Infrastructure: Asian and Pacific cities need inclusive, sustainable future, says report

population traffic

Oct 31, 2015 (LBO) – Asian and Pacific cities are facing growing gaps between urbanisation patterns and what is needed for an inclusive and sustainable future, a report by UN Habitat and UN ESCAP said.

The State of Asian and Pacific Cities 2015 report covers 58 countries in the region including China, India, Australia and Sri Lanka.

Economic success has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and created a growing middle class, but the region is home to the world’s largest urban slum populations, Shamshad Akhtar, executive secretary of UN ESCAP, said.

“Unacceptable numbers of people continue to live in slums, earn insufficient incomes and live in vulnerable and unhealthy environments.”

Current economic models are not providing a sufficient basis for inclusive and sustainable development, according to Akhtar.

“Transformation of the urban economy requires new visions and partnerships spanning national and local government, as well as the private sector and civil society,” she said.

With 50 percent of the population in the region set to be urban by 2018, the region will soon leave behind its predominantly rural legacy. This is a historic change and how it is managed is the biggest challenge facing the region’s governments and cities, the report said.

The urbanisation level is 100 percent in Singapore and lower in countries such as Papua New Guinea, Nepal and Sri Lanka at 13, 18.2 and 18.3 percent respectively, although the World Bank recently estimated Sri Lanka’s urbanisation was higher at 47.1 percent.

On the upside, the region is no longer just a global manufacturer, and is increasingly host to centres of research, creativity and innovation.

One concern preparing the report was the difficulty in making comparisons to provide clear policy messages due to inconsistent statistical coverage in the region. This included methodological differences between national systems and problems of defining an ‘urban area.’

“The region needs no less than an urban data revolution to meet that goal,” Akhtar said.

Urban transition in medium-sized cities

While the region as a whole does not yet have the high urbanisation levels of North America (81.5 percent), Latin America and the Caribbean (79.5 percent) or Europe (73.4 percent), the Asia-Pacific population will hit 50 percent by 2018.

Urban growth, it seems, is at a higher rate than overall population growth.

It is difficult to holistically manage regional cities, mega-urban regions, as they are often divided administratively while their problems transcend administrative boundaries. Multi-level and collaborative governance systems are required to better manage these future behemoths.

The urban populations are also predominantly found in medium sized and small cities, and this is where the urban transition is unfolding.

“Contrary to common perception, only a little over 10 percent of the Asia and Pacific region’s urban population actually lives in megacities.”

But most secondary and smaller cities face an absence of necessary human, financial, and organisational resources.

Quality over quantity growth

There is no single urban storyline, the report noted.

While many cities are growing, other areas are experience growth stagnation or even population decline.

There are different causes for this including ageing populations, deindustrialisation, loss of traditional forms of employment, and suburbanisation.

“Beyond demographic drivers, this implies an urgent need to address gaps between quantity and quality of growth,” the report said.

While many cities have developed through an exploitation model with regard to their environmental capital, this model is no longer sustainable or without costs.

“Across much of the region, urban environments are heavily degraded, leaving them highly vulnerable and facing significant clean-up costs.”

Air pollution is a serious problem in cities as diverse and different in economic composition as Bangkok, Beijing, Delhi, Kathmandu and Ulaanbaatar.

Property Taxes

One recommendation of the report is that, following the subsidiarity principle of decentralisation, property taxes can be a powerful source of local revenue.

Evidence shows that property tax usually accounts for only about 20 percent of local government revenues because very few local governments are able to collect the property tax owed to them.

“Cities which have streamlined property tax assessment and collection have been able to significantly improve their revenues,” it said.

The report by United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) highlights how the speed and scope of urbanisation in the Asia and Pacific region is unprecedented.

Adequate shelter, safe neighborhoods, clean water and sanitation, health care, transport and access to modern energy systems, or even a legally defined address, are rights still not shared by all.

This report can be viewed here.