Planning the future of Asian and Pacific cities
Cities have always been dynamic hubs of culture, education, economic growth, and opportunity, and most importantly, centers of social interaction that attract residents and visitors alike. It is no surprise then that Asia and the Pacific has in recent years become predominantly urban, as people seek greater opportunities and services in cities of all sizes — from coastal communities in the Pacific to megacities such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. Smaller towns and emerging urban centers also have unique characteristics that reflect this region’s diversity.
The megatrend of urbanization, however, has not been free of difficulties, with many of the global crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and various forms of pollution, all converging in our cities. These challenges have made more visible long-standing issues such as inequalities and urban poverty, access to affordable housing, and an infrastructure gap. Our most vulnerable communities are often the most affected. This is clear in our cities where climate-related disasters disproportionately impact the poor, with women and children unable to access essential urban services.
Meanwhile, a lack of affordable housing hinders the poor and middle class alike, with inadequate infrastructure too often resulting in persons with disabilities being left behind. Collectively, these challenges not only harm cities and their residents but will also hinder progress toward the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its goals, many of which intersect in cities.
When cities shuttered during the pandemic, economic activity, tourism, education, and urban services all suffered seemingly irreparable harm. Yet, in the aftermath of the global pandemic, we realize that a sustainable future for Asia and the Pacific runs through our cities, and we must take the necessary steps to address existing urban challenges and plan urbanization to be inclusive and resilient to future shocks and crises.
And we know how to get there. The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap) and the United Nations (UN) Human Settlements Programme and partners have developed a new flagship report, “Crisis Resilient Urban Futures: The Future of Asian and Pacific Cities 2023.” Through analysis of the crises and their effects, the report offers practical guidance across four key thematic areas for inclusive urban policies, partnerships, and innovations.
First, urban and territorial planning remains the foundation of how all cities manage their growth and plan urban services. Having seen how crises can disrupt these systems, we know that holistic urban planning that prioritizes multiuse, compact development, low-carbon transportation and mobility, affordable housing, and efficient delivery of services are essential for creating safe, sustainable, and livable cities for all citizens.
Next, as we are all too frequently reminded by the number of climate-induced disasters in our region, effectively responding to the climate emergency must be a priority, and cities are well positioned to lead innovations and new practices for low-carbon and resilient pathways. A resilient city engages all stakeholders, from the most vulnerable communities to civil society and policymakers coming from the local and national levels, all working to codevelop solutions.
We also live in a more digitally connected world, where urban digital transformations and smart city technologies, if managed effectively, can improve operational efficiencies, bridge the digital divide, and ensure access for all. The pandemic underlined the need to include everyone in shaping our digitally transformed future.
Finally, the multiple crises highlighted the urgency to safeguard urban finances. Expanding, diversifying, and increasing municipal revenue should be a key strategy for cities to stimulate local economic recovery. And as no city can go it alone, robust multilevel governance, supported by transparent public frameworks for intergovernmental transfers, is needed. More stable policies and incentives can open doors to private sector investment as well.
Recovery from any shock or crisis takes time and collective action. We must ensure that our urban areas guard against future risks, while we build safe, sustainable, and livable communities that will put us back on track to achieve the 2030 Agenda. The eighth Asia-Pacific Urban Forum being held Oct. 23-25 in Suwon, Republic of Korea, is a key platform to share urban solutions and enhance partnerships to address this multitude of challenges. Though the task is formidable, with the right policies, innovations, cooperation, and the engagement of citizens, we can ensure that our region’s cities remain vibrant hubs.
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Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is undersecretary general of UN and executive secretary of Escap.