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Monday, April 6, 2015, 18:32

Mega challenges

By CORNELIA ZOU in Hong Kong
Mega challenges
A street market in Vientiane. The Laotian capital, once famous for its relaxed approach to business and life, is now facing problems linked to rapid urbanization, such as traffic congestion. (Photo / AFP)

The rapidly growing cities in Asia Pacific are at a critical juncture, facing a choice between becoming global examples of urban sustainability or buckling under the weight of pollution, congestion and work-driven lifestyles.

Developing megacities like Jakarta, Manila and Bangkok and more developed ones like Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul all face a host of challenges of economic and environmental sustainability as well as the quality of life of hundreds of millions of city dwellers.

For instance, Vientiane, one of the least-developed cities in the region, is famous for its relaxed approach to business and life. However, this relaxed way of life in the capital of Laos, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, is now changing.

Until recently, people in Vientiane spent an average of 15 minutes traveling to work. However, development and growth, devoid of careful planning, have now led to poor traffic conditions and congestion. Presently it takes about an hour for most people in the city to reach their jobs.

Similar issues plague other cities in Southeast Asia; cities that are growing rapidly by almost every metric including the number of people that live in them, the number of buildings that house those people, the number of cars and buses and trains that take them to work and the number of offices and factories that provide jobs for them.

But, as they grow and develop, these cities have an opportunity to be as sustainable as possible.

Southeast Asia is home to some of the largest cities in the world. Jakarta is the second largest built-up urban area in the world with 30 million people, according to estimates in Demographia World Urban Areas, an annual report that considers population, land area and population density in its rankings.

Manila comes in fifth with more than 22 million. Few cities in the West are that large. Only New York, Mexico City and Sao Paulo make the top 10. More than half of the cities in the world with more than 500,000 people are in Asia, by far the largest global concentration.

The second largest number of big cities is in North America, which has about 14 percent of the global total. Asia is home to 56 percent.

Most of the larger cities in Southeast Asia are crowded, polluted, often dirty and rarely sustainable in the way most people understand the term.

“I do not like the term ‘sustainable city’, because I believe that cities as such cannot be sustainable, except perhaps in some utopian or dystopian future,” says Yap Kioe Sheng, honorary professor at the school of planning and geography at Cardiff University, and author of the 2012 book Urbanization in Southeast Asia: Issues and Impacts.

“The ecosystem on which a city relies for its functioning is much larger than the city as such,” Sheng says. “That ecosystem needs to be sustainable, but in many respects that ecosystem covers the entire planet … City size also needs to be seen within the context of economic development. Except for Singapore, all Southeast Asian cities are in developing countries.”

Rapid growth and new changes are underway across Asia. The cranes that mark construction sites have become a common landmark across the region over the last three decades or so, but the process of urbanization in Southeast Asian cities is often very different from that of their Western peers.

Jakarta, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur have large populations, fast growth rates and very stratified societies. More than that, their geography and location make them susceptible to climate change and thus less sustainable.

Many Southeast Asian cities are in low-lying coastal urban centers, which are also impacted by activities like the extraction of ground water. These cities are particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Floods frequently hit Jakarta, for example.

Not surprisingly, few of the cities in Southeast Asia rank high in terms of environmental sustainability.

“The speed of urbanization may hurt (a city’s) sustainability,” says Graham Kean, board director at Arcadis Asia. “One of the elements that hold back Southeast Asian cities on the environmental issue seems to be centered on solid waste management. If the leaders are looking for one thing that would make a big impact on their score, that would be a big area to focus on.”

Arcadis, a design, engineering and management consulting company, published in March its first annual Sustainable Cities Index, which ranks 50 cities around the world. The index considers cities in terms of people, society and economic growth. It includes some of the region’s most developed cities at or near the top of the rankings.

Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore all get top marks in almost all areas.

Two of those cities, Seoul and Hong Kong, are in the Top 10 people category that looks at factors such as transport infrastructure, education and work-life balance.

Both cities and Singapore are in the Top 10 in the profit category, covering factors such as economic development, ease of doing business and importance to global networks.

Of the three, only Singapore makes it to the Top 10 in the planet category that considers exposure to natural catastrophes, air pollution, solid waste management, drinking water and sanitation, greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and renewables mix. Singapore is ranked seventh in this score.

But these three and Tokyo are among the most developed large megacities across Asia.

Other urban centers in Southeast Asia are far less developed, but this means that they are in a unique position to find sustainable ways to evolve further. To do this, however, they need to find an alternative approach to development.

Kuala Lumpur ranks 26th overall in Arcadis’ rankings. Jakarta and Manila are in the bottom five.

“We suggest going with a more decentralized urbanization policy instead of megacity development,” says Armin Bauer, principal economist in the regional and sustainable development department of the Asian Development Bank. “In continental Europe, this is the direction those countries went.”

Cities in Southeast Asia have an opportunity to solve many of the issues of sustainability early in their development process. One of these issues is inequality, which Cardiff University’s Sheng calls “a growing problem in Southeast Asian cities”.

A second issue is quality of life. The sheer size of Asian megacities creates a unique problem. The need for economic and infrastructure development often trumps other considerations.

A third issue is environmental quality, the one issue most people associate with the idea of sustainability.

“There is less emphasis on recreational activities in Asia and less strong environmental focus as there is, for example, in Europe,” says Bauer.

But a number of cities across the region are showing signs of progress and forward thinking.

“Many cities are becoming environmentally more responsible when it comes to water management, solid waste management, urban transport, and air pollution, but some of it is not more than just exporting their environmental problems elsewhere,” says Sheng.

There are several issues. Air pollution is one. Manufacturing is on the rise, a growing middle class is busy buying and driving cars, and asking for more roads. In Beijing, for example, there were more than 4 million private vehicles in 2012, according to the China Statistical Yearbook.

“(Asian) people’s mentality has changed a lot; it’s not about how beautiful is the way to get to the office, it’s about what beautiful car you drive,” says Bauer.

Some cities in the region are already addressing this problem. In Singapore, for example, driving a car comes at a high cost.

Sustainability is more than just an environmental issue. Another issue is sustainable economic growth. Cities like Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul are doing well, but places across Southeast Asia such as Jakarta and Manila are lagging behind. Doing business in these cities can be difficult due to unenforceable contracts or lack of regulatory transparency.

“Hong Kong and Singapore are the kind of natural hubs for (people to come to do business),” says Kean from Arcadis. “But there are some big opportunities for those at the bottom of the table … A relatively straightforward issue to fix is the ease of doing business.”

Cities in Southeast Asia face great challenges if they aim to develop in a sustainable way but they also have a great opportunity to leapfrog cities in the West.

Governments have some influence on how cities develop but ultimately it is up to people and markets to build more sustainable cities.

“We have, on the one hand, a complex configuration of decision-makers on urbanization and urban development and, on the other hand, a complex ecosystem that is affected by those decisions,” Sheng says.

“In today’s world, markets rather than governments determine to a very large extent how countries urbanize and how cities develop … Those markets are the result of a multitude of decisions made by a multitude of decision-makers.”

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