Asia’s urban crunch: What to do about 900,000 weekly arrivals?

Jobs, water, food and energy must be found for the 120,000 people in Asia moving to cities every day. Experts at a recent urban environment event in the United Kingdom discussed the challenges of Asia’s urban crunch.

Farm workers in Asia have never had it easy. And yet their future looks even harder as machines are replacing their jobs not only in the fields, but the factories as farmers migrate to cities in ever greater numbers in search of jobs that probably won’t exist in the near future.

The demand for more and cheaper food products is driving the change to more productive farming technologies which, combined with the low price of food and stagnating pay, is forcing rural workers into cities at a time when basic operator positions such as bus driving or operating machinery are under threat

Speaking at the World Built Environment Forum (WBEF) in London in April, Saeed Al Abbar, chairman of Emirates Green Building Council, said that he was “not convinced that the rate of new job growth was going to replace old jobs lost”. Saeed was speaking in a panel called Cities in the Changing Ecosystems of Industry and Commerce which was focussing on economic realignments that were occurring across the globe.

Urban unemployment is one of the many challenges that Asia’s cities are facing as growing populations and mass migration expand city populations by an additional 900,000 people every week. 

Seven of the world’s biggest mega cities are in Asia Pacific, and more than half of the region’s 4.5 billion population will live in cities by 2026, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. In China, which has one of the world’s highest rates of urbanisation, its cities have absorbed more than 100 million people in the last six years.

In a recent UN report on “Sustainable cities, human mobility and international migration” the combination of rural-to-urban migration and the reclassification of rural locations as urban accounted for 80 per cent of the urban growth that that occurred in China and Thailand and 68 percent in Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s.

And yet it would be difficult for Asia’s economic rise to continue without further urbanisation. According to Chris Choa, vice president and global principal - cities and development, AECOM, Asia’s cities are on course to become some of the richest in the world during the course of this century. Choa also stated that cities were centres for creativity and discovery precisely because of the unpredictable and serendipitous opportunities that come with chance meetings between people and companies.

Most panellists agreed that overall urbanisation was a good trend globally for productivity and equality as office jobs pay more than rural work. It was also recognised as being more sustainable to have office workers moving from high rise apartment blocks to high rise office blocks via electric subways rather than suburban dwellers driving themselves and family to work and school. 

The cost of urbanisation 

But urbanisation is not without environmental and social cost.

Dr Anne Kerr, the global head of cities for Hong Kong-based engineering and management consultancy Mott MacDonald, said that cities will use 50 per cent more energy, 40 per cent more water, and 30 per cent more food by 2030 at current consumption rates. Cities already consume 60 per cent of the world’s energy and generate 75 per cent of global gas emissions.

This huge demand on resources from cities is driving social inequality both in the urban centres and the rural outskirts. Farm workers, who are some of the world’s lowliest paid, will form an even more impoverished working class, trapped by their unwanted skills. Most farmers in Southeast Asia today oversee family-run subsistence plots, providing enough just to feed their own families.

One of the biggest resource challenges that Asia’s cities face is in water. Dr Vivek Nanda, CEO of investment consultancy Hinduja Investment & Project Services, went so far as to suggest that water, or the lack of it through poor infrastructure and resource planning, would cause “the demise of the mega cities, especially in India”. 

This view was shared by distinguished visiting professor Asit Biswas at the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, who has predicted that 10 Indian cities will run out of water within the next 20 years. Professor Biswas also correctly predicted South Africa’s water crisis. 

What to do about Asia’s urban crunch?

The main two drivers for their growth since the latter half of the last century have been a drop in infant mortality rate and a spike in rural unemployment, explained Martin Wolf, associate editor and chief economics commentator of the Financial Times in a session titled A time for action – our responsibility to act.

In East Asia, according to the World Bank, child mortality fell from 43 in 1000 in 1990 and to 14 in 1,000 by 2016. And according to Wolf, Asia will be responsible for 35 per cent of the global population growth up to 2050.

If Asia’s cities grow as projected then governments will face numerous urban planning challenges. Cities will have to be designed to accommodate ever-increasing populations and demands on infrastructure, including power, water and food in a way that reduces the emission of pollutants and greenhouse gases and captures carbon in the atmosphere, he said.

This is a challenging enough task in developed cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore which do not have natural hinterlands with a steady flow of job-hunting farmers, let alone mega-cities such as Bangkok, Ho Ch Minh, Jakarta and Manila.

Urban planning through the rear-view mirror

A common complaint about infrastructure planning in most cities around the world is that it rarely seems to anticipate future expansion. Urban transport planning in particular seems to be achieved by looking through the rear-view mirror as most rush-hour commuters will attest to. According to UN Habitat traditional urban planning thinking used to focus on the “physical design of public buildings, streets, parks, etc., while allowing other dimensions of urban development to be determined solely by market forces.”

An opinion poll at WBEF asked delegates whether the built environment sector was adequately prepared to take on the challenges of the 21st century. 62 per cent of respondents disagreed with this statement.

A constant concern in the dialogues was that cities were restrained in their ability to innovate. Cities are shaped by their past and are trapped by legacy perspectives. Historical architecture and infrastructure designed for different times can cement existing ways of thinking. For instance, Manila’s traffic problems are partly a result of the unfortunate hour glass shape of the city with the central business district trapped in the middle between Manila Bay and Laguna Lake. 

Citizens are often resistant to change and policymakers “must adopt long-term thinking instead of focusing only on immediate concerns”, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam has said. For example, it is tempting for Asian cities to tackle more immediate problems such as managing traffic jams than planning to use water more efficiently.

Will technology save Asian cities?

The biggest tech trends that will impact the architecture and construction industry are ‘big data analytics’ and ‘artificial intelligence’, according to a live poll conducted at the conference. It was noted that some of the solutions being used now to manage the built environment, such as the use of sensors, geolocation applications, big data analysis, and other smart city applications, were unheard of when many conference delegates were starting their careers. 

But with 1.5 million people moving to cities globally every week, and cities coming under increasing resource constraints, there may not be time to wait until serendipity solves the challenges of mass urbanisation. As Martin Wolf commented, “Cities will shape our future—and so the shape of cities will also shape our future.”

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