Resilient Peripheries: Rethinking Border Cities

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Studio Instructor

Calvin Chua


The current Covid-19 crisis has ground to a halt unfettered globalisation. Border crossings, once a fluid but regulated space for movement of people and goods have been shut. This has compelled governments and business owners to rethink localised forms of production networks and supply chain as a way to reduce exposure to external shocks and increase domestic resilience.

While border closures may be a protracted temporary measure, it nonetheless reveals intrinsic conditions of a border city. Typically designed as a zone to facilitate cross border movements and logistics, they are transitory spaces located in the peripheries of a region – comprising of large crossing facilities, industrial zones, etc – lacking any form of real urbanity.

In light of the current context, we will rethink and speculate strategies to transform the border city from its peripheral residual condition into a resilient node. A node that comprises of an integrated string of self-sufficient areas that can better respond to pressing challenges: cross-border logistics, foreign working population, food security, epidemic prevention, etc. In particular, a 4km x 4km border territory around the Singapore – Johor Causeway will be our test site.

Resilient Peripheries
The rethinking border cities brief is built upon the studio’s multiyear interest in exploring new typologies for urban peripheries in Asia.

Despite rapid urbanisation, the density, form and quality of urbanisation has been uneven, resulting in a centre versus periphery distinction. In contrast to the historic city centre with a form that is built upon layers of political, social and cultural history, the periphery comprises of new forms of ‘spatial products’ that escape traditional notions of a city, taking the form of office parks, data centres, favelas, suburbia, urban villages, etc.

Over the past few option studios, we have developed frameworks to reveal, question and redefine the productive nature of urban peripheries and their associated spatial products. From integrating agricultural villages within new knowledge townships in Guangzhou to connecting territories between planned High-Speed Rail stations and existing Malaysian towns, we explored new forms of architecture that can respond to these latent conditions in the peripheries.

For this semester, we will shift our focus from the issue of productivity to resilience. In particular, the ability of peripheries in responding to pressing urban challenges, ranging from disruptive economic transformation to combating health epidemics.

Causeway as a Border City
We will focus on a border city condition that is closer to home. The task of this studio is to develop a resilient urban strategy for a 4km x 4km territory between the northern border of Singapore and the southern border of peninsula Malaysia.

Despite more than 350,000 travellers crossing the causeway between Woodlands and Johor Bahru on a daily basis, the Causeway is a liminal peripheral territory made up of disparate agglomeration of utility infrastructure, industrial estates, gated residential communities, worker dormitories, farmlands, etc.

On the Singapore side, compared to the southern coast which is defined by a comprehensive future facing urban development strategy, the northern border edge – stretching from Sungei Kadut to Sembawang – does not match up to the same level of holistic vision. While the URA Master Plan 2019 outlines various strategic projects from an agritech hub to a health campus, there are still large plots of undefined reserved lands along the northern coastal edge.

On the Malaysia side, despite the presence of a historic centre, large immigration facilities have always render Johor Bahru’s historic centre as a transitory space. In recent years, the lack of urbanity is exacerbated by the rapid development of speculative gated residential compounds.

The task of this studio is therefore to redefine the cross-border condition between Singapore and Johor Bahru as a functioning resilient periphery. Rather than creating a new border city ex-novo based on ‘best planning practices’, can existing latent territorial and socio-economic conditions be evolved to become resilient territories? How can we tap on the double crossing of the Causeway and future Rapid Transit System (RTS) to create a functioning border city?

We will go beyond the typical real estate typologies of residential, commercial or mixed-use, and invent new self-sustaining spatial products and typologies that respond to urban resilience challenges: transitory working population, cross-border logistics, food security, epidemic prevention, etc.

Rather than piecemeal improvements to existing conditions, it is crucial to rethink urban strategies that reformulate socio-economic ecosystems. On the macro level, the project to develop a border city as a resilient periphery could potentially strengthen the regional ambitions of the Malacca Straits Diagonal or the SiJoRi regional Growth Triangle.


The semester will begin with a series of weekly sprint research on border cities, resilience, project site context and development frameworks. The goal is to compile a ‘Periphery Atlas’ in the form of a book and video to be presented after recess week, which will also serve as a reference document for the design phase of the semester.

Utilising the initial research, students will work in groups to formulate a design proposal for a selected sites within the 4km x 4km territory along either side of the Causeway. Working at multiple scales from 1:100 to 1:10000, the proposals should encompass a phased development strategy that is defined through specific architectural typologies, urban forms and territorial systems.

Studio Objectives

This studio encourages students to be designers, strategists and communicators simultaneously. Projects are not simply meant to provide an optimised solution but rather, to raise fundamental questions about the way we live amidst pressing urban challenges.

This studio also works in socially and geopolitically complex environments. Over the past years, we have collaborated with local governments, developers, research institutions. Likewise, for this semester, we will be interacting with various organisations, including Global Resilience Cities Network, Good City Foundation and thought leaders at various points during the semester. Open forums organised fortnightly will be held for students to present current research to invited guest reviewers.


This studio works at the intersection of architecture and urbanism. A strong project thesis should be accompanied by a strategic proposal that addresses issues of border cities and resilience through a phased development framework. Complementing the urban scale ambitions of the studio, project will be grounded through uncovering everyday banal micro infrastructures that may offer clues and solutions to macro-scale conditions.

While the final deliverable is still a set of architectural and urban proposals, there is a strong emphasis on narrative building and communication. We will embark on a series of group investigations during the research phase and work collectively towards a publication and short video as an output. There will also be a strong emphasis on drawings and representation as a way to design and to establish clarity in the project thesis and narrative.