‘Double Dividends’ from better urban management in the Pacific

By Pacific Region Team on Wed, 19 February 2014

Written by Allison Woodruff, urban development specialist, Pacific department

A new report by Asian Development Bank (ADB), Moving from Risk to Resilience: Sustainable Urban Development in the Pacific, argues that efforts to improve urban management in the Pacific can improve both the quality of life in the region’s cities and towns and, at the same time, build greater resilience to natural hazards and climate change-induced events.  

A total of 20% of the Pacific region’s population lives in urban centers. However, the inclusion of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste in the report, with their large and predominantly rural populations, gives a distorted picture of the existing situation in many of the region’s smaller countries.  For example in the Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, and Palau, at least 3 out of 4 residents are urban dwellers. Moreover, it is the largest countries, with mostly rural populations, which are quickly urbanizing.

Urbanization offers potential socio-economic benefits in the Pacific. Greater economies of scale in the provision of health and education services can result in higher returns on investment for scarce public resources. In addition, the concentration of people and commercial enterprises can result in more innovation and higher productivity levels to drive economic growth.

Governments in the Pacific, however, have struggled to accommodate the growing number of urban residents. Urbanization has been associated with a lack of access to, and poor quality of, basic services such as water supply, sanitation and solid waste. Part of the problem lies with the lack of proactive planning and management for urban growth. Underinvestment in roads and drainage means that urban infrastructure often serves populations which are many times larger than the number of people the infrastructure was designed to cater for, and lack of maintenance has resulted in a deterioration of service quality.

Most of the region’s cities and towns are located in hazard-prone areas such as low-lying floodplains or along the coast. Poor households are particularly vulnerable as they are more likely to be located in sub-standard housing on marginal lands such as mangrove swamps or steep hillsides with no access to basic services. Without measures in place to build resilience to current and future risks, more people and infrastructure will be put in harm’s way as these centers grow, resulting in rising emergency response and disaster reconstruction costs over time.

The ADB report shows that integrated urban development strategies may be used to improve urban living conditions, particularly among low-income households, and to build resilience to natural hazards and climate-related events. Risk-sensitive land use planning seeks to encourage development away from hazard ‘hotspots’ within urban centers to reduce the number of people, buildings and infrastructure that could be impacted by events such as tsunamis or future sea-level rise. High risk zones may instead be set aside as green space, such as parks.

Where it is not possible to completely steer development away from hazard zones, building codes which require homes to be constructed with minimum floor heights, or heightening existing infrastructure, can be used to mitigate the impacts of natural hazards such as flooding. ‘Climate-proofing’ of new infrastructure by ensuring design standards take into consideration future climate-related impacts, can not only increase access to urban services but also prolong the life of capital assets. Ecosystem-based adaptation measures, such as the replanting of mangroves to act as buffers against storm surges, offer a cost effective means of building urban resilience.

In implementing and promoting effective urban development strategies in the region, the report says, efforts should be made to secure buy-in from affected communities, in a participatory manner. This is because top-down planning schemes in a number of countries in the region have not been fully implemented due to opposition from landowners who view land use planning and other development controls as a challenge to customary land rights.

Adequate human and financial resources, access to data on natural hazard and climate change risks, as well as improved coordination amongst the various agencies involved in urban management and climate will certainly contribute to achieve sustainable, urban development in the Pacific region.