Asia’s New Megacity Urbanisation

ADB reports that in 1950, the Asia and Pacific region was mostly rural with only 17% or 232.0 million of its 1.4 billion people living in towns or cities. The United Nations (UN) estimates that by 2030, 55% of 4.9 billion Asians, or 2.7 billion people, will live in urban areas. Starting in about 2015, all of the region’s population increase will effectively occur in urban areas.

More Asian megacities, already 12 today, with each having more than 10 million citizens, will spring up due to globalisation, regionalisation and capital mobility. Megacities means increased management complexity for public governance as cities transform from sub-global cities (1 to 5 million citizens) to global cities (5 million citizens) and to megacities, often growing faster than their infrastructure growth.

What new Asian urban trends are expected in future?

The New Asian Poor: About 70% or 800 million of the world’s poor live in Asia. Between 240 and 260 million of them or 33% live in urban areas. Many of Asia’s urban poor live in informal settlements in both built-up and sub-urban slums (‘Slumdog Zeroaires’). The slum population is projected to reach 692 million by 2015 from the current 500 million. Quick-changing economies will mean that the New Asian Economy will demand higher levels of education and work skills. Workers, both blue and white collar, who cannot compete will be forced to sell their houses and forced to accept lower-paying jobs in an increasingly competitive job market. Meanwhile, the income disparity continues. Mega-rich Asians will continue to grow even richer. Forbes’ World’s Billionaires 2009 already include 15 Asians among the top 100 like Mukesh Ambani (#7, India), Lakshmi Mittal (#8, India), and Li Ka-shing (#16, Hong Kong). More Asian wealth-creators will continue to transform and dominate the Asian megacity landscape.

The New Asian Housing: Housing and plots which the poor can afford are rare. Much housing backlogs of most Asian cities will continue to increase and lead to further overcrowding and the growth of more informal settlements along railway tracks, steep slopes or river banks. Private housing projects will continue to be built to cater to demands of increasingly-sophisticated Asian PMEBs. We can also expect more privately-led new city development as Asian private businesses take the lead in this new trend.

The New Asian Culture: Success factors of making Asian cities attractive is more than hard, technical or macro factors like economic or political stability. People need softer intangible factors like a sense of belonging, fun and heritage. Urban heritage provides 3 advantages. Culturally, it represents a city’s cultural development. Socially, heritage restoration projects improve the quality of life, create jobs and increase incomes. Economically, urban heritage attracts tourists and investors. Globalisation and international labour mobility also helps to evolve a new East-West mega culture in Asian cities. One can expect Asian city planners to re-sell Asia as a hotbed of this new dynamic mega culture.

The New Asian Innovation: The process of commercialising new knowledge in a product or process changes with technology. Asian businesses in countries like India, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Singapore will continue to increase leading in such knowledge-transfer and R&D activities as these have become major sources of competitive advantage with ideas flowing higher between neighbouring cities. More business and R&D networks will help spread productivity-enhancing technology. Venture and bank-raised capital will lower finance costs.

Sustainable Asian urban development is still achievable given sound strategic planning of cities, strong capacity building and proper economic, environmental and social development. A key issue is policy formulation and update. Another is policy implementation.

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