Asia’s Urbanisation: Bane & Boon

Urbanisation is a sign of a nation’s prosperity and progress. No country in the world has ever achieved sustained economic growth or rapid social development without urbanisation. In the Asian continent, the phenomenon of urbanisation is particularly striking. Globally, in 1800, only 2% of the world’s population was urbanised. By 1950, 30% of the world population was urban. And the World Urbanization Prospects (UN) has said that by 2020, 55% Asia’s population will live in urban areas, underlining unprecedented urbanization across Asia in the days to come. The graph shows how urban population in Asia has increased since 1950. However, urbanisation has brought with it the huge challenge of making cities ‘liveable’ - by providing adequate infrastructure facilities, water supply provision, sanitation, heath care and housing. Compounding such problems are growing issues of climate change, which may threaten the sustainability of water use in urban centres by reducing water availability and quality from surface and groundwater sources, while water demand for household and industrial use may simultaneously increase as temperatures rise. There is also an inequitable distribution of health threats within urban areas. Families with the lowest incomes are most at risk of their children being malnourished and dying early, and are also disadvantaged in terms of their living conditions, such as access to piped water. Importantly, these inequities exist along a social gradient, also affecting middle-class city dwellers to at least some extent. The Asian experience while being positive is less than adequate. In the 2000-2010 decade, a huge population in the region moved out from slum conditions. China and India together upgraded about 125 million people from slums. But, the rapid pace of urbanisation will actually increase the absolute number of slum dwellers. Cleary, much more needs to be done.

Asian Urban Hot-Spots

With 100% urbanites, Singapore is the most urbanised among countries. In the last three decades, Singapore’s population has nearly doubled to more than five million. Today the question is not whether the country can house six million people, but how it can do so without sacrificing the quality of life. Dense cities can cause strain on urban housing, transport and welfare, while fuelling pollution. The Japan story is somewhat similar to Singapore with 91% of its population living in urban areas. In South Korea and Malaysia, urban population has drastically grown. In China, people living in towns and cities have outnumbered those in the countryside, making it a predominantly urban nation for the first time in its history. While the Chinese government has been clearly pursuing a policy of accelerating urbanisation to absorb surplus labour from rural areas into more productive urban systems, it is not easy to portray the urbanisation pattern given China’s size. The Indian trend has largely mirrored the East and South East Asian strategy - that of dispersed development. Urban concentration was frowned upon and discouraged. Despite having a long coastline, there was no attempt to concentrate economic activity in the coastal areas. Growth in the old urban centres of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay (now Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai) slowed down in the 1980s while from the 1990s, inland cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi prospered. Broadly speaking, the evolving phenomenon of urban agglomeration could bring more and more people to urban areas in search of jobs and better life.

Urban Sprawl In Asia

Over the next four decades, Asia will experience a marked increase in their urban populations and by mid-century most of the urban population of the world will be concentrated in Asia. While changing human geography beyond recognition, it has also resulted in significant changes in the complexion of development aims and processes. A World Health Organisation study has said that in many places in Asia, cities will merge together to create urban settlements on a scale never seen before. “These new configurations will take the form of mega-regions, urban corridors and city-regions. For example, it is estimated that Japan’s Tokyo Nagoya-Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe mega-region will have a population of 60 million by 2015. The city region of Bangkok in Thailand will expand another 200 km from its current centre by 2020.” While China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan would be the major contributors to Asia’s increasing urban population, an urban sprawl would also be created that will give rise to unforeseen problems as well as opportunities. Unplanned expansion of urban centres will create a threat to health and quality of life. Today only a small proportion of Asia’s urban population lives amid abundance which could cause social disorder, severe class conflicts, crimes and extreme economic inequalities. In the last decade, absolute number of slum dwellers in Asia has actually increased from about 777 to 827 million in 2010 due to rapid urbanisation. The UN estimates that, by 2020, 14 of the world’s 25 mega cities will be in Asia and the Pacific. The mega cities where people already live in densely populated areas will face more pressure on key issues related to health, growth, jobs and urbanisation.