UN Habitat and UN-ESCAP together released the report The State of Asian and Pacific Cities 2015, and its key finding is that the speed and scope of urbanisation in the region is unprecedented. Between 1980 and 2010, cities here grew by around one billion people, and another one billion will be added by 2040. The urban population at mid-year per region as defined in World Urbanisation Prospects (2014) illustrates this most dramatically:
All Asia and Pacific sub-regions are experiencing urban growth at higher rates than overall population growth. While the region as a whole does not yet have the high urbanisation levels of North America (81.5%), Latin America and the Caribbean (79.5%) or Europe (73.4%), by 2018 half of the Asia and Pacific population will be living in the region’s towns and cities. By 2050, urban areas will account for nearly two out of three people. By 2050, cities in China and India alone will have grown by an additional 696 million – India by 404 million and China by 292 million.
Paradoxically, while the region is home to 17 megacities (which are starting to give way to huge mega-urban regions that encompass cities, towns, villages and rural areas), they only accommodate a little over 10% of the region’s urban dwellers and 7% of its total population. The bulk of urban dwellers live in small and medium-size cities, “… where much of the region’s urban transition is actually unfolding. Yet, despite their increasing significance, most small cities face their future with limited human, financial, and organisational resources.”
The Report is subtitled Urban Transformations: Shifting from quantity to quality and therein lies the rub.
If cities in Asia and the Pacific are to continue as the engines of growth for their national economies, they have to reinvent urban planning to make cities more sustainable and inclusive – and the fact that the world’s most polluted and disparate cities are all to be found in this region, underlines the urgency for a new planning model.
First of all, there is a need for new paradigms of urban governance, especially in the growing megaregions, which are extremely difficult to manage holistically. Perhaps the experiment in Tamil Nadu under the previous State Government of decentralising urban governance while centralising urban infrastructure may provide both greater efficiency in the delivery of services, and economies of scale in upgrading infrastructure.
Secondly, as advocated on this site time and again, perhaps the small and medium towns of countries like India (where the bulk of the urban population lives) could be reinvented as agricultural hubs, bringing both sustainability and prosperity to the agricultural sector, and creating new avenues of employment in the towns and cities by tertiarising the rural economy.
Finally, the biggest challenge for governments in Asia and the Pacific remains the growing urban poverty and vulnerability, often grossly underestimated, and therefore unaddressed. The Report estimates that a third of the region’s urban residents lack access to adequate shelter, clean energy, safe drinking water and sanitation while the urban informal sector continues to grow rapidly. Unless some attempts are made to formalize the informal sectors in both economic activity and housing, poverty and the omnipresent slum will continue to mar the Asian urban story in the foreseeable future.
Next time round we could perhaps take a look at the emerging challenges for cities around the world.