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Analysis: Asia's cities of opportunity

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An aerial view of Central Market in downtown Phnom Penh.

Asia's urban future is one of opportunity. Urbanisation, well-managed, is a chance to put our development paradigm on the right track – on a track that will result in inclusive and sustainable development for Asia and the Pacific. However, keeping to this vision, we are cognizant of the threats that urbanisation in the region brings.  Changing our development paradigm will not be easy. We must plan our path forward on a deeper understanding of the challenges to overcome.

The region’s response to managing and making our region’s cities livable for all was at the heart of discussions at the Fifth Asia-Pacific Urban Forum in Bangkok this past week. Organised by UN ESCAP, with opening addresses from Thailand’s Royal Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol and Prime Minister Mr Abhisit Vejajiva, the Forum brought together government ministers, mayors and city officials from across Asia and the Pacific together with representatives from 30 United Nations agencies and international organisations to discuss emerging urban issues and exchange innovative policies.  

There are four key urban challenges in Asia and the Pacific. The first challenge is the sheer scope and pace of urbanisation. Our cities are already home to 1.6 billion people. By 2025, the urban population in Asia and the Pacific will be 2.3 billion people. To put this figure in perspective: to provide jobs, housing, water, energy, transport, education and health infrastructure for a city the size of Melbourne – almost every month – for the next 15 years is a huge challenge.  

The second challenge facing our cities is unsustainable development. As a region, Asia and the Pacific have achieved spectacular economic growth and poverty reduction. Producing over 80 percent of the region’s GDP, cities have been at the forefront of this economic growth. However, this growth first strategy has come at a cost. Cities account for 67 percent of all our energy use, 71 percent of all our green house gas emissions and generate 300 million tonnes of solid wastes per year. Our people suffer from congested roads, energy and water shortages, and air and water pollution.

While coping with the impacts of unsustainable development, we are faced with the third challenge: that of climate change. Over 50 percent of Asia-Pacific’s urban residents live in low lying areas and are at risk from extreme weather events such as floods and typhoons. The frequency and intensity of climate related disasters will increase – affecting our economic, energy, water and food security. While natural disasters affect both the rich and the poor, it is the poor who suffer most because they do not have the assets to cope with risks and vulnerabilities.

The fourth challenge is most daunting: the urbanisation of poverty, manifested by slums and squatter settlements. Thirty five percent of urban residents of the region live in slums. Urban Asia includes persistent disparities in income as well as in access to services and opportunities. Without addressing this, the grievances that stem from these disparities will sap the hope we presently hold for our urban future.  

Despite these challenges, our vision for the future is one where cities are socially just and inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and increasingly, resilient to climate change and other shocks, while being the engines of economic growth.  

To get there, we need to reform urban planning and infrastructure design to make our cities compact and eco-efficient. We need to maximize the benefits of mass transit and transport systems. We need to invest in eco-efficient buildings and infrastructure, clean water, sanitation, waste management and smart energy grids.  

Secondly, we need to engage civil society and businesses to promote more sustainable life-styles.  The private sector needs to embrace the well-being of our people and our planet, while generating profits. Our prosperity must be shared.

Moreover, up-scaling of innovative solutions, green infrastructure technology and services will not only improve the lives of the poor, it could also turn them into pioneers of a low-carbon and sustainable future.

Lastly, we need to ensure that the poor have access to more secure housing and strengthen their ability to recover from disasters through community-based finance, micro-insurance schemes and social protection.

Adopting inclusive and sustainable development strategies will not be easy. It will require transforming the way we plan, manage and govern our cities. The governments of Asia and the Pacific, at both the national and local levels, can work to promote integrated approaches to urban governance and development.

We can make our cities livable places of shared prosperity, social progress, cultural vibrancy and knowledge and ecological sustainability. If we get it right in Asia Pacific, we get it right for two-thirds of humanity. And our children will inherit a promising future.

Dr Noeleen Heyzer is Under-Secretary-General of the UN and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

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