Saturday, July 3, 2010

The trouble with Asia's mega cities

If, as the Banyan columnist argues in The Economist this week, "the world’s hopes of putting carbon emissions on a manageable path depend upon on how developing Asia urbanises in the coming decades", then I fear we may be in trouble.

In developing Asia, governments of both the democratic and non-democratic hue claim legitimacy  through the promise that they will deliver rapid economic development. It is, therefore, hard to envisage these governments reining in growth in order to ensure more sustainable development.

Banyan says that "urban living can be greener than other ways of life", with the economies of scale created by huge population clusters opening the theoretical door to reduced travel, less energy wastage and lower carbon emissions.

But, the reality in developing Asia is less rosy. As Banyan puts it:

Most poor people coming to the city aspire to higher standards of living and consumption. Ill-planned public transport reinforces car use. Most striking, putting up and using buildings accounts for a big part of developing Asia’s carbon emissions—perhaps 30% in the case of China, where nearly half the world’s new floor space is built each year. What’s more, the buildings do not age well. Many thrown up in the 1990s are already being pulled down and replaced.

When I was living in Jakarta, I saw first-hand the embodiment of the filthy, polluted, badly planned Asian mega city. My next destination, Hanoi, retains many of the charms that have all but vanished from other major cities in Asia. Yet it too is under growing pressure because of urbanisation and rapid development.

In terms of medium to long term sustainability, the picture is bleak. But millions of people have been brought out of poverty because of the opportunities afforded by Asia's mega cities.

So can it be right to argue from the comfort of a city that went through its growing pains a hundred years ago (London) that Asia's governments should put stricter controls on urban growth?

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