How does a city build infrastructure that nurtures stable economic growth and also harnesses sustainable and inclusive development, in a way that urban-dwellers can experience high quality of life with access to basic amenities, shelter and employment but are immune to the effects of climate change? Sunil MK draws from Asian benchmarks.
More than a decade ago, the United Nations City Summit Habitat Agenda concluded that there was "great opportunity and hope that a new world can be built, in which economic development, social development and environmental protection as interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development can be realised through solidarity and cooperation within and between countries and through effective partnerships at all levels." Today, this vision has materialised to a great extent, thanks to the efforts and collaboration of governments and non-profit organisations in establishing sustainable eco-cities in several countries. As more than half of the world's population is transitioning into cities on a quest for better socio-economic status, sustainable cities pave the way for a balance between increasing demand and dwindling supply of resources.
Eco-cities in Asia
This trend seems to be most apparent in Asia, home to economic giants such as China and India. Spurred by booming economies, Asian megacities are poised to determine the course of their own futures. Urbanisation is a multifaceted and complex process as revealed by recent findings of the Asian Development Bank (ADB): "Forty-four million people are added to city populations every year, which is equivalent to 120,000 people each day. These new arrivals require the construction of more than 20,000 new dwellings, 250 km of new roads and additional infrastructure to supply more than 6 mega litre of potable water."
While these cities have socially and economically progressed at breakneck speeds, they still shelter the majority of the world's poor, who are usually the worst affected by the impacts of climate change and environmental adversity. Although these cities provide a vast economic base, they equally contribute to adverse environmental impacts on air and water.
The grim reality is that over 200 million urban dwellers in Asia live in poverty and often in slums. Cities are under constant pressure to transform themselves into healthier, more attractive and economically sound places to live while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The ray of hope, however, is that these megacities are conscientious about their contribution to environmental and are extending themselves as workshops for solutions that may reverse the ill effects of climate change over time. The fact that China is set to invest $128 million on water-related investments by 2014, in comparison to the US, which has set aside only $1 trillion on water infrastructure over the next 20 years, indicates the pace at which the region is catching up with the rest of the world in the area of sustainability.
So is it possible to develop cities that maintain stable economic growth and harness sustainable, climate-change-immune, and inclusive development?
Deconstructing our cities
Experts debate that a change that they currently see, and are likely to see in the future, is the development of entire city plans from scratch. This kind of intensive planning is essential to completely replace old infrastructure that becomes almost obsolete due to its failing capabilities in an urbanised environment. As we know, every country approaches urbanisation differently and the evidence lies within notable eco-cities in Asia.
Tianjin eco-city, in the north-eastern part of China, south of Beijing, is a bilateral project between the Singapore and Chinese governments, jointly developed by Singapore-listed Keppel Group and a Chinese consortium led by state-owned Tianjin TEDA. This eco-city has gained prominence across the world for applying the most basic yet effective tenets of design those of being practical, replicable, and scalable. The Urban Sustainability Index (USI) the first-ever index for measuring and comparing urban sustainability across China, suggests that for a city to be truly green, Chinese cities should be higher in density, provide easy access for people through good public transport and better use of land.
Japan's industrial town Kawasaki has emerged as one of the nation's well-developed eco-towns. Before the Japanese government invested in its restoration, the town grappled with lack of space, unmanaged industrial waste and excessive pollution. Based on the concept of æzero waste', the city aims to recycle waste that is generated in an industrial sector or in households and reuse it in another sector as material.
Perspectives for the future
The successful development and sustenance of eco-cities hinges on a healthy balance between top-down and bottom-up governance at a local level. It is high time that the governing bodies in Asia need to adopt a more holistic approach towards sustainability by planning eco-cities from end-to-end with foresight on issues such as budgets and financing. A city can financially support its sustainable services by maximising existing revenue sources and identifying potential new ones, by leveraging other resources from the private sector, and by soliciting funding to support the development of sustainability initiatives.
Changes are inevitable in the planning process and leadership will need to establish a flexible process of community participation that readily adapts to circumstances in each city. There is great opportunity for meaningful public-private sector relationships. The UN Global Compact Cities Programme allows local governments to create focused dialogue with other sectors which may better inform and influence public policy and local governance on a daily basis. On the other hand, it enables the private sector to engage with other sectors within the communities in their eco-system and contribute to their development at the grass root level. It gives civil society organisations the platform to engage directly with political decision-makers, business and opinion-leaders in informing and influencing the policy agenda, in addition to development of practical action on social, environmental and economic issues affecting the city.
We believe that the silos between governments, businesses and the civil society need to be broken down, such that the onus lies on all three entities. We have observed that most environmental issues require an integrated solution and a sustainable city can only truly thrive when the public and private sectors collaborate, ideate and implement on a common strategic platform. Furthermore, the responsibility of building an eco-city does not culminate with that of its infrastructure. Often an overlooked aspect, it is also of prime importance to help inhabitants of eco-cities to adapt to their new environment and adopt more sustainable lifestyles.
The key to the long-term success of eco-cities lies in effective communication among all primary stakeholders involved. Apart from planning and building an eco-city, it is equally important to foster a sense of community among decision makers (local governments), NGOs, environmental businesses, media and general public. Nurturing such sentiments of attachment and belonging is likely to encourage individuals and organisations to work together and maintain their eco-cities responsibly in the long run.
The history of human evolution traces a series of trials and errors. The future of sustainable cities can be enhanced greatly by applying lessons learnt from the errors of the past to opportunities in the future.