21st century cities: Asia Pacific’s urban transformation

The region's rapid urbanization is at the heart of this transformation. Between 1970 and 2017, Asia’s developing economies outpaced all other countries in terms of population growth and population expansion. The urban population grew by 3.4% annually, compared with 2.6% for the rest. This compares to 1% for developed economies and 1% for the rest. This trend is expected to continue into the future, as the region will add more than 1 billion urban dwellers by 2050.
Asia Pacific cities have achieved international fame today with Osaka and Adelaide becoming the top performers in the 2021 Global Liveability Index. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked eight of the top 10 performing countries. However, the continent's poorer regions have some of the most difficult living conditions in the world. 99 of the 100 most vulnerable cities in the world to environmental factors like pollution, extreme heat stress and dwindling water supply, natural hazards, climate change vulnerability, were ranked in Asia in 2021.

People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are most vulnerable to climate vulnerability in urban areas. They may live on marginal or hazardous land and in low-quality buildings with poor temperature control and anti-flood controls. They may not have access to air conditioning or financial protections to weather income shocks such as flooding.

Cities can become more inequal as they grow. Increased economic activity drives up land values and pollution. This negatively impacts lower-income residents who are less able move to better places. Even the most noble investments can make it worse. Mass transit systems, which reduce travel time to urban centers, can also increase rents along the routes, forcing low-income residents to move. Many are finding it increasingly difficult to afford houses in Asia. An analysis of 211 Asian cities revealed that home prices are very expensive for households with median incomes. Many urban dwellers settle for poor housing that has limited access to water and sanitation, as affordable housing is not available.

Despite the diversity and breadth of the challenges, the region can still take inspiration from its past and present. Singapore is a top-ranked city in terms of living standards, but it began with a difficult beginning, says Khoo Teng Choye, ex-executive director of the Centre for Liveable Cities (MND) in Singapore.

"Singapore in the 1960s was rapidly growing, overcrowded and had a shortage housing. There were also a lot slums and poor people living in squalid conditions. There was water rationing and the Singapore river was an open sewer. As a child, the taps would shut off for the entire day. However, during monsoons, we would experience flooding. We had all the urban problems that you could think of. Our population has tripled in the last decade, yet the city is more liveable, attractive and resilient.

Asia Pacific is making progress in becoming more sustainable, resilient and inclusive. Cities are now exploring new ways to address environmental challenges in the region. These include leveraging nature-based resilience, such as "sponge city" to reduce flooding and improve air quality. "Net zero carbon" new buildings and retrofitting older buildings to be more climate-friendly.

Cities can also leverage technology to address gaps in service provision and help the vulnerable. This includes digitizing land rights and geospatial mapping. Startup apps for urban safety and technology solutions that support elderly care.

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