The power of people: urbanisation will radically transform ASEAN cities by 2050

Ho Chi Minh City Skyline Photo:Jim

The United Nations says increased urban migration flows will heavily impact the region’s cities in coming decades. These trends could exacerbate environmental and economic problems, but they also bring the prospect of renewal.

By Zachary Frye

In 2019, the Asia-Pacific became a majority urban population for the first time in history. There are no signs of the urban population growth slowing down.

According to a new report from the United Nations, there will be 1.2 billion new urban residents in the region by 2050. This sharp spike in the urban population will transform regional economies, societies and environments.

With the prospect of rapid change, policymakers need to start developing cities’ capacity for resilience. Matters such as resource and infrastructure management, disaster risk and inequality could substantially disrupt urban sustainability. However, there is also the potential for economic and social renewal.

For this reason, urban demographic shifts shouldn’t necessarily be feared. The threats of mismanaged migration are real, but so are the prospects for workable solutions. With properly implemented policies, ASEAN’s cities could become a global model for inclusive urban living.

Good governance, technology and social enterprise are the keys to success

In order to adequately prepare for the cities of the future, regional governments should prioritise sustainability. More than just a buzzword, sustainability means adopting inclusive economies, environments and infrastructure informed by robust quality of life standards.

In this sense, a successful, modern ASEAN city will need to be concerned with more than just economic growth. Holistic urban planning measures will be needed to give all residents the chance to thrive, not just the wealthy. But realising these aims in a region where governments are susceptible to corruption will require the strengthening of urban governance mechanisms.

Equally important is the implementation of new technologies. Whether in the finance, transportation, or policymaking realms, technology has the potential to transform the way urban residents live, work and play. 

Speaking with ASEAN Today, Ms Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), urged ASEAN cities to utilise technology to strengthen the economy and meet its urban policy goals.

“Technological innovation is also key to industrial growth and competitiveness, which powers sustainable economic development and prosperity. The success of a smart city should not, however, be determined based on how advanced the technology is, but on how such applications empower the city to solve more problems and develop towards a more sustainable future,” she said.

Ms Alisjahbana also highlighted the power of social entrepreneurs to improve inclusivity in the face of urban migration and the active role the private sector can play in shaping the cities firms inhabit.

“Cities attract high concentrations of private sector entrepreneurs, making them a hub for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial environments. This presents an opportunity for city administrators to tap into unexpected ingenuity by co-creating solutions to problems in partnership with the technology sector,” she added.      

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Climate change and inequality haunt the promise of positive change

While the potential for positive change in Southeast Asian cities is clear, the risks shouldn’t be ignored.

Two of the most pressing issues borne from haphazard population growth are in the economic and environmental sectors. If economic and social inequalities continue to grow, it will be much harder to maintain progress and stability in urban hubs. Without tangible efforts to decrease inequality, the UN warns that urban slum populations will rise in tandem with increased migration.

Promoting inclusive societies, therefore, will be key to reducing the threat of increased urban poverty in the coming decades.

The threat of rising waters from hotter climates will also be challenging. With many ASEAN megacities situated on coastal, low lying areas, higher populations could complicate efforts to mitigate climate-induced displacement and income shocks.

“One key message we spotlight in the report is that the region’s urban economies have developed through largely environmentally exploitative models. Unsustainable consumption patterns and changes in lifestyle over recent decades together have predominantly resulted in environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, increased pressure on natural resources, generation of waste, exposure to pollution and disasters, and vulnerability to climate change, all of which require urgent integrated responses and political action,” says Ms Alisjahbana. 

Unless runaway temperature increases are stopped, rising waters could become the biggest threat to the region’s cities by 2050. Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, Yangon and a host of other ASEAN cities are extremely vulnerable to the ill-effects of climate change. In the worst-case scenario, mass displacement and job loss could devastate communities and economies. For this reason, it is imperative that policymakers take this issue seriously.       

Some regional cities are laying the groundwork for inclusive growth, but more needs to be done

In the face of rapid urban migration and environmental degradation, robust long-term planning will be crucial. Fortunately, there are a host of places within the region that are contributing to positive momentum on the issue.

In Surabaya, Indonesia, for example, the municipal government enacts a holistic urban development programme called ‘Green Kampong.’ The programme emphasises targeted development at the local level. Community-level democracy and participatory planning and budgets are encouraged with a keen eye on environmental impacts.

Similarly, its ‘Citizen Park Space Program’ works in tandem with slum communities to relocate them from degrading riverbanks. The locations are turned into public parks with help from local businesses.

National-level policies can also make a difference. In Cambodia, the government organises a savings scheme called the ‘Urban Poor Development Fund.’ Focusing on the poorest urban dwellers, it pools resources to help fund community savings, housing upgrades and small-scale infrastructure improvements.

As for the smart implementation of technology, Luang Prabang’s planned use of a geographic information system (GIS) to combat flooding in Laos is a model for the region’s natural disaster efforts. As its natural wetlands become degraded by urban development and illegal encroachment, the city will employ an extensive sensor network to compile data on drainage systems and local ecologies. The data is expected to inform policy on citywide development and conservation.

While these efforts are encouraging, there is still much work to be done. For ASEAN cities to thrive in the coming decades, approaches like these must become more widely adopted. To prepare for increased urban migration, extensive environmental, economic and social considerations will be necessary. Regional policymakers have the tools to smooth the transition, but it will take political will and forward-thinking foresight to keep on pace.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.