Asia and the Pacific’s phenomenal development has been a story of rapid urbanisation. As centres of innovation, entrepreneurship and opportunity, cities have drawn talent from across our region and driven economic growth which has transformed our societies.
In South-East Asia alone, cities generate 65% of the region’s GDP. Yet, the ongoing scale of urbanisation is a considerable challenge, one which puts huge pressure on essential public services, housing availability and the environment.
How we respond to this pressure, how we manage our urban centres and plan for their future expansion in Asia and the Pacific, is likely to decide whether recent development gains can be made sustainable. It is of primordial importance to Malaysia as its economy powers towards high-income status.
In Asean countries, 90 million more persons are expected to move to cities by 2030. Accommodating this influx sustainably will determine whether the United Nations’ (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development can be achieved, and the climate targets of the Paris Climate Agreement can be met.
An effective response calls for integrated planning across all levels of government. Greater consideration needs to be given to demographic and land use trends to anticipate their impacts and minimise environmental damage. These trends should inform our investments in infrastructure, but also in water, energy and transport services. Closing the infrastructure gap in the region alone will require an additional US$200 billion (RM820 billion) of investment a year until 2030. We know local government revenues are mostly insufficient and fiscal decentralisation inadequate to respond to this need. Intelligent fiscal reforms to improve local revenues are likely to be necessary and we will need to consider how we can capture land value and use public-private partnerships.
In the most disaster-prone region in the world, it is incumbent on us to reduce the risk of natural disasters to which millions of urban dwellers are exposed. By 2030, vulnerable populations living in extreme risk areas — along river banks, canals and slopes — are expected to have grown by 50% since 2015 in many of region’s major cities.
Some cities, including Melaka, are participating in initiatives such as the 100 Resilient Cities, focused on community-based disaster risk reduction. Yet, this effort needs to be given even greater scale if we are to achieve risk resilient cities in our region. Accelerating our multilateral cooperation and best practice sharing could make a valuable contribution to doing so.
New technologies hold great promise for more effective urban solutions. From smart grids and district energy solutions, or real-time traffic management, to waste management and water systems, smart technologies will enable our future cities to operate more effectively. They could also make them more inclusive and accessible for persons with disabilities.
We have an opportunity to incorporate universal design standards and systems such as automated access to audio-based communications to improve accessibility to cities for persons with disabilities. We must encourage smart city developers to use standards which would give persons with diverse disabilities full access to the physical infrastructure and information others enjoy.
As we look to overcome all these challenges, the Asean Smart Cities Network, designed to mobilise smart solutions throughout South-East Asia, is a welcome development on which we must build. The implementation of this network is something the organisation I represent, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), has worked to support. Combined with Asean’s broader Sustainable Urbanisation Strategy, it is helping provide much-needed resource in the region to manage urbanisation better. Twenty-six cities, including Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru, are developing visions for their cities to apply technologies for smart and sustainable urban development.
The expertise being acquired is invaluable to the broader region’s effort. Malaysia has a leading role to play. At the 9th World Urban Forum Malaysia hosed last year, experts came from the world over to focus on cities for all and the New Urban Agenda. In October 2019, the 7th Asia Pacific Urban Forum will be held in Penang. My hope is that this can focus minds and galvanise support for best practices to be shared and sustainable urban development to be prioritised in Asia and the Pacific.
- Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is UN undersecretary general and executive secretary of the UN ESCAP.