Sustainable cities of the future: Asia



THIS week, I had the pleasure to be a resource person at the R&D Congress on Sustainable Urbanization in the Course of Asean Economic Integration, organized by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The R&D congress sought to be a venue for exchanging information and experience on sustainable urbanization strategies among the Asean member nations.

I believe that the R D congress was a timely gathering because the 21st century will be the “Asian Century”. From the century of nations, the Asian century will be known as the “century of cities”. In the old world system, trade and dialogue of cultures used to dominantly converge in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. But today there has been a shift. With the booming population and the emergence and rise of new markets and industries in Asia, the Asia Pacific being at the strategic center in all its vastness, is fast becoming the world’s center of trade.

As a young architect and urban planner in 1977, I was name-hired by the ruler of Dubai to join an international team of architects, planners, engineers, and other allied professions in the built environment. I was invited by Sultan Khalifa Al Habtoor of Dubai, under then Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Our goal was to help bring Dubai from the Third to the First World in less than 15 years. Not only was it an opportunity of a lifetime to practice my professions and build my career, but it also allowed me to travel once all over the world. The purpose of these travels was to learn lessons and best practices from different parts of the world and apply them to our plan for Dubai. That was also my first exposure to benchmarking.

While my contemporaries took inspiration mostly from grand European cities and countries, I studied as inspirations for the urban planning of Dubai cities that became first-world caliber in less than 15 years, like Singapore and Hong Kong. Indeed, Asian cities are urbanizing at a faster pace than urban areas in Latin America and Europe that took about a hundred years to transform.

An indication of the rapid transformation of Asian cities is the rising number of tall buildings. Vertical urbanism is on the rise as a response to the limited land area in compact cities. We need to move towards vertical communities for us to sustainably conserve our parks, farms, and forests. Singapore has a high population density, yet 45 percent of the island republic is open and green space. Hong Kong, which has one of the highest densities in the world, has dedicated around 70 percent for open, agriculture, and/or green space.

Moreover, with vertical urbanism, cities are allowed a more efficient use of land and transit, shorter utility lines, and maximization on the use of water, sewerage, and drainage. Above all, it allows workers to be near their place of work, saving not only travel time, but expenses as well. Where there are higher densities of jobs, you should have higher-density housing as well.

According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), most of the “tall, supertall, and megatall” buildings are now moving to Asian cities like Shanghai, Taipei, Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong. Today, the world’s tallest buildings are in Asia, including Shanghai Tower in China, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, and the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, among many others. Asia leads the pack with 107 out of the total 128 tall building projects worldwide completed in 2016 (CTBUH, 2016).

More than ever, Asian cities should be able to accommodate Asia’s growing population. Along with India and Indonesia, the Philippines holds the key in harnessing the human capital of the future. That’s about 1.8 billion people from three countries alone. With the world population aging and experiencing labor problems, and consequentially inverted economic triangles, these countries hold the gold and wealth of the world. In the Philippines, we would have added 54 million more Filipinos by 2050.This could mean that our demographic sweet spot, where the work force is plenty and young, could prevail for decades. Economist Cielito Habito warns, however, that the health and nutrition of the people should be prioritized if we are to leverage the country’s young labor force. He said one out of three Filipino children aged five years and below is experiencing stunted growth because of malnutrition. In the long run, this will affect the quality and productivity of our population.

Ultimately, cities are for people. In order to develop sustainable cities, we must be able to change our mindset on how we look at our cities, our buildings, and our streets. Similarly, we should change how we orient our roads from being car-centric to a community that walks and bikes, making them pedestrian-centric and human-centric. One of the reasons our city is filled with dirt and irritating traffic is because we made cars a necessity. We live far from the places where we work, mostly because we have no other option.

My observation of more than 2,000 cities in 67 countries leads me to conclude that the formula for successful urbanization includes five major ingredients: visionary leadership, strong political will, good planning, good design, and good governance. The Philippines can have the best cities in Asia and be part of the top 20 economies of the world by 2021.


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