Michael Leaf


Professor Emerit

Michael Leaf is a Professor Emeritus of SCARP, as well as the former Director of the Centre for Southeast Asia Research (CSEAR), a constituent part of UBC's Institute of Asian Research.

The focus of his research and teaching has regarded urbanization and planning in cities of developing countries, with particular interest in Asian cities. Since his doctoral research on land development in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dr. Leaf has been extensively involved in urbanization research and capacity building projects in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, China and Sri Lanka.

Major Areas of Expertise

Analysis and planning for societies in the midst of their urban transitions, with particular attention to cases in Asia. 

Focusing on societies in the middle of their historic shifts to becoming urban – which not incidentally are in those countries conventionally labeled as “developing countries” – challenges dominant notions of sustainability, as the inherently transitional nature of such societies generates very different visions of “what is to be sustained” when compared to those societies which have already completed their shifts to urbanism. The Asian focus of my work is driven by a number of concerns beyond my own personal interest in the region: that examining such changes as are associated with urban transitions is enormously consequential for the people of the region, who in aggregate represent a large portion of the world’s population; that changes within the region have substantial effects on the rest of the world, including Canada and Vancouver; and that focusing on issues of urbanization and development in one part of the “developing world” can bring comparative understanding to bear on the broader concerns of the field of “international development planning” as conventionally understood and taught.

Local regulatory structures and practices and the persistence and reproduction of “informality” and “informalization.” 

Planning as a form of conscious intervention for societal or environmental betterment is generally couched in an understanding of the crucial relation between state and society, or governance, generally speaking. In comparative analysis throughout the erstwhile developing world, one finds a variety of local governance forms and practices that challenge the presumptions of the objective rule of law, indicate the persistence of alternative rule systems, and have critical implications for social exclusion and citizen involvement in local decision–making. Concern for informality, a term used to refer to a range of practices, links into issues of urban poverty, migration, rural–urban linkages, the potential for local economic development, and the local political economy of development. Situating such inquiry in an international comparative framework helps us to understand the implications of globalization – economically, socially, and institutionally – in shaping local outcomes and opportunities.

Infrastructure and urban environments in developing countries. 

We know from our experience both historically and in the present day that the dense spatial concentration of human activities (i.e. urbanization) tends also to concentrate the effects of environmental degradation. This tendency is sharply accentuated in the cities of developing countries today, because of the scale of urbanization and the nature of current technological change. Discussions of urban infrastructure are usually couched in terms of urban services and the provision of public goods, yet infrastructure is also vitally important in environmental terms, for public investment in infrastructure is one of the two means by which governments intervene for the betterment of the urban environment (the other method being regulation). An emphasis on the environmental dimensions of urbanization in poor societies advocates for greater attention to an environmental “brown agenda” in addition to the more conventional focus on the “green agenda.” 

Michael, speaking into a microphone
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