Busting the myths of urbanization and sustainability in Asia-Pacific

By Lean Alfred Santos 19 April 2016

A busy intersection in Bangkok, Thailand. An additional 1.4 billion people will be living in Asia's cities by 2050 on top of the existing 1.6 billion in 2010. Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Cities in the Asia-Pacific region need sustainable and integrated urban solutions to cope with a sharp rise in urbanization, development specialists say. An additional 1.4 billion people will be living in Asia's cities by 2050 on top of the existing 1.6 billion in 2010. That translates to 44 million more people being added to urban centers every year or 120,000 new city dwellers each day, according to data from the Asian Development Bank.

Cities are already feeling the strain. As urban migration has skyrocketed, the livability of many cities in the region has degraded rapidly, particularly in what experts call the three e’s: environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness and social equity in development.

“As a citizen, we all want to live in cities that has clean land, clean air and clean water,” Sonia Sandhu, senior adviser at the Asian Development Bank, told Devex. “These [three e’s] are the key ingredients in how we make sure that our dialogues and communication, project design, and investment plans [are sustainable and integrated].”

Accommodating new urban residents will be a gargantuan task, and experts say it will only be possible if sustainability is taken seriously. Urbanization brings rising household consumption, an increased demand for city services, the depletion of natural resources, increasing levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing vulnerability of these cities to natural hazards and risks from climate change, a recent report co-authored by Sandhu found.

Just one example of the scale of the challenge: the ADB expects cities will need to build more than 20,000 new housing units, 250 kilometers of new roads and 6 megaliters (6 million liters) of potable water daily by 2050.*

Unlocking the three e’s is vital, the report argues. It also calls for an additional component — “enablers” — a term meant to emphasize the importance of partnering with people on the ground to form effective policy and implementation.

Adjusting perceptions and behavior will also be key to meeting the challenge. Sandhu and Ramola Singru, urban development specialist at the Manila-based institution, want to debunk many of the myths surrounding urbanization, to help policymakers, city planners, and residents design sustainable policies. They told Devex what the biggest misperceptions are.

1. Urbanization is bad.

Urbanization, per se, is not bad, Sandhu said. The influx of people is only a burden when the cities are not prepared to accommodate a surge in residents. Planning and preparation are very important.

“Urbanization is happening, as much as climate change is happening. So rather than calling it good, bad or ugly, let’s just face it,” she said. “Urbanization has to be dealt with … that’s the role of leadership and governance.”

2. Going “green” is expensive and time-bound.

Going “green” at the city level can be cost effective. Singru studied various cities in Asia and found that going green — reducing emissions and boosting renewable energy sources — is actually very affordable. Technology and scale have lowered the costs.

“It’s really not that expensive if planned and budgeted right,” she said. “There are ways to do it,” for example through public-private partnerships and investments as well as foreign and multilateral assistance.

3. A city has to be rich to be beautiful and sustainable.

A city does not have to have a booming economy to aim for sustainable urban management and planning. Sustainability and improved livability can be achieved at any point of a city’s development, including at a low-income level, Sandhu said. “The most important thing is you can start small,” she said. “You don’t need to do everything at the same time. It’s about cumulative build up [especially] on a mindset change.”

4. Urban planning is best left to city planners and administrators.

While it is easy to think that urban planning and management are the purview of technical experts and policymakers alone, creating a sustainable and livable space is the responsibility of everyone. Grass-roots partnerships and engagement is essential for people to have “confidence in the governance system” and lead to teamwork and collaboration for everything to work, Sandhu said. “Partnerships make a difference.”

5. Urban planning is best done with a clean slate. 

The idea that cities can have a “clean slate” — and must have one to go sustainable — is wrong, the two urban experts said. It’s also usually impossible, Sandhu points out, except in the few cities created from scratch, such as has happened in some areas in China.

City officials, planners and development stakeholders have to work with the existing conditions and learn how to make interventions at different phases of the city’s development. “There are no planner or city manager who will say, ‘here’s a piece of land so let’s build our city. Nobody is building Sim City here,” she said.

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*Update, April 19, 2016: This article has been updated to clarify that the ADB expects cities will need to build more than 20,000 new housing units, 250 kilometers of new roads and 6 megaliters (6 million liters) of potable water daily by 2050.

About the author

Lean 2
Lean Alfred Santos@DevexLeanAS

Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.


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