Asia and the Pacific’s phenomenal development has been a story of rapid urbanization. As centres of innovation, entrepreneurship and opportunity, cities have drawn talent from across our region and driven economic growth which has transformed our societies. In southeast Asia alone, cities generate 65 percent of the region’s GDP. Yet the ongoing scale of urbanization is a considerable challenge, one which puts huge pressure on essential public services, housing availability and the environment.
How we respond to this pressure, how we manage our urban centres and plan for their future expansion in Asia and the Pacific, is likely to decide whether recent development gains can be made sustainable. It is of primordial importance to Malaysia as its economy powers towards high income status. In ASEAN countries, 90 million more persons are expected to move to cities by 2030. Accommodating this influx sustainably will determine whether the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development can be achieved, and the climate targets of the Paris Climate Agreement can be met.
An effective response calls for integrated planning across all levels of government. Greater consideration needs to be given to demographic and land use trends to anticipate their impacts and minimize environmental damage. These trends should inform our investments in infrastructure but also in water, energy and transport services. Closing the infrastructure gap in the region will alone require an additional $200 billion of investment a year until 2030. We know local government revenues are mostly insufficient and fiscal decentralization inadequate to respond to this need. Intelligent fiscal reforms to improve local revenues are likely to be necessary and we will need to consider how we can capture land value and use Public-Private Partnerships.
In the most disaster-prone region in the world, it is incumbent on us to reduce the risk of natural disasters to which millions of urban dwellers are exposed. By 2030, vulnerable populations living in extreme risk areas – along river banks, canals and slopes – are expected to have grown by fifty percent since 2015 in many of region’s major cities. Some cities, including Melaka, are participating in initiatives such as the 100 Resilient Cities, focused on community-based disaster risk reduction. Yet this effort needs to be given even greater scale if we are to achieve risk resilient cities in our region. Accelerating our multilateral cooperation and best practice sharing could make a valuable contribution to doing so.
New technologies hold great promise for more effective urban solutions. From smart grids and district energy solutions, or real-time traffic management, to waste management and water systems, smart technologies will enable our future cities to operate more effectively. They could also make them more inclusive and accessible for persons with disabilities. We have an opportunity to incorporate universal design standards and systems such as automated access to audio-based communications to improve accessibility to cities for persons with disabilities. We must encourage smart city developers to use standards which would give persons with diverse disabilities full access to the physical infrastructure and information others enjoy.
As we look to overcome all these challenges, the ASEAN Smart Cities Network designed to mobilize smart solutions throughout southeast Asia, is a welcome development on which we must build. The implementation of this network is something the organization I represent, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, has worked to support. Combined with the ASEAN’s broader Sustainable Urbanization Strategy, it is helping provide much needed resource in the region to manage urbanization better. Twenty-six cities, including Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru are developing visions for their cities to apply technologies for smart and sustainable urban development.
The expertise being acquired is invaluable to the broader region’s effort. Malaysia has a leading role to play. At the 9th World Urban Forum Malaysia hosed last year, experts came from the world over to focus on cities for all and the New Urban Agenda. In October 2019, the 7th Asia Pacific Urban Forum will be held in Penang. My hope is that this can focus minds and galvanize support for best practice to be shared and sustainable urban development to be prioritized in Asia and the Pacific.
The living air purifiers cities need more of
In our all-too-hectic urban lives, a city park is a great place to unwind. Trees and green spaces have mental health and well-being benefits, on top of being great for relaxation and recreation.
Trees also help reduce air pollution. According to the study Tree and forest effects on air quality and human health in the United States, particulate matter, which is particularly damaging to lungs, is retained on tree surfaces, while leaves act as filters, absorbing polluting gases.
But the study also warns that while trees can mitigate the effect of air pollution, deposits of air pollutants on leaves can also affect photosynthesis “and therefore potentially affect pollution removal by trees”. As with everything, balance is key.
The cooling effect of trees
Trees can also significantly cool temperatures in cities. In hot climates, tree cover can reduce energy expenditure on air conditioning, while driving down the consumption of air polluting fossil fuels that power these cooling systems. Experimental investigations and modelling studies in the United States have shown that shade from trees can reduce the air conditioning costs of detached houses by 20–30 per cent.
“Trees could reduce temperatures in cities up to 8°C, lowering use of air conditioning and related emissions by up to 40 per cent,” says Simone Borelli, an Agroforestry and Urban/Periurban Forestry Officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“When part of a wider landscape mosaic, large green patches within and around cities would also reduce emissions through avoided sprawl and excess mobility requirements,” he adds.
Urban tree-planting has to be done right. Species planted should be ones that are most effective at trapping pollution, typically those with large leaves. Officials also need to account for things like wind patterns and tree spacing. If water is scarce, they’ll want to consider drought-tolerant varieties, and avoid trees that increase pollen and allergies.
Action is all the more important given that urbanization is accelerating—the proportion of people living in cities will be 60 per cent in 2030 and 66 per cent in 2050. Nearly 90 per cent of this increase will occur in Africa and Asia. To address the impacts of this rapid growth and the related challenges, a large-scale effort is needed.
Building the Great Green Wall of Cities
Nearly 8,000 km long and 15 km wide, the Great Green Wall is an African-led movement of epic proportions initiated in 2007 to green the entire width of northern Africa, a semi-arid region extending from Senegal to Djibouti. A decade in and roughly 15 per cent under way, the initiative is slowly bringing life back to some of Africa’s degraded landscapes, providing food security, jobs and a reason to stay for the millions who live along its path.
An initiative of this nature in urban areas is being developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and other partners in preparation for the UN Climate Summit in September 2019. It aims to create up to 500,000 hectares of new urban forests and restore or maintain up to 300,000 ha of existing natural forests in and around 90 cities of the Sahel and Central Asia by 2030. Once established, this “Great Green Wall of Cities” would capture 0.5–5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year and stock carbon for centuries.
On 1 March 2019 the UN General Assembly established the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, which should give further impetus to tree-planting efforts.
“UN Environment promotes the planting of trees as a key way to mitigate climate change and boost land-based biodiversity, 80 per cent of which is in forests,” says Tim Christophersen, head of UN Environment’s Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration. “We are working with partners across the planet to boost tree planting for ecosystem restoration. There is scope for planting one trillion more trees, in addition to the 3 trillion that already exist on Earth. But it has to be done right; planting indigenous trees, supported by local communities, is a good way to go.”
Let the stones gather some moss
In those forest ecosystems, trees are not alone in cleaning the air. An ambitious project by Greencity Solutions in Berlin, Germany, seeks to marry high-tech applications with another natural air purifier: moss.
“The ability of certain moss cultures to filter pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides from the air makes them ideal natural air purifiers,” says Greencity Solutions.
“But in cities, where air purification is a great challenge, mosses are barely able to survive due to their need for water and shade. This problem can be solved by connecting different mosses with fully automated water and nutrient provision based on unique Internet of things technology,” it explains.
Or by planting more trees that will provide the cover and humidity, that will help moss take hold and grow.
New study expected to chart Melaka’s pathway to urban sustainability
Within the framework of the ‘Sustainable City Development in Malaysia’ project, which seeks to address the country’s urban challenges and which is being implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), executed by the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), and supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the ‘Melaka Sustainability Outlook Diagnostic: Pathway to Urban Sustainability’ was launched today. The report is the result of an assessment performed by the World Bank’s Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) in which Melaka actively participates. The study will inform the Melaka State’s Structure Plan and its long-term planning document; it will also offer key recommendations for the State to chart its own pathway to urban sustainability.
The diagnostic consists of an overview report containing a policy brief, an executive summary and a benchmark assessment as well as six supporting reports that cover each of the diagnostic’s dimensions, namely Reinforcing Melaka’s Economic Success; Integrating Environmental Plans; Enhancing Housing and Services; Shaping a Compact, Efficient, and Harmonious Urban Form; Shifting Melaka’s Mobility Modal Split; and Demonstrating Fiscal Sustainability.
One of the report’s recommendations calls for the State and the City of Melaka to obtain a credit rating; accordingly, both entities already agreed to undergo a formal rating assessment with UNIDO’s support. Depending on the assessment’ result, they could tap capital markets to finance future infrastructure projects. Moreover, another recommendation calls for the City of Melaka to complete a climate-smart capital investment plan for which the city indicated its willingness, with UNIDO coordinating local and national inputs to raise funds.
Being one of most urbanized countries in Asia, 75 percent of Malaysians reside in urban areas and over 90 percent of the national economic activities are conducted in cities. Rapid urbanization has created tremendous economic opportunities for the country, but has also put enormous pressure on its urban infrastructure and services.
Make Dhaka Walkable
When it comes to urban mobility, Global South cities suffer significant challenges such as lack of transport equity and poor accessibility for the urban poor. On the March of 25-28, 2019, the Share the Road Programme (a partnership between UN Environment and FIA Foundation) participated in a workshop dubbed ‘make Dhaka walkable’ held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organized by the Sustainable Transport Equity Partnerships (STEPS) – a global alliance of researchers and practitioners including the Walk21 Foundation, UN Environment and the University of Leeds. The organizations are committed to identifying the essential steps decision makers and multi-disciplinary teams of experts must collectively take to meet the needs of people walking. STEPS aims to promote urban transport systems that can meet the travel needs of low income, city populations in the Global South.
Despite walking making up to 75% of all journeys, the conditions in which people walk in Dhaka are often unsafe and unpleasant. In order to highlight the needs of pedestrians in Dhaka, the meeting brought together engineers, planners, civil rights activists, NGOs, social scientists and many more for a real interdisciplinary perspective of the transferability of global walkability practices.
The opening workshop included representatives from Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA), Road Transport and Highways Division, Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges, University of Asia Pacific and others to help push the local walking agenda forward.
One of the gaps identified through the STEPS programme is the severe inadequacies of non-motorized transport in transport policy in the Global South. The Share the Road programme shared knowledge on the experience of non-motorized transport in Nairobi -the small initiatives needed to make big differences, the need to have NMT users included in the planning of road construction projects, and the importance of securing a percentage in transport budgets. The vital and economic aspects of walkability projects cannot be ignored.
Having discussed the ‘eight steps to walkable Dhaka’ facilitated by Walk21, the workshop was brought to a close by Professor Jamilur Choudhury from University of Asia Pacific who gave some personal reflections on the development of transport policy and walking in the city, and stated his commitment to moving the walkability agenda forward locally.
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