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:

  • Nothing is known to us about GAIA's early life;
  • Nothing much is known to us about GAIA as a teenager or young adult;
  • Only at age 42 did GAIA begin to flower;
  • Dinosaurs and the great reptiles appeared only a year ago, when GAIA was 45;
  • The ice age enveloped GAIA only last weekend;
  • Modern humankind has been around for four hours;
  • During the last hour, we discovered agriculture; and
  • The industrial revolution and with its massive urbanisation, began one minute ago.

    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:

  • Her circulation systems - the water, the air is being poisoned;
  • The lungs - forests, are being wantonly destroyed;
  • Her skin - the ozone layer and oil are being seared and scraped.

    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'

  • 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 priciest cities for expatriates - Tokyo and Hong Kong. Eight of ten of the 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 are in Asia (air pollution, including lead poisoning in Jakarta, Indonesia, according to an Asian Development Bank Study, was costing more than US$2 billion a year in terms of brain damage to children and premature deaths 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 of alienation and anger, manifesting itself in urban violence, and even more, in urban terrorism; the cities are becoming 'battle 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 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 Bophals (Bophal 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 than 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 new additions and distractions. Often enlarging the power of bureaucracy and commercial propaganda. The tapping of the power of these information technologies by the community, especially of the 'information poor' for knowledge and for advocacy, is going to be necessary, but will not be easy, for power will be more readily moved 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 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:

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

  • Ruthless growth - the rich get richer and the poor get next to nothing;

  • Voiceless growth - the economy grows, but democracy/empowerment of the majority of the population fails to keep pace;

  • Rootless growth - cultural identify is submerged or deliberately outlawed by government or destroyed by global telecommunications revolution;

  • Futureless growth - the present generation squanders resources needed for future generations.

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

    The Vision

    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:

  • 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, planning and their actions.

    Sick Cities

    If you want a strategic checklist of the 'Sick City', there are 10 areas that are crying out for attention:

    ii.air quality

    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.

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