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Urban Development

Building Age-Ready Cities

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Authors: Maitreyi Bordia Das, Yuko Arai and Yoonhee Kim*

China needs to tackle three priorities to prepare itself better for a more urban future as it embraces for an aging society

Two dramatic demographic trends are transforming the world today-population aging and urbanization. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities and towns, an increase of more than 10 percentage points from 2018. In 1990, older persons comprised 6 percent of the global population; by 2050 they will make up 16 percent. That means one in six people in the world will be 65 or over, and 20 percent of them will be over 80.

Aging has a gender dimension, too. Since women live longer than men do, the future is not just older: it is also more female. This has implications for property and other resources that women can secure over their lifetime and are left with if their husbands die, especially, if the women do not have independent sources of income. Aging has gendered connotations in another way as well: caregivers of older persons tend to be overwhelmingly women.

These trends are global but apply to China with particular urgency. Over 12 percent of China’s population was 65 or older in 2019, but this will double by 2050. At the same time, China is urbanizing rapidly, with almost 60 percent of its population living in cities and towns in 2018. By 2050, a staggering 80 percent of its population will be urban.

While simultaneous aging and urbanization are seen by many as a challenge, with the right policies the two trends can be turned into an opportunity. The key to this is to make cities ready for an aging population. As a recent World Bank report “Silver Hues: Building Age-Ready Cities” argues, age-readiness is not just good for older persons, but benefits the whole society. For example, when cities construct accessible sidewalks, they also benefit persons in wheelchairs, parents with strollers, and manual workers carrying heavy loads.

An age-ready city is also conducive to persons with disabilities. While aging cannot be conflated with disability, it is estimated 46 percent of persons aged 60 and older-are living with disabilities. In fact, most of us will have a brush with disability at some point in our lives-either temporarily or permanently-or as caregivers and proxies of older persons and persons with disabilities.

The benefits of designing cities for older persons are reason enough to make the requisite investments. But age-readiness also has direct benefits for the economy as well. Older persons constitute a large and growing market for goods and services. They are important consumers of healthcare, transport, technology, housing and entertainment. They often have a lifetime of savings that they can tap to live their senior years in comfort. The private sector has much to gain from this expanding market, as reflected in rising investments in the “silver “economy.

China foresaw its aging economy and society decades ago. “Smart elder care”-using technology wisely to meet the diverse and increasing demand of older persons, is scaling up at a rapid pace, with some of China’s largest companies entering the market, often in partnership with local governments. Shandong province, for example, has an online hospital that provides a variety of services, including consultations with doctors, diagnosis, prescriptions, disease management and other follow-up services. This has been particularly useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the service saves patients from in-person hospital visits and reduces pressure on the healthcare system.

In pursuit of universal accessibility, China also established the Code for the Design of Residential Buildings for the Aged in 1999 as the design standard to meet the needs of aging adults. This is applicable to both new and renovated buildings. China’s richer coastal cities offer many examples of improved accessibility and boast a growing commercial market for elderly care.

While China has been an “early mover” in harnessing the gains of its aging population, based on the analysis in the World Bank report, four priorities stand out for China to prepare itself better for an older and more urban future.

First, China’s accessibility standards in urban design need to be better enforced. Universal accessibility of the built environment requires training urban planners, architects, construction engineers and other professionals. Such capacity building is critical if accessibility is not to remain an add-on or an afterthought.

Second, building new infrastructure or repurposing the old needs financing. While it is more cost-effective to build in accessibility features during construction, many old buildings will need to be refurbished toward age-readiness. Public private partnerships can be harnessed to mobilize the requisite commercial funding.

Third, given the additional costs of making cities age-ready, China will need to pay special attention to cities and towns, as well as individuals and households with fewer resources. Innovative solutions will need to be encouraged, from low-cost medical technologies to new forms of community-based care, particularly in rural areas where outward migration has undermined the traditional model of family-based care.

These priorities should ideally be central to China’s growth agenda. Successful cities of the future will be those where older persons can contribute to their fullest potential and be partners in the country’s growth and development.

*Maitreyi Bordia Das is practice manager in the Global Practice for Urban, Resilience and Land at the World Bank. Yuko Arai is urban specialist in the East Asia and Pacific Region of the World Bank. Yoonhee Kim is the World Bank’s sector leader for Sustainable Development in China. 

First published on China Daily/ World Bank

Maitreyi Bordia Das is practice manager in the Global Practice for Urban, Resilience and Land at the World Bank.

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Urban Development

Thailand’s Smaller Cities Can Help Drive Economic Growth and Reduce Inequality

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Thailand’s cities outside Bangkok can accelerate the country’s growth but will need to find ways to access private capital to improve urban infrastructure, a World Bank study produced with the Program Management Unit on Area Based Development (PMU-A) and Khon Kaen University says.

Bangkok has long been the country’s hub of economic growth and productivity. But as that growth slows, cities such as Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, and Rayong could pick up the baton with investments in mass transit systems, renewable energy, and other urban infrastructure, which will be critical for Thailand’s competitiveness and ability to adapt to a changing climate according to the study, “Thailand Urban Infrastructure Finance Assessment.” However, to fund these investments, cities cannot rely solely on central government budgets, and should consider municipal borrowing and public-private partnerships, the report says.

Urban growth will provide benefits to city and country populations alike through more reliable transportation and electrification and access to markets, education, and health services. It will enable people, goods, and services to move efficiently within and across cities to promote growth, jobs, and improve the quality of life. Public services such as water and wastewater and solid waste management bring environmental as well as health benefits.  A more robust urban infrastructure will provide resilience against floods and droughts.

“Secondary cities can drive growth and alleviate rural poverty by generating accessible opportunities for those living in rural areas,” said Patricia Mongkhonvanit, Director-General of the Public Debt Management Office, Ministry of Finance. “The Ministry of Finance will leverage the insights and findings presented in the study to support urban growth in these cities to meet the needs of the residents, businesses and industries.” 

Enabling Thailand’s secondary cities to raise capital themselves would avoid increasing burdens on the national government’s fiscal resources, the report says. Yet, Thai cities and local governments remain fiscally dependent on central government for infrastructure investments despite decentralization legislation in the 1990s. However, municipalities have the tax bases and operating surpluses necessary to develop creditworthiness and borrowing capacity.

The study urges a “paradigm shift” to give secondary cities the authority, tools, and expertise to finance local infrastructure. Recommended steps include articulating a national strategy to attract private investment for public infrastructure and the creation of government units to monitor and support local infrastructure projects and planning. Greater flexibility, fiscal autonomy, and accountability are necessary for secondary cities if they are to develop their ability to attract investors and lenders, the report says.

“As Thailand strives for sustainable urban development, local fiscal autonomy emerges as a vital pillar,” said Fabrizio Zarcone, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand. Enabling cities to generate and control revenue streams fosters innovation, accountability, and responsiveness to community needs, ultimately leading to more resilient and self-reliant urban areas.”

The study assesses the feasibility of project proposals in five Thai cities – Chiang Mai, Rayong, Nakhon Sawan, Khon Kaen, and Phuket. The report also discusses policies and institutions that govern how city authorities manage their finances, including raising capital for infrastructure investment.

“Municipal borrowing and public-private partnerships offer a reliable path to urban infrastructure development that has been proven in countries around the world,” said Poon Thingburanathum, Deputy Director of Corporate Planning at the Program Management Unit on Area-based Development. “What is needed is a pragmatic national effort to attract private sector capital to invest in urban infrastructure.”

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Walkability in Pakistan

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Walking is a fundamental human activity that has been around since the dawn of civilization. However, with the rise of motorized transportation, cities around the world have been designed to cater to cars rather than pedestrians, this trend has had devastating consequences for the environment, public health, and perhaps most importantly social cohesion.

In Pakistan, the negative effects of car-centric urban planning are particularly pronounced, since this has a social class dimension to it, add to this the presently rising petrol prices and the issue becomes even more imperative. The concept of walkable cities has yet to take hold in the country. Nonetheless, creating a pedestrian-friendly environment is crucial for Pakistan’s sustainable development, and it is not too late to take action.

The concept of a walkable city is simple; it is a city where people can walk safely and comfortably, without facing any barriers. The idea is to create a pedestrian-friendly environment that promotes walking as a mode of transportation. The walkable city concept is not only limited to transportation but also encompasses other aspects such as accessibility to amenities, social interactions, and public spaces.

In Pakistan, the discourse on walkable cities as an urban development strategy is relatively little to zero. An observable manifestation of this can be seen in most of the real estate schemes that have popped up, and the pre-existing urban infrastructure, which seems to be developed to accommodate vehicle mobility rather than pedestrian. Moreso, this lack of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure could also be linked to class differences since most of the pedestrian traffic within Pakistan’s urban hubs comes from individuals of lower socio-economic standing, and often the owner of a vehicle is deemed to have a better economic standing.

What could be done?

The first step towards creating a walkable city is to assess the existing infrastructure and identify the areas that need improvement. Pakistan has a long way to go in this regard. The country’s urban areas are characterized by poor pedestrian infrastructure, unsafe roads, and a lack of accessibility to amenities. The roads are designed primarily for vehicular traffic, and the pedestrian’s needs are often ignored. Furthermore, this increase in vehicle use is often what contributes to traffic congestion and plays part in further degrading the air quality here. It is estimated by WHO that around 60,000 premature deaths occur in Pakistan every year due to air pollution and vehicular emissions are a major contributor to this.

To create a walkable city, Pakistan needs to revamp its infrastructure. The government should invest in developing pedestrian-friendly streets with dedicated sidewalks, crosswalks, and bicycle lanes rather than mega infrastructure projects –This as a consequence will do much to increase our public savings which could be directed toward developing pedestrian infrastructure and other projects geared towards community empowerment. The streets should be well-lit, and the footpaths should be wide enough to accommodate pedestrians and people with disabilities. The government should also prioritize the development of public transport systems that are well-integrated with the pedestrian infrastructure.

Another critical aspect of walkable cities is the availability of public spaces. Public spaces like public parks, and town squares are integral in encouraging greater social interaction and community building. Pakistan’s cities are marked by their lack of green spaces, parks, and playgrounds. The government should invest in creating public spaces that are accessible to everyone. These spaces should be designed in a way that encourages social interactions and fosters a sense of community. And importantly, are made safe for the use of women and children.

Apart from infrastructure, promoting walking as a mode of transportation is also essential. The government should launch campaigns to raise awareness about the benefits of walking and the importance of a healthy lifestyle. The campaigns should target all segments of society, including children, women, and people with disabilities. As noted by the World Health Organization, 19 percent of deaths that occurred in 2016, were caused by heart-related diseases. Similarly alarming, is the number of adults (33 million) that are living with diabetes in Pakistan. Such chronic conditions are easily preventable if individuals engage in regular physical activity like walking.

A goal as such should not seem unattainable since across the globe, examples of walkable cities have illustrated persistently that policies that encourage walkability are met with success and cultivate a greater sense of well-being among its residents.

Walkable cities are the future of sustainable urban living. Pakistan has a lot of catching up to do in terms of creating pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and promoting walking as a mode of transportation. But this idea of creating a walkable city is not quite out of reach, we already have examples of these from the mohallas of Pindi or Androon Peshawar, or the walled city of Lahore, that have a rich history of pedestrian-friendly alleys and streets.

 The government and the private sector should work together to invest in projects that prioritize walkability. In addition to investment, community involvement and engagement are also crucial in creating a walkable city. This can be achieved through community-based initiatives and grassroots movements that prioritize walkability and advocate for pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, which is crucial since a substantial number of individuals’ primary mode of movement is walking.

Moreover, the involvement of women in these initiatives is essential to ensure that the pedestrian infrastructure is safe. Unfortunately, women in Pakistan are often subject to violence and harassment in public spaces, which makes them hesitant to walk or use public transport alone. Therefore, it is necessary to involve women in the planning and design, to ensure that it meets their needs for safe use.

Finally, creating a walkable city requires a shift in mindset and a change in urban planning practices. Instead of prioritizing vehicular traffic, Pakistan’s urban planners need to prioritize people and their needs. This requires a long-term vision that takes into account the changing demographics, tech advancements and global trends in urban planning. A walkable city is not only a more sustainable and inclusive city but also a more vibrant and livable city where people can connect with each other and their environment.

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A City-Led Climate Resilience

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Climate change is becoming a major cause of an increasing rate of weather catastrophes. The heat-trapping greenhouse gas is making Earth’s temperature warms up rapidly from what was planned since the industrial revolution and leading to overlapping problems, especially for the lower to middle-income countries around the equator. Many efforts are strived by stakeholders to minimize negative externalities from climate change, one of them is discussed about loss and damage. For more than 30 years this issue has been raised by developing countries, but the developed countries as the largest emitters always avoid this topic. Last year, at the UN annual climate talks or known as Conference of Parties (COP) 27 at Sharm el-Sheikh, there was a breakthrough regarding the loss and damage. Several countries including Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Scotland, New Zealand, Austria, Ireland, Canada, the US, the UK, Spain, the EU, and France show their commitments to addressing loss and damage fund. When we have been waiting for compensation in an uncertain time and current national action plans are not on track for under a 1.5oC, prior responses from other levels to cope with climate change are done by cities. 

Cities are home to 55 percent of the global population and are expected to grow by 2.5 billion people to 68 percent by 2050. As climate change deprivation many people’s livelihoods, these conditions drive millions of people to migrate to cities with the hope they would gain more opportunities to survive. As a result, many cities have experienced overpopulated and rapid urbanization under climate change without efforts to increase resilience is exposing cities to gain more climate risks. Recorded approximately 225.3 million internal displacements in the Asia and Pacific region happened during 2010 – 2021, especially in the five sub-regions (East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central and West, and Pacific). Increasing mobility in the cities has led to the production of approximately three-quarters of energy-related CO2 of the total global emissions. Recorded that as much as 70 percent of cities worldwide are already dealing with the effect of climate change. 

In efforts to tackle the climate crisis, the local government of the cities needs to reinforce the two-prolonged approach which is mitigation and adaptation. Undertaking a human rights-based approach (HRBA) as city-led climate agenda is a tool for realizing ecosystem-based agenda (EbA) which can be implemented through a local climate change action plan where human rights are a fundamental value. For example, Bilbao is a city council that adopted Charted Values, and Utrecht is a Global Goals City that cooperates with local businesses to raise awareness of their rights and monitors progress on the SDGs dashboard. In Asia, Gwangju has established a human rights department, hosted the annual World Human Rights Cities Forum as one of the most relevant events for bringing local government officials with organizations and other actors to establish and arrange systems to ensure human rights as a core, and implementing localization projects. Another example, in efforts to reduce emissions, Seoul has mandatory for their citizen that should be used all new vehicles to be electric from 2025. In addition, to support this program, the city is released electric vehicle charging infrastructure powered by solar panels which are accessible and provides subsidies for electric vehicles of up to 20 percent with additional support available for low-income households. This policy is expected to reduce emissions by approximately 43 percent compares with 2005 levels and create almost 15.000 jobs.

Moreover, hundreds of cities also show their commitment to accelerating net zero emissions by building networks. Recorded as many as 130 American cities are stepping up their ambition to reduce emissions by joining the Cities Race to Zero to help the US reach its goals of reducing emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050. Last year, the European Commission also announced 100 cities from the EU member states with 12 additional cities participating in EU Mission for climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030 or known as the Cities Mission. Under this mission, the cities will receive millions of funding in the period 2022-2023 to address clean mobility, energy efficiency, and green urban planning, and offer the possibility to build joint initiatives and ramp up collaborations with other EU programs. The ranking compiled by CDP shows that only 43 out of 596 cities or similar to 7 percent received a top rank for their climate leadership and reduction of emissions, which twenty-one of them are in North America, nine in Europe, four in Australia, one in Latin America and Africa, and four in East Asia.

The proportion above, Asia and Africa have a minimum ‘A’ city in reducing emissions. The report mentioned five barriers that limit urban resilience that are multi-level governance, finance, a local capacity, access to technology and innovation, and equity. The Mayor of the City of Bonn, Mr. Ashok Sridharan said that “The adaptation fund has been instrumental in advancing adaptation to the most vulnerable over the past 10 years and ‘walks the walk’. Cities and regions stand ready to help as global adaptation needs continue to rise”. Nowadays, the ten members of ASEAN with a majority of developed countries have slow progress and struggling in energy transition because they have insecure funds. To achieve ASEAN’s target of 23 percent renewable energy supply by 2025 need an investment of US$ 27 billion per year. However, from 2016 – 2021, the ASEAN countries received no more than US$ 8 billion per year. At the global level, the World Bank estimated an amount of US$ 4.5 – 5.4 trillion per year which 9 – 27 percent part of it is aimed to make an urban infrastructure low-emission and resilient to climate risks. However, UNFCCC released there is a gap of US$ 1.8 – 2.4 trillion per year in financing for climate-resilient infrastructure globally with the majority of needed in urban areas.

Cities become a frontline in adaptation and mitigation because they prioritize sustainably local projects faster than a state. Therefore, with the financial barriers to access technology faced by the local governments, the discussion about climate funds should mobilize in the UN annual meeting about climate to enhance climate resilience as a priority within all of the cities, especially in the developing countries in Asia and Africa.

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