The Sustainability of Asian Cities - Crisis and Opportunity
GAIA (pronounced 'gayah') is the Greek word for mother earth, a living, complex sphere. GAIA, we are told, is a million. If we condense this mind-boggling figure into something we can understand and assume that GAIA is 46 years of age, we are told:
During the minute, those 60 seconds, we have ransacked the planet in the name of development, sometimes for need, very often for greed! We have caused the extinction of some 500 species of animals. We have accumulated such deadly weapons that can kill us many times over - wars. We have also generated much happiness, creativity and beauty but it is a constant struggle.
It is as if GAIA, mother earth, is itself suffering from AIDS, her immune system are being devastated as:
All the devastation may go down paths from where there may be no return.
Can we do something to reverse this madness? Can we create a new paradigm of development and happiness that enables peace in ourselves, peace with other people and peace with mother earth? As citizens, as community leaders, we can, and we must. We must make that our agenda for the 21st century.
History has two important lessons for humanity:
Firstly, even major civilisations were 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 the 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'
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
Forgive my use of pyrotechnic images - explosion, implosion, displosion, techplosion and infoplosion - but these are 'hot' issues and our cities are in a crises.
Good Growth and Bad Growth
Asian cities are growing but growth can be good and can be bad. The United Nations Human Development Report describes five kinds of bad growth:
There is fear in many Asian cities that we are being trapped by 'bad' growth.
There is a need for a clear vision of our cities, a need for a holistic approach.
I suggest a 'panchasila' of five principles that can help us with shaping the future of our cities. The five key elements are that if we want our cities to be our homes, they have to be developed in ways that are:
We need to make Asian villages, towns and cities outstanding examples of this 'panchasila', with the five values central to their vision, planning and their actions.
If you want a strategic checklist of the 'Sick City', there are 10 areas that are crying out for attention:
We have to address these in a creative and integrated way. Unfortunately, at present time, many of our growing cities are barely coping. If we are not careful, we may end up with what one sociologist called, 'urbicide'.
I like to suggest five challenges for all of us who care for our cities:
Firstly, the challenge of Vision - we need a local vision for the 21st century. What do our villages, towns and cities want to be in the long run.
Secondly, the challenge of Professionalism - we need to have a place a local government service for a much higher capacity for we are going to cope with the challenges of urbanisation.
Thirdly, the challenge of Transparency and Integrity - planning decisions, development and especially infrastructure projects have not only to be done in due process, but seen to be done. There is deep public concern about the nature and direction of privatisation in many countries in this region.
Fourthly, the challenge of Popular Participation - there is a need for more participatory system of involvement by citizens.
Fifthly, the challenge of the Community Spirit - everywhere there is a terrible destruction of community. Where new buildings and housing estates are built, there is little pro-active effort and building a sense of community and cooperation among residents. Apart from the frenzy during elections and a crisis, there is too little systematic dialogue.
Because most countries will be highly urbanised, great attention will need to be given to that level of government. Instead of being the lowest level of government in many cases, it should become the highest and bedrock of a living democracy.
The future is an urban future. If we do not get our towns and cities rights, we will have no future.
This paper was delivered at the INFRASTRUCTURE 98 conference held 23-27 August 1988 in Penang, Malaysia.Back to Speeches