Asia's future is mega cities

TIM HILL

CITIES are outgrowing their national borders figuratively, and in some sense, literally. This was one of the trends presented by Martin Wolf, associate editor and chief economics commentator of the Financial Times at the World Built Environment Forum (WBEF) in London in April.

Wolf gave the example of Seoul and Incheon, which together generate 47 per cent of South Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP). Tokyo generates 34 per cent of Japan’s GDP. In Europe, London produces 32 per cent of the GDP of the United Kingdom. So, as Wolf put it, cities will shape our future and the shape of cities will shape our future.

One of the views shared by delegates and speakers was that cities are becoming more important than nation states. Sixty-seven per cent of delegates agreed in a snap poll that cities, not nations will take the lead on the Paris agreements, for instance. London prides itself on multiculturalism and being different from the national hinterland of the United Kingdom. This may not yet be the case for Asia where presidents and prime ministers, rather than mayors, are perceived as the core drivers of the economy.

And yet the growing influence of the city is certainly an Asian trend, too. Especially as urbanisation rates are higher here than most other parts of the world. Chris Choa, vice-president and global principal for cities and development at Aecom defined the population numbers of the megacity to include the number of people within one hour of travel of the city.

Choa said that Asia’s cities will grow in size and affluence this century, more than any other part of the world, and as such, the region will be faced with the most changes.

Greg Clarke, global adviseor on cities and a moderator of one of the panels, produced a framework for the different types of cities and the different resiliency challenges or opportunities they face.

TIER one cities like London, New York. Typically affluent and multicultural, they face challenges such as affordable housing and accessible public transport systems;

MEGA cities like Mumbai or Sao Paolo. They face similar issues but deeper challenges around inequality, healthcare, public services and infrastructure with limited tax revenues; and,

NEW world cities like Stockholm and Vienna. According to Clarke, these cities are going through a new phase of globalising.

They are smaller and well managed and can focus on niche industries or specialisations without having to plan for the infrastructure requirements of the mega cities or the tier one cities

The key message from Clarke and other speakers was that cities either needed to get big or to get niche.

Asia seems to have no problems with its cities getting big. It is home to nine out of the top 10 largest megacities in the world. The resiliency challenge for Asia will perhaps be in the sustainability of the mega-city model. How much bigger can mega cities get? Can they support the massive resource requirements of their citizens?

And how will these cities, which are vulnerable to the impact of adverse weather patterns, survive the impact of climate change? In terms of categories of cities for Asia, there seem to be three distinct types each with their unique challenges.

For tier one cities, perhaps the core development challenge is whether they can or want to become more global in the sense of London or New York and move beyond commerce and cultural centres into the realm of regional leadership for advancing causes, such as tackling climate change.

Fully-developed cities in a transboundary economic zone typically have challenges of working alongside neighbours. For instance, Singapore’s historical position as the only deepwater port city on the ancient shipping route from China has spurred economic growth in Johor and Indonesia’s Riau Islands.

One of the largest examples of a relatively successful transboundary economic zone mega city is the Greater Bay Area of Hong Kong, with the interconnected cities in and around Guangdong province.

Hong Kong’s prosperity and specialisation in technology intellectual property, shipping and finance, with its proximity to the manufacturing hub of South China and infrastructure linking up the region has given rise to this huge market of 68 million people in a territory roughly the size of Germany and an economy of US$1.3 trillion (RM5.3 trillion).

The large developing mega cities, such as Shanghai, Jakarta, Manila and Bangkok, have more pragmatic challenges, such as providing infrastructure and managing the efficient and sustainable distribution of resources (e.g. water and power) to the ever-growing numbers of their citizens.

In the Asean region though, the most famous cities seem to be the economic and administrative capitals, such as Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila. Although most of these countries have made efforts to create jobs outside the capital cities, in most instances the region has not managed to create new successful urban regions with niche specialisations at a fast-enough rate to accommodate the urbanisation trend.

As highlighted at WBEF, all signs point to the fact that cities will shape our future and the shape of cities will shape our future, then it would seem that Asia’s future is mega. How cities evolve in the larger context of regionalisation is based on viability — whether the region can or should sustain migration into a handful of dispersed mega cities, or promote interconnected tier two cities congregated into niche zones. Going forward, this will increasingly be shaped by city policymakers and planners. The writer is the research director for a Singapore-based leading digital media company serving Asia Pacific’s clean technology, smart cities,
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