How Asia’s Cities Can Become More Livable After the Pandemic

Cities in Asia, such as Dhaka, in Bangladesh, are trying innovative solutions to make their cities more livable. Photo: Salman Preeom
Cities in Asia, such as Dhaka, in Bangladesh, are trying innovative solutions to make their cities more livable. Photo: Salman Preeom

By Bambang Susantono

Asia’s cities must become greener, more inclusive, more competitive, and more resilient to build forward better and be better places to live.

Today’s cities face many challenges. They include rapid urbanization, aging societies, infrastructure deficits, climate change and disaster risk. Well before COVID-19, many urban areas were already overcrowded, unsafe, and unhealthy. They provided the virus with a natural incubator. The poor and informal workers were particularly vulnerable, without financial means or access to formal social protection systems, such as those related to unemployment.

The pandemic has broadened our view of city resilience. The past 18 months has shown there is no “one-size fits all” solution or approach to a national pandemic response. So, in this new situation, how can cities not only “build back better” but “build forward better” and adapt to a new normal based on their specific circumstances?   

Here are six approaches to consider:

The first is greater inclusion to create an environment that provides opportunities for the most vulnerable. Cities are increasingly identifying the specific needs of women, the elderly, the poor, and people with disabilities. They are preparing programs that standardize core urban services for everyone, focus more sharply on social protection, and offer greater economic opportunities.

These programs include adequate resources as well as ways to monitor results. For example, a new housing project in Tamil Nadu, India, will provide climate-resilient housing in hazard-free settlements for about 6,000 urban households―with access to adequate services and job opportunities.

Second is to offer cities better urban services and infrastructure that use the best available technology, and provide digital solutions. Water utilities and other urban service providers across the region are taking steps to modernize. The Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority in Bangladesh now applies digital solutions and remote monitoring tools to improve the accessibility, quality, and reliability of urban services.

In Fiji, a blockchain-enabled digital platform is making customary land management more efficient, potentially boosting land-related tax collection, value capture, and planning. Earth observation and space-based technologies help cities in Bangladesh and Indonesia to strengthen environmental sustainability and resilience by identifying the best location and design for new infrastructure. This also fosters better urban planning and can remotely monitor historical and future climate impacts.

The third approach is to revisit urban planning systems to strategically incorporate lessons learned from the pandemic. Cities are developing an integrated, coordinated approach among government agencies, with participation of stakeholders in planning and implementation. For example, finding the optimum urban density for various land uses in a city-specific contexts can help to balance development.

The pandemic has broadened our view of city resilience.

In India, Delhi is preparing a long-term masterplan through 2041. Metros in Chennai and Bangalore use a transit-oriented development approach. A well-coordinated, integrated regional railway system between Delhi and Meerut is being developed. And transport corridors are being transformed into economic corridors along the east coast.

This helps cities plan for better resilience against future shocks by providing open public spaces and green corridors, and by creating affordable housing, especially for the poor, vulnerable, and returning migrant workers. Reviving sustainable tourism and risk-informed urban planning for low-carbon development, environmental protection, and disaster risk management are also priorities for most cities in the region.

Fourth, it’s important that cities strengthen their financial sustainability and build governance capacity. Cities face unprecedented financial challenges due to the pandemic. They need to maximize revenues and optimize expenditures to stabilize their budgets. And they need to adopt transparent, accountable, consistent, and coherent responses across all government levels when responding to shocks and stresses.

Involving community-based groups is essential for better service delivery―and ultimately for citizen capacity-building. Creating Investable Cities is a post-pandemic, cross-thematic and multi-sectoral initiative that helps cities increase their technical, financial, and managerial ability to develop quality municipal infrastructure, improve resource mobilization, and enhance competitiveness and resilience. Another initiative, Advancing Financial Sustainability for Asian Cities provides a comprehensive guide to maximizing revenues, and proposes private sector financing options.   

The fifth step cities must take is to build healthy and environmentally sustainable urban areas. Each city should develop principles that define how it can remain functional during crises. Many cities are now conducting health impact assessments, preparing age-friendly plans, and adopting systemic thinking on what constitutes a healthy and sustainable urban environment.

A healthy and age-friendly city needs improved health systems, such as community and home-based care and smart health platforms to streamline health, medical and care services. It also needs a network of green spaces, and multi-modal and inclusive urban transport systems particularly for the elderly and children.

This is happening in Bangladesh, where several cities are working to strengthen their health infrastructure, prevent infections, respond quickly, train people to act cautiously, and provide new testing and isolation centers to deal with the pandemic.  

Finally, cities must become more resilient, so they can absorb the shocks and stresses that accompany pandemics, disasters, and climate change. City authorities must think systematically about safety and resilience, and then mainstream these ideas into urban governance.

After the pandemic, cities will require climate-resilient delivery of core urban services, with effective disaster management and response plans in place. For example, better energy efficiency can reduce demand for conventional energy and increase access to heating and cooling for vulnerable groups.

Cities are finding ways to apply risk-sensitive land-use management, nature-based solutions, the circular economy, and low-carbon practices. The People’s Republic of China is creating so-called “sponge cities”―which integrate urban-rural water resources management with blue-green and gray infrastructure to improve water-related climate resilience and flood protection, and to mitigate drought. 

Urban infrastructure and services have struggled to keep up with Asia’s transformation over the past 50 years. But in today’s world―and to deliver a better world for future generations―falling behind is no longer an option.

To build forward better and be better places to live, the region’s cities must become greener, more inclusive, more competitive, and more resilient.