Cities around Asia and the Pacific are identifying ways of making their environment healthier and more livable through the improvement of air, water and land.
Sprawling slums and polluted rivers
Deteriorating and unsafe buildings
Chaotic traffic and frightened pedestrians
A lack of parks and green space
Poverty, inequity and an unsafe environment for women and children
A lack of parks and green space
Cities in Asia have grown faster than any other urban areas in the world. Yet, urban planning has often been an afterthought. By 2015, there will be 12 Asian megacities, and by 2022 in the region there will be more people living in cities than in the countryside.
Urbanization comes with costs. Noise and congestion are among the most apparent features of cities. City living entails higher costs for housing, raising children, and health care. In addition, income inequality and crime rates tend to be higher in urban areas.
Asia has already been facing enormous environmental challenges. Three of the top five carbon dioxide (CO2) emitting economies and 11 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in Asia. In many Asian nations, losses from traffic-related congestion amount to 5% of gross domestic product (GDP). The situation is particularly worrisome in poor cities that experience rapid growth, where pollution is becoming extremely serious, infrastructure supply lags behind demand, and basic public services such as water connections and solid waste disposal do not reach the majority. In addition, many residents live on marginal lands where they face risks from flooding, disease, and other shocks.
Asia’s cities will become home to another 1.1 billion people in the next two decades as the poor continue to be drawn to better opportunities. Many of these people go into slums.
Currently, about 520 million people in the region live in urban squalor and by 2015 that is expected to rise to 700 million.
According to the March 2011 report, McKinsey Global Institute’s Urban World, half of the 600 cities that account for 60% of global gross domestic product are in Asia. In most countries in Asia, cities generate more than 80% of gross domestic product.
By 2030, cities will provide 70% of all new jobs in India. By that time, the economy of the city of Delhi will be bigger than Malaysia's economy is today, according to McKinsey.
Typhoon Ketsana dropped 455 mm - a month’s worth - of rain on Metro Manila in the Philippines on 26 September 2009, flooding vast areas, killing hundreds, and stranding thousands. ADB supported emergency relief efforts shortly after the typhoon hit the country.
Urbanization increases vulnerability because life and asset losses are much larger in cities than in the countryside when a disaster strikes. In this context, the issue of climate change becomes particularly relevant to cities. Climate change is recognized to have caused extreme weather and rising sea levels. While there are many unknowns about the extent and timing of these impacts, the consensus is that the challenge is real and imminent, and that different cities will face urgent challenges.
Among the consequences of climate change are an increase in the intensity and frequency of floods and sea level rise. Poorer cities that are below sea level are the most susceptible. This is especially relevant for Asian nations such as Bangladesh and the Pacific Island countries, although data for the latter are often unavailable. Many Asian cities, and especially some megacities, have been built in the deltas of major rivers where ports could link the cities to the global economy. So it is not surprising that many Asian cities are flood prone. Some such cities may have extensive experience dealing with floods. For example, Dhaka has an elaborate set of mud banks for protection. But increased flooding induced by climate change may well push these cities' infrastructures beyond their current capacities, as occurred in Bangkok in late 2011. Developing further coastal engineering protection will place an increasing burden on the resources of such cities.
How Asia’s cities are developed in years to come will be the defining element in the region’s long-term prosperity and stability. In short, the quality and efficiency with which Asian cities are developed will make or break the region.
Despite the problems, these rapidly growing cities are not simply home to urban squalor. They contain the vital ingredients to improve millions of people’s lives in the region. They are the engines of growth that drive prosperity in Asia and lead to solutions.
What do people in Asia want to see in their cities? The answers are complex, but in one city – Vinh Yen in Viet Nam – people gave answers that reflect the sentiments of many who live in urban areas in Asia.
"In harmony with nature"
“More small parks”
“More spaces for children”
People in Vinh Yen in Viet Nam are not unique in their aspirations for a livable city. Throughout Asia, people are recognizing that cities serve a function beyond business and economic growth. They are places where people live, children go to school, and families spend time together. The quality of the air, water and land in these cities has a direct impact on millions of people.
How can Asian cities be transformed from sprawling, gridlocked and polluted commercial centers into healthy, livable areas that can be sustained for decades? The transformation of Asia’s cities requires a complete rethink of the way urban areas are developed and managed. The cleanliness of air, water and land need to be pushed to the forefront and ideas about public space need to include to all residents of a city – including families, children, the elderly and the poor.
The Asian Development Bank has developed an operational framework that helps cities in the region realize their aspirations to develop greener, more livable environments.
This includes thinking differently about the way cities are managed, including blending urban planning and environmental management.
To achieve their goals, people living in urban areas have developed Green City Action Plans and new, innovative partnerships.
To make cities more livable, the focus is on improving air, land and water through management of the environment, economic competitiveness and equity.
Good planning and engineering design are being balanced with the efficient use of natural resources.
In many cities across the region, people and governments are taking the initiative to make the difficult changes needed to improve the environment in which they live. They are making plans, taking actions and sharing ideas and information.
What will a green, livable and sustainable Asian city look like? Each will be unique but a consensus is forming on some of the key elements. They include...
In the city of Melaka, Malaysia, the historic neighborhoods that have longstanding walkable areas are being nurtured and developed with less need for automobiles. The culture and history of the city is being protected while it is being made more livable.
The Melaka River has been transformed from a polluted drainage canal to a tourist attraction and enjoyable green space for city residents.
The city is also developing solar power, and other renewable energy projects, that are designed to keep the air clean for generations to come.
These changes, and many others that are underway or planned, are part of the Melaka Green City Action Plan.
Similar actions are underway in the city of Hue, in Viet Nam. The city includes a historic colonial district that is being preserved and revitalized as a walkable area for residents and a tourist attraction. The city is planting trees and creating more green spaces while at the same time encouraging more cottage industries, rather than large scale factories.
In Bhopal, India, the government has rehabilitated pumping stations at Bhopal’s Upper Lake. They now provide not only six million gallons of water a day for the city but they also act as a tourist attract and green area for local residents.
If the aspirations of city residents around Asia are reached, there will be a major transformation in the way people live in the region in years to come.
Polluted rivers will become green areas and tourist attractions.
Frightened pedestrians will no longer dodge traffic, but will have areas to walk and interact with one with another.
Deteriorating and unsafe buildings will be made strong, efficient and resilient to disasters.
Women, children, the elderly, the poor and others will feel safe and have a stake in the development of their city.
The air will be clean.
The city will be prosperous but business being done in the city will not generate pollution that damages the area.
This is the vision of many people in Asia for their cities. The work is underway now to make it a reality.