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Urbanization in Asia: Clean, Green and Competitive Cities Key to Asia's Future

Article | 15 November 2011

For the first time in history, more than half the world's population now live in urban areas and about 70% will be city dwellers by 2050.The UN estimates that 11 out of 20 mega-cities are in Asia and the Pacific. Projections indicate that by 2050, half the world's megacities with populations of over 10 million will be in this region. By 2015, an estimated 48% of the region's population, or 1.9 billion people, will live in urban centers. The region has to act now to begin a concerted regional effort to help cities unleash their potential to spur economic growth and solve social problems.

Rapid economic development in the developing countries of Asia and the Pacific region has lifted millions of people from extreme poverty. The Asian "economic miracle" is driven by the cities, and in turn drives city growth and social transformation. The poor have benefited from economic opportunities that the cities offered. But the wealth production of cities has not necessarily contributed to improved living conditions for the vast majority of Asia's urban population. More than half of the world's slum dwellers live in Asia - some 490 million people in 2005, according to the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). If nothing is done, that figure may rise to one billion by 2050.

This wave of urbanization is without precedent. The changes are too large and too fast to allow planners and policymakers to react. The cities already face immense challenges, including poorly maintained infrastructure, unplanned growth, scant livelihood opportunities, and susceptibility of the poor populations to ill health. Forty-four million people are added to city populations every year, which is equivalent to 120,000 people each day. These new arrivals require the construction of more than 20,000 new dwellings, 250 km of new roads, and additional infrastructure to supply more than 6 mega-liters of potable water.

It is time for countries to be proactive and take far-sighted action to fully exploit the opportunities that urbanization offers. Developing and financing livable, competitive, socially inclusive, and environmentally attractive cities is central to Asia's future prosperity and well-being.

"With approximately 80 per cent of GDP today coming from urban areas, the quality and efficiency of Asia's cities and their ability to innovate will determine the region's long-term productivity and overall stability," said Asian Development Bank President Haruhiko Kuroda. "Asian cities need to make continuous efforts to become livable, competitive, inclusive and environmentally sustainable."

The key question is how, while maintaining economic growth, investments can be made to foster sustainable and inclusive development so all Asian urban inhabitants can enjoy a quality of life with access to basic services, shelter, and employment that at the same time is resilient to the impacts of natural disasters.

This will require developing cutting edge, high-value added industries and services focused on regional needs, improving the quality of infrastructure, upgrading training to nurture creative talent, reducing costs to get products to market, and providing a supportive physical environment.

To support that goal, ADB is launching a new publication, 'Competitive Cities in the 21st Century: Cluster Based Local Economic Development', at the Asian Urban Forum 2011. The book gives governments, businesses, the private sector, and communities a blueprint for planning competitive, sustainable and inclusive urban economies.