How Asia's Transformation Could Shape the World's Urban Future
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Asians have shown they can lead the global economy. Can they also show the world a sustainable urban future for billions of people?
By Parag Khanna
Asia is ground zero for the most significant challenge of the 21st century: sustainable urbanization. If the billions of people cramming into the cities of the Pacific Rim and South Asia can not only maintain their breakneck growth but do so without cooking the planet, mankind will have dodged a major bullet. The scale of the challenge for Asia is only growing: Just under half of all Asians live in cities, compared to roughly 82 percent of Americans and 74 percent of Europeans. Asians are on the move to catch up — but can they leapfrog at the same time?
The continent’s rapidly modernizing cities are driving the region’s accelerating connectivity and growth. Each subregion of Asia has a growing number of thriving urban hubs: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Riyadh and Doha in the Gulf region; Istanbul, Tel Aviv and Tehran in West Asia; Karachi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai in South Asia; and all of East Asia and Southeast Asia’s metropolises, from Tokyo to Shanghai, Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City and Manila to Jakarta. Nine of the 10 busiest international flight connections in the world are between Asian cities, with only the pairing of New York and Toronto representing North America on the list. The ancient Silk Road routes are back in hyper-drive, with airlines, high-speed railways and highways augmented with internet cables.
Additionally, Asia has had nearly 50 years of the “Tiger economies” — South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — which took off by establishing special economic zones (SEZs) to attract foreign investment into factory towns and climb the rungs of global value chains. China caught on 40 years ago, when Deng Xiaoping made Shenzhen the country’s first SEZ; within a decade, China had become the world’s factory floor. Now the model has spread to Vietnam and Indonesia, India and Oman, with countries across Asia designating SEZs as entry and exit points for intermediate and finished goods. Like holes in a weaving board, these nodes capture the threads of commerce that tie Asians closer together.
Whether Asians can scale the innovations of their experimental zones to the level of their many megalopolis cities is therefore the question.
For sure, Asia is also home to the most ambitious “smart city” projects, from the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar to India’s Amaravati and China’s Tianjin Eco-City, districts aiming to go completely green with driverless electric cars and zero-emissions buildings. But the combined population of all of these startup cities could fit inside one neighborhood of China’s Chongqing city.
Whether Asians can scale the innovations of their experimental zones to the level of their many megalopolis cities is therefore the question whose answer will hold lessons for the rest of the world too.
Asia’s megacities have already reached a scale that is unimaginable in the West, where the largest metropolises rarely exceed 10 million residents. Asia’s mammoth cities are sprawling archipelagos spanning vast areas, home to upwards of 60 million people, and they experience nearly a million new arrivals every week, about two-thirds of the global total.
For the most part, Asia’s spectacular city growth has been good for its residents. Many larger Asian cities are becoming richer, and the overall quality of life for city dwellers is improving. Japan, South Korea and China’s wealthy coastal provinces have accumulated the fiscal capacity, political will and technological know-how to deploy quality infrastructure, housing, utilities and services for the masses.
But sprawl, congestion, unemployment and slums are critical impediments in Asia’s even bigger swath of high-growth countries stretching from Pakistan through India and all of Southeast Asia to the Philippines. The South and Southeast Asian regions have a combined population of more than 2.5 billion, eclipsing that of China. But New Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai, Karachi, Dhaka and Manila all rank among Asia’s densest and least-developed cities. The secondary cities of Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are growing even faster, with even poorer infrastructure quality.
Can Asia’s teeming and congested megacities of Mumbai and Manila learn sustainability from Tokyo and Singapore as quickly as they are trading with them? Solutions are very much within reach. Shanghai also once suffered from acute air pollution, but it has launched ambitious programs to produce clean energy and promote electric vehicles. Shenzhen is seeking to balance its scale with livability through new building regulations, carbon trading schemes and electric cars. In Guangzhou, which has suffered from land and water shortages due to overdevelopment, new construction in fertile areas is being dramatically curtailed, and air pollution was reduced by 42 percent between 2012 and 2016. These three cities and many others are benefiting from new national regulations to curb industrial pollution of the air, land and riverways.
The falling cost of infrastructure and renewable energy could make similar leapfrogging possible for those Asian megacities very near to the environmental breaking point. In Karachi, Pakistan, a city suffering from power shortages and an acute solid waste and sewage crisis, the government is investing heavily in public transport and desalination. Desalination projects are also among the largest investments in India today, as well as water recycling, affordable housing and new electric scooter taxis. To cope with its high subsidence rate stemming from rapid groundwater depletion, Bangkok is retrofitting its water infrastructure with an aim toward higher efficiency and conservation. Hanoi — currently the city where you’re most likely to be run over by a motorbike — wants to phase the two-wheelers out within a decade and build an underground metro. From container homes to reduce the consumption of concrete to “internet of things” sensors to alleviate traffic, making Asia’s megacities smarter and more sustainable can be done.
Even though Asia still has a long way to go, Europe is coming on strong as a role model, business partner and investor in Asia’s sustainable transformation as well. Entire European countries, including Germany, Italy and Spain, are at or near grid parity, meaning that the cost of installing wind, solar and other renewable power now pays for itself in operational savings to citizens and businesses. Copenhagen, Paris, Vienna and Berlin lead the way in bike lanes, public parks, green architecture and vertical agriculture — all innovations desperately needed in Bangalore and Jakarta.
As Asia grows wealthier and older, its citizens want not just factory towns but also walkable communities. German city planners designed the Tianjin Eco-City in China and are underway with a similar master plan outside Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia. Siemens built Bangkok’s elevated light rail and is expanding Kuala Lumpur’s while bidding to implement a dozen more across Asia. The European Union’s International Urban Cooperation (IUC) program works with more than 30 pairs of cities bridging Europe and Asia to fund sustainability projects. European and Asian cities now share guidance and case studies on platforms such as Metropolis, which also convenes city officials to establish direct city-to-city policy-transfer relationships across Eurasia.
The German architect Ole Scheeren has designed award-winning buildings such as the Interlace in Singapore, the MahaNakhon tower in Bangkok and, in Ho Chi Minh City, the Empire City project, where green design will meet the natural green of Vietnam’s tropical flora. And for Asia’s masses, a dozen European companies have developed low-cost 3D-printed homes made of snap-together parts.
Asians have proven they have the work ethic to take pole position in the world economy. There’s every reason to be hopeful they will devote similar energy to leading in sustainability as well.
- Parag Khanna Contact Parag Khanna