UCRSEA Co-Investigator Richard Friend (Environment Department, University of York, UK) and Co-Director Pakamas Thinphanga(Thailand Environment Institute) have a co-authored chapter in the recently released book Handbook of Cities and the Environment. Their chapter, “Urbanization, climate change, and regional integration in the Mekong,” provides an overview of the interconnected relationship between urbanization, globalization and climate vulnerability in the Mekong region.
As Friend and Thinphanga note, urbanization in the Mekong region is “unfolding at a pace and scale never previously witnessed.” In terms of urban growth, Laos and Thailand respectively have the two highest annual rates of change in the world. Along with this rapid urbanization comes new challenges of urban poverty and increased economic vulnerability to climate shocks as Mekong countries become increasingly dependent on industrial and urban zones clustered in vulnerable areas such as coastlines and floodplains bordering major rivers.
Drawing on perspectives grounded in political economy and social ecological systems (SES), Friend and Thinphanga state: “urbanization and globalization produce new fault-lines of risk and vulnerability beyond the boundary of any one particular city.” Ultimately, “at the heart of urbanization are critical governance challenges related to the meaning and direction of development, and the rights of citizens to participate in decision-making processes.” Urbanization in the Mekong has historically occurred “against a backdrop of critical gaps in policy and planning,” enabling unchecked development that follows the demands of global capitalism and ignores the consequences to both the environment and local communities or those suffering from urban poverty.
In order to address these challenges, Friend and Thinphanga argue that we not only need better methodological tools to understand the transformations happening around us, but that creating space for informed public dialogue and “alternative narratives of urban futures” is crucial. Working together to address these challenges ultimately means confronting fundamental questions of “what kind of society we want to live in.”