the development industry, governments and non-government organisations by providing insights to the most effective and appropriate solutions for urban areas to address the key challenges facing the tropical world. Our aim is to pull together the capacity and multidisciplinary expertise of James Cook University research through links to local governments and industry — thus bridging academic knowledge and real-world planning and design endeavours.


As part of the TUDLab founding team, I am working on two research projects under the thematic heading of ‘inclusive urbanism’. 


The first project is titled High-Speed Transformations: Urban Change in Least Developed Asia. This project critically interrogates processes of urban change in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. As UN-categorised ‘Least Developed Countries’, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are home to some of the world’s most vulnerable and impoverished communities. Yet, all three countries are also amongst the 10 fastest growing economies. Boasting urbanisation rates significantly above both the global average and the East Asia and the Pacific average (Laos’ urbanisation rate is the 20th fastest in the world), rapid urbanisation is bringing dramatic socio-economic upheaval, livelihood change, and complex new processes of inclusion and exclusion. As China advances its Belt and Road initiative – and as South-South cooperation brings new aid and investment flows from a range of partners – such transformations are set to accelerate in coming years. Through multi-sited in-country fieldwork, desk-based research, diverse stakeholder engagement, and comparative analysis, this project seeks to determine:How the politics of urban development are unfolding in Southeast Asia’s Least Developed CountriesWho the leading actors driving urban change areHow ‘development’ is being framed and understood within urban environments of disparate space and scale, andWho most benefits or is disadvantaged by current processes of urban change.In coming to answer these questions, the project seeks to uncover new processes for more inclusive and environmentally sustainable urban development.


The second project is a collaborative project between myself, Associate-Professor Lisa Law, and Dr. Silvia Tavares. This project is titled Urbanism and Inclusion: Designing for the Tropics.Through comparative analyses across the tropical world, this project employs a multidisciplinary and mixed-methods approach to explore the politics of design in creating ‘Cities for All’. As much as 95% of future urban expansion over the coming decade is expected to take place within the Global South. This rural-urban transition presents a number of challenges – and enormous opportunities – for poverty alleviation and socio-economic development. More than 800 million people worldwide already live in slum settlements and this figure is projected to increase in coming years. This project seeks to consider how the politics of design shape processes of inclusion and exclusion.