Healthy, liveable urban areas are crucial for sustainable development.
In Japan, it’s not uncommon to see buildings that have been transformed into living structures with gardens and parks incorporated into their frameworks, while homes fitted with solar panels to reduce the energy footprint are also common features.
Singapore, already one of the greenest cities in Asia, now has the distinction of having the world’s tallest vertical garden – the 24-storey Tree House condominium.
Asia may not have a completely green city like Vancouver in Canada, which started on this path a decade ago, but there are some cities in the region making the right moves.
China is already starting to build eco-cities – places where people can live healthier and economically productive lives while reducing their impact on the environment.
Steffen Lehmann, a sustainable design and behaviour specialist with the University of South Australia, said that the idea behind eco-cities is to live with the environment and resources.
“Eco-cities strive to cut greenhouse gas emissions by producing energy through renewable sources such as solar, wind and biomass, and using low-carbon public transport,” Lehmann said, adding that resources are conserved through waste-management techniques such as natural bio-filtration of storm water.
“There are even plans to grow food and plant new green areas within the boundaries of the city,” he said. “The ambitious ultimate goal of these cities is self-sufficiency.”
Desperate need for greener spaces
Ramola Naik Singru, one of the region’s leading urban development experts, said there is an urgent need for Asia to focus on making cities more liveable and greener.
“Liveability comprises three essential ingredients: Air, water and land. Clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and green, well-managed land to enjoy,” said.
“We have to manage all three of these natural resources to create liveable urban spaces,” Singru, who is regional team leader for the Green Cities Initiative with the Asian Development Bank, added.
Green cities embrace a much more holistic view of growth and create an environment for people to access employment and services opportunities, she explained.
“The more we incorporate these into urban planning, it will lead to added health benefits for the citizens.”
Asia has already been facing enormous environmental challenges. Three of the top five carbon dioxide emitting economies as well as 11 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in Asia.
In many parts of the region, losses from traffic-related congestion amount to 5 per cent of GDP.
The situation is worse in poor cities that experience rapid growth, where pollution is becoming extremely serious, infrastructure supply lags demand, and basic public services such as water connections and solid waste disposal do not reach the majority.
In addition, many residents live on marginal lands where they face risks from flooding, disease and other shocks.
How Asian cities develop in the years to come will be the defining element in the region’s long-term prosperity and stability, according to the ADB.
“The quality and efficiency with which Asian cities are developed will make or break the region,” the bank said in an online report titled Green Cities.
“Despite the problems, these rapidly growing cities are not simply home to urban squalor,” it said. “They contain the vital ingredients to improve millions of people’s lives in the region. They are the engines of growth that drive prosperity in Asia and lead to solutions.”
Axel van Trotsenburg, the World Bank’s vice-president for East Asia and Pacific, said recently: “Cities have always been the engines of economic growth; now they hold the key to a sustainable future”.
He added that the urban arena is where development challenges and solutions meet.
“Some 6.2 billion people – or two-thirds of the world’s population – will be living in cities by 2050. Unfortunately, most of this urban growth will take place in developing countries, where the vast majority of people remain unserved by basic infrastructure services and where they are least able to cope with the uncertainty of climate impacts.”
Singru notes how Asian cities are embracing green concepts and identifying ways to become healthier and more liveable through the improvement of air, water and land.
“Under the ADB’s Green Cities Initiative in Southeast Asia we are working with Hue and Vinh Yen in Vietnam, Malacca in Malaysia, Mandalay in Myanmar, and four cities in Indonesia,” she said.
Every little bit counts
Singapore has prioritised waste minimisation, and a widespread recycling project has resulted in upward of 60 per cent of waste currently being recycled.
It also required all new buildings in the central business district to incorporate green spaces, whether it be within the building itself or a small park on the roof.
Cambodia has transformed a water system in Phnom Penh that, in the early 1990s, only served one in five residents with poor-quality water intermittently. In place is a system to provide international-standard potable water to over 90 per cent of the population – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
So what do people in Asia want to see in their cities? The answers are complex, but if you take northern Vietnam’s Vinh Yen as an example, the sentiments of the locals there reflect those of millions living in urban areas around the region, Singru said.
They want their environment to be clean, fresh and in harmony with nature, with more trees, more small parks, fewer cars, in convenient and modern settings.
The people of Vinh Yen are not unique in their aspirations. Throughout Asia, people are recognising that cities serve a function beyond business and economic growth.
They are places where people live, children go to school and families spend time together. The quality of the air, water and land in these cities has a direct impact on millions of people.
So how can Asian cities be transformed from sprawling, gridlocked and polluted commercial centres into healthy, liveable areas that can be sustained for decades?
The ADB said the transformation of Asia’s cities requires a “complete rethink of the way urban areas are developed and managed”.