Asian cities - Challenges and opportunities

History has two important lessons for humanity:

Firstly, every major civilisation was destroyed because it did not make peace with the environment.

Secondly, if you want to know where any country's future is heading, look at their main cities - if they cannot manage their cities, they have little hope in managing their future. A 'sick city' is a sign of a sick civilisation.

The Five 'Plosions'

Cities in Asia are undergoing some of the most dramatic and spectacular changes ever.

  • Asia has the tallest buildings - The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the successors will also be in Asia.
  • Asia has the most priciest cities for expatriates - Tokyo and Hong Kong. Eight of the ten most priciest cities in the world are Asian cities.
  • According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) study, 13 of 15 cities with the worst air pollution were in Asia (air pollution, including lead poisoning, in Jakarta, Indonesia, according to a Asian Development Bank study, was costing more than US 2 billion a year in terms of brain damage to children and premature death and illnesses generally).
  • Urban poverty is potentially the most explosive political, economic and social force - in India, for example, the number of urban poor are exceeding the rural poor, with profound consequences.
  • We have cities like Singapore that are aiming to be, and will probably succeed to be, the world's most intelligent city - management wise and information wise.

The Asian urban landscape is one of immense contrast - of ostentatious plenty and abject poverty, of great beauty and terrible ugliness, of vast opportunity and yet rampant oppression. 17 of the world's projected 27 mega-cities will be located in the Asia region.

Five key processes are impacting on Asian cities.

Firstly, we are seeing a horrifying explosion of people and new kinds of both richness and poverty.

Secondly, we are witnessing a deafening implosion, a deepening alienation, and anger, manifesting itself in urban violence, and even more, in urban terrorism; the cities are becoming war zones.

Thirdly, we also see a painful displosion, a disintegration, a breaking up of family, of community, of indigenous values. We see wasted lives of young children turned into sick streets, and sicker values.

Fourthly, we face a 'techplosion', the introduction of a new complex, often ruthless, technologies operating in environments inappropriately prepared for such ventures. We see the mindless proliferation of armaments of all kinds. We see them side by side with problems requiring, but not getting, the simple technologies that will give clean water, adequate nutrition, basic literacy and the kind of livelihood opportunities that could wipe out poverty in a decade, if not in a generation. Instead we get potential Bhopals. (Bhopal was a city in India that suffered an industrial holocaust and became a mega gas chamber). Our cesspool of sewage also ends up as poisoned cocktails. Not so long ago, a test for lead levels was done on the umbilical cords of some 2 dozen babies born in a leading hospital in one of the Southeast Asian capitals. The shocking news was that every one of those samples had lead levels higher that those acceptable. These innocent babies were doomed to mental retardation. Is that to be our future - maddening development, and mad people!

Fifthly, we are also seeing an 'infoplosion' - proliferation of mindless entertainment and propaganda that is overwhelming and confusing, often creating a new addictions and new distractions, often enlarging the power of bureaucracy and commercial propaganda. The taping of the power of these new information technologies by the community, especially the 'information poor' for knowledge and for advocacy is going to be necessary, but it will not be easy, for power will more readily move to the already powerful.

Forgive my use of pyrotechnic images - explosion, implosion, displosion, techplosion and infoplosion - but these are 'hot' issues and our cities are in crisis.

Good Growth and Bad Growth

Asian Cities are growing, but growth can be good and growth can be bad. The United Nation Human Development Report describes five kinds of bad growth:

╦Jobless growth - the overall economy grows, but fails to sustain, enrich or expand job opportunities.

╦Ruthless growth - the rich get richer, and the poor gets nothing.

╦Voiceless growth - the economy grows, but democracy/empowerment of the majority of the population fails to keep peace.

╦Rootless growth - cultural identity is submerged or deliberately outlawed by governments or destroyed by the global telecommunications revolution.

╦Futureless growth - the present generation squanders resources needed by future generations.

There is fear that in many of our Asian cities, we are being trapped by 'bad' growth.

The Vision

There is a need for a clear vision for our cities, a need for a holistic approach.

I suggest a 'Panchasila' or five principles that can help us with shaping the future of our cities. The five key elements are that id we want our cities to be our homes, they have to be developed in ways that are:

  • Socially Just
  • Ecologically Sustainable
  • Politically Participatory
  • Economically Productive
  • Culturally Vibrant

We need to make Asian villages, towns and cities outstanding examples of this 'Panchasila', with the five values central to their vision, the planning and their actions.

Sick Cities

If you wanted a strategic checklist of the 'Sick City', there are ten areas that are crying out for attention:

1.Access / Mobility
2.Air Quality

We have to address these in a creative an integrated way. Unfortunately, at the present time many of our growing cities are barely coping. We have both a 'caring' and 'caring' crisis. If we are not careful, we may end up with what one sociologist had called 'Urbicide'.

Give Life to the Future

There are, of course, towns and cities doing well in Asia. There are also a host of good practices that now are available through the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS)'s Urban Observatory Programme.

There is one overarching lesson from all the recent experiences, culminating in Habitat II, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) held in June 1996. The way forward is the Partnership way. Getting governments, civil society groups and the private sector to work together jointly to create the sense of community that is required for the tasks ahead.

There are at least a dozen active modalities that Asian cities are drawing from and others may like to consider. Briefly, some of the key ones are as follows:

1.The Healthy City Programme - Facilitated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is an innovative step by step diagnostic tool for analysis and action using health as the entry point. Malaysia is planning for all its major towns and cities to take this approach.

2.Local Agenda 21 - Facilitated by the International Council for Local environment Initiatives (ICLEI), which uses Chapter 28 of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (The Rio Summit) as its entry point.

3.Urban Forums - Facilitated by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), which is a highly flexible participatory modality for building local partnerships on urban issues.

4.The Sustainable Cities Programme - Facilitated by the united Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS), which is a detailed indicator centred process that can help build frameworks for action. Some cities in China and India are looking at this process.

5.The Integrated Action Planning (IAP) Programme - Facilitated by GTZ, the German Development Agency, which is a physical and environmental planning process that is highly interactive, requiring a multi-sectoral approach. Nepal had adopted this approach.

6.Community Action Planning (CAP) - Initiated by UNCHS with the support of DANIDA, the Danish Development Agency, which builds on a bottom up community approach to urban planning and action. Sri Lanka has adopted this approach.

7.The Local Initiative Facility for Urban Environment (LIFE) Programme - Facilitated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is a mechanism to facilitate local policy dialogues and initiate small scale projects involving government community partnership.

8.The Asian Development Benchmarking Project - A systematic process of setting standards, targets and monitoring.

9.The Sustainable Penang Initiative (SPI) - A pioneering model of popular participation in making cities more caring and sharing.

All these and more modalities are described in more detail in a new book by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) called 'Action for Better Cities'.


Partnerships are the wave of the urban future. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has launched the process in its work in facilitating and supporting urban programmes in the Asia Pacific region. We can provide you more details on each of these, or give you the key contacts. We welcome you to the partnership. Get our publication 'Urban Links' or check our web-site: , or another maintained by the Asian institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok, Thailand.

The cities of Asia have a great opportunity to be the leaders of what has been described as the Asian miracle. With vision, good strategies and the kind of resources that come with partnership of all stakeholders, Asian cities can continue to give life to the Asia miracle. If we do not, Asian cities will be showcases of decay and destruction. And the Asian miracle will degenerate into a catalogue of disasters.

You can make the difference by starting with your city.

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