Using the 3 Es to Make Asia’s Cities Livable

City workers landscaping public spaces around the embankment in Vinh Yen, Viet Nam.
City workers landscaping public spaces around the embankment in Vinh Yen, Viet Nam.

By Sonia Chand Sandhu, Ramola Naik Singru

Through the GrEEEn Cities approach we can realize sustainability and resilience to transform the way our cities are planned and managed.

Sustainability and resilience were on the lips of most policymakers and activists at last year’s COP21 climate talks in Paris. We need to translate that into action on the ground in cities in Asia.

Cities drive economic growth and social development, but are facing urgent challenges. Rapid population growth is putting pressure on urban services and infrastructure, so residents have unequal access and therefore don’t benefit equally from urban economic growth. City dwellers are caught up daily in massive traffic jams; air and water quality is compromised; and climate change is bringing increased risks—and costs—of natural disasters.

We believe that by addressing the economy, the environment and equity simultaneously, city managers and urban practitioners can apply the broad concepts of sustainability and resilience to ensure livable cities. We call this the ‘3 Es’ of GrEEEn Cities.

This means no more business-as-usual where government departments work in silos with individual sector responsibility such as water supply, waste management or roads, where each department budgets and implements their projects independently. Instead, it means interagency coordination that brings efficiency gains and joint short-, medium- and long-term actions that consider the 3Es.

Moreover, this must be a demand-driven process through consensus building. After all, a city is what its citizens make of it. Their vision, thus, becomes the logical starting point to enable integrated urban development towards livable cities.

ADB’s GrEEEn Cities Initiative has piloted this “people-first” approach of integrated urban development through GrEEEn City Action Plans (GCAPs) in eleven cities in five countries. But each city requires a context-specific vision and set of actions. Take for instance Viet Nam.

In the northern Vietnamese city of Vinh Yen, city dwellers envisioned living in an eco-satellite city within the metropolitan Ha Noi region. They wanted a focus on green business, tourism and leisure services alongside an education hub. They also prioritized enhancing Vinh Yen’s unique selling point, the Dam Vac Lake, which serves as a central natural attraction for the resorts located around it. As such, the GCAP recommended actions including dredging the lake to make it cleaner; surrounding it with a system of parks and trees, making space for local businesses and leisure activities along the lakefront; and improving the wastewater system for previously unserved areas of the city.

Meanwhile in Hue in central Viet Nam, the GCAP focused on the UNESCO-recognized Citadel, a residential neighborhood as well as an income-generating tourist hotspot. To make the most of it, citizen groups and the government discussed and prioritized actions such as dredging the Citadel’s moat and canals, building embankments and drainage, and making pavement improvements in four wards of the Citadel. They are using low-carbon transport options such as electric pedicabs. These would all make the area more attractive for tourists, increase income for local businesses (economy), reduce impacts from seasonal flooding (environment), and improve urban services and infrastructure for citizens (equity).

We find a third model in northern Viet Nam in the small provincial capital of Ha Giang. There, a discussion about traditional flood control techniques resulted in the design of much-needed integrated river embankments. Originally, the city government favored concrete embankments. However, taking into account the GrEEEn Cities perspective on urban flood resilience, decision makers opted to integrate natural features into the embankment, and use the top of the embankments as a linear park. This will help Ha Giang combine different needs, like improving resilience to recurring flashfloods; extending the green open spaces for residents and visitors; and using limited financial resources more efficiently through multiple-action projects.

In short, through GrEEEn Cities we can realize the concepts of sustainability and resilience to transform the way our cities are planned and managed.