Asia’s Cities Growing Faster Than We are Improving Livability

A woman drinking unsafe water in a slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
A woman drinking unsafe water in a slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

By Renard Teipelke

Relative improvements on basic indicators of decent urban living conditions have been eaten up by the absolute population growth in Asian cities.

Asia has come a long way. While about a quarter of its population lived in urban areas in the late 1970s, now it is half. In the run-up to the New Urban Agenda to be finally agreed next week at the international Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, policy-makers have been discussing how to address the myriad of challenges that Asian cities face today, such as the wide-spread lack of infrastructure, rising inequality,  and aggravating climate change risks.

With governments also looking at the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, including No. 11 on sustainable cities and communities, discussions also circle around indicators to monitor progress.

However, we will be painting a false picture if we use the percentage increase or decrease in the various urban-related indicators. The reason for this is the big absolute population growth we are witnessing in cities – both from rural-urban migration and natural (demographic) population increase.

A decent urban life requires some basic infrastructure and services. Although perspectives may differ, secure housing and access to electricity, water, and sanitation are among the essentials. In relative terms, Asia looks to have performed resoundingly well over the past 15 years. Numbers show progress on shifting residents out of slums, and providing them access to electricity, and safe water and sanitation facilities (see Table 1 and 2).

So far so good, you would think.

Table 1: Changes in urban population 1990-2014

Source: UN-Habitat State of the World’s Cities 2016. Note: For list of countries, see source Table A.1 and B.2 on pp. 196-200, 203.

In fact, these relative improvements have not decreased the number of residents living in poor conditions. Urban population growth since 1990 added roughly 1 billion new urban residents to Asian cities. This has resulted in close to 100 million more slum dwellers throughout the region in that time despite percentage figures showing relative improvements, like South Asia having slashed the share of slum dwellers among the urban population by more than a quarter since 1990. Yet, all this good work by governments and others were not enough to manage rapid urbanization that added nearly 300 million people to South Asian cities and increased the absolute number of slum dwellers from 181 million in 1990 to 191 million in 2014.

Table 2: Changes in basic urban infrastructure access from 1990 to 2012/2014

Source: World Bank Development Indicators 2016. Note: see report for list of countries per region.

With regard to access to basic urban services, countries in Asia have performed very well in providing electricity to urban residents, with both relative figures and absolute figures having dropped significantly, now reaching 90-100% in many countries.

East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific together added another 9 million since 1990 to their 25 million urban dwellers deprived of clean water. The picture is even more dire on lack of access to sanitation facilities, where another 82 million people in Asia were added, so now about 400 million urban dwellers still suffer health-threatening sanitation conditions.

Relative improvements, which happened across the board for these basic indicators of decent urban living conditions, have been eaten up by the absolute population growth in Asian cities. And the situation is not looking much better for the future. Asia’s percentage of urban population is estimated to increase from about a half now to two-thirds until 2050. This increase will result in more congestion, natural resource depletion, environmental degradation, stresses on public services, and exacerbated spatial segregation.

Improvements in urban development will require swifter action so that relative improvements are matched with absolute improvements. The above-mentioned figures only deal with the most basic urban infrastructure and services. But there is more to urban life and livability. A dynamic local economy and social inclusiveness are also key building blocks for cities to thrive as places where people want to live and work. Integrated efforts across sectors are needed to improve urban areas.

This has nothing to do with a bias toward urbanization or cities. This is a question of achieving development goals in absolute terms. With the vast majority of people living in urban areas, it will be there where progress can be made for the most people.