Can Asian Cities Lead the Way to a More Sustainable Future?

Kuala Lumpur skyline in Malaysia.
Kuala Lumpur skyline in Malaysia.

By Véronique Salze-Lozac’h

Cities have a huge responsibility in promoting the SDG objectives of better balance and integration among economic, social, and environmental goals in Asia and the Pacific.

Asia’s urban population is growing at an unprecedented rate. It took 130 years for London to grow from 1 million to 8 million, but Bangkok did it in 45 years, Dhaka in 37 years, and Seoul in only 25 years. Asia’s rapid urbanization—driven by entrepreneurial and commercial dynamism—has been pivotal for its stellar growth, but often to the detriment of urban environments. Increasingly, the environmental downside of urbanization, rather than its economic upside, is in the public eye. The issues of how cities can continue to be drivers of growth—in an environmentally sustainable way—is rising on the development agenda.

At a recent event on Cities and Middle-Income Countries in Singapore attended by development and urban practitioners from 18 countries, participants honed in on politics and governance, inclusion of the poor in urban development, quality of open spaces,, and the role of evaluation. Although there is no single prescription for all Asia’s cities, the dialogue opened up several approaches to the many challenges of urbanization. 

Historically, cities have been drivers of growth. No country has ever reached middle-income status without a significant population shift into cities. Rural-urban migration has always been about better economic opportunities and access to education, health, culture, and other services. Cities were the promise of a better life than the previous generation. Today, Asia’s cities still teem with energy and dynamism. They remain hubs that attract labor, entrepreneurs, investment and dreams. But nowadays, urbanization also means negative externalities like traffic congestion, pollution, high living costs, and urban decay.

Asian cities now face greater challenges, such as ensuring inclusive growth and remaining key drivers of upward economic and social mobility, while avoiding stagnation or the so-called middle income trap. The pattern of urbanization in Asia varies considerably, but its challenges tend to be common. Keeping Asia’s cities as catalysts of growth is vital, as cities generate about 75% of a country’s GDP and urban productivity surpasses 5.5 times the rural economy.

To minimize negative externalities, cities need to engage in long-term planning that goes beyond individual persons and tenures. Long-standing master plans enable investment prioritization, while carefully managing urbanization where benefits outweigh the costs. Also, strong political leadership is necessary, with a clear vision of development based on meaningful dialogue and partnerships. Complex urban challenges cannot be solved in isolation. All stakeholders need to work collaboratively to address and ensure real buy infrom all. In Manila, in the Philippines such shared efforts have transformed waterways like the Estero de Paco, providing a model for the metropolis. The concerted undertaking among the local government, residents, national agencies, international and private non-profit organizations were instrumental in bringing progressive change through education and awareness building, investments in wastewater facilities, and proper relocation of affected families.

Innovative thinking, including using new technologies, is another way for cities to perform better. With urban solutions increasingly becoming service-oriented as well as market- and people-driven, many cities are turning to information and communication technology, knowledge generation, and related channels to remain cutting-edge. In Indonesia, The Asia Foundation harnessed the social media surge to promote open data and open government with the creation of innovative apps like CityPlan (monitoring urban planning and development) and SMASH (cash for trash).

Leveraging networks not only within a country, but also regionally and globally, can facilitate exchanges of information and knowledge as well as spur innovative thinking. City networks can enable shared urban planning and development objectives among both mega and secondary cities, where about 60% of the population reside. This is particularly helpful in managing problems associated with inward migration, economic growth and private sector development, and providing crucial development linkages to rural areas. Collaboration also supports implementation of tested and effective policies such as sustaining entrepreneurial initiatives, especially in urban areas that lag behind.

No real progress can be achieved without infrastructure development. Old and inefficient infrastructure presents a myriad of problems. Air pollution in Beijing in the People’s Republic of China  and Mumbai, India is up to 8 times higher than the safe levels recommended by the World Health Organization. Traffic jams are already costing Asian economies 2%–5% of GDP annually due to lost working hours and higher transport costs. Furthermore, Asian cities are the most vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change. Verisk Maplecroft finds that 56 of the world’s 100 cities most exposed to natural hazards are in the Philippines, Japan, the People’s Republic of China, and Bangladesh. Green infrastructure can provide efficiency gains to reduce cities’ carbon footprint and increase resiliency to adverse climate events.

The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris agreement on climate change underscore the global community’s support to sustainable development. The SDGs offer cities an opportunity to play a more proactive role in realizing solutions, while helping their respective countries reach development targets. SDG No. 11 is pivotal to the success of all other SDGs on growth and jobs, education, health and social services, and environmental care.

Cities have a huge responsibility in promoting the SDG objectives of better balance and integration among economic, social, and environmental goals. This is a unique opportunity for Asian cities to play a leading role in the process, by forging solutions and leading change.