Creating healthier, safer, happier cities

How can building resilience into integrated infrastructure projects make cities in Asia-Pacific more attractive places to live and invest?

Cities in Asia-Pacific have been at the receiving end of some of the biggest shocks and stresses of recent years. Urbanization has seen people move into cities faster than infrastructure can adapt. Globalization has meant challenges in one city increasingly spell challenges in others. And cities that sit on deltas, coastlines and high plains have become vulnerable to the worst effects of climate change. Chennai, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, epitomizes these issues. Largely built on a flood plain, it was hit by severe floods in 2005 and 2015. Recent immigration has made it the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the world. And many of the recent arrivals live in high-risk areas on the edge of the city. Meanwhile, in Bangkok, half of the city’s 10 million citizens come from other provinces and countries looking for work. Many are poor and vulnerable.

Yet despite having seen the damage natural disasters can wreak, and the pressure fast-growing populations put on systems and services, few cities in Asia-Pacific build resilience into their infrastructure projects. Instead, they focus on “vanilla” projects that promise to bring a big economic return. We believe it’s time for a new approach. Cities in the region should look to their counterparts along the New Silk Road, as well as Bangkok and Semarang, for how to integrate resilience into projects that solve multiple challenges and bring social and economic benefits in the long term.

Four big questions about resilient cities in the Asia-Pacific region

1. What’s the problem?

  • Cities in Asia-Pacific are rushing to meet minimum standards in their infrastructure projects. In doing so, they aren’t considering resilience, which leaves them undefended against shocks and stresses in the future. And their newest, poorest citizens pay a disproportionately high price.

2. What are the costs?

  • The 2011 Bangkok flood and poor flood management in Quy Nhon, Vietnam, are examples of how not fully considering how you’re going to manage through a disaster, can be extremely costly.
  • The Bangkok flood caused estimated damages of US$45b to the global supply chain, of which only US$10b was insured. And when Typhon Mirinae struck Quy Nhon in 2009, the ensuing floods caused around US$21m of damage.

3. Why does the problem exist?

  • 100 Resilient Cities has identified the three biggest reasons for this lack of  adequate planning: urbanization, globalization and climate change.
  • Urbanization is particularly problematic in Asia-Pacific. While people are leaving cities in the West, more than 400,000 move into East Asian cities every week. Of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the world, 6 are in Asia.
  • The region has seen a lot of government-driven policy and spending in response to the much-publicized US$1t annual spending gap. This means cities are hesitant to question policy, or speak up if they think it’s not forward-looking.
  • Cities also tend to be quite siloed in how they do business. The Department of Public Works may not be working with the people in economic or foreign direct investment, so the people promoting different economic development zones may not be factoring floods or drainage into their plans.
  • Finally, smaller cities in the region don’t have as much access to private capital as bigger ones. Some don’t have direct access to capital markets at all and have to go through their national government.
  • Those that do have access have become used to prioritizing pure infrastructure projects because they think that’s going to give them a better chance of securing funding.

4. How could you motivate cities and built environment players to invest in doing things differently?

  • Building resilient cities demands a new approach. Infrastructure projects should be integrated, so they tackle urban challenges in ways that benefit citizens as well as investors.
  • The Dutch city of Rotterdam is a good example. It’s invested €100m in innovative climate-proofing measures, such as children’s playgrounds that turn into water drainage systems during heavy rain.
  • Cities that take this approach become places people want to live, bringing investment and raising land values. In New York City, development sparked by the High Line project is predicted to bring US$4b in private investment and US$900m in revenues to the city over the next 30 years. Building a flyover would never bring these wider benefits.
  • Cities along the New Silk Road are already starting to recognize this correlation. Yiwu, in China’s central Zhejiang province, is considering how to develop a cultural life that will support the workers who are causing the city to grow by 13% a year.
  • With most of those newcomers being foreigners, Yiwu’s planners are also taking an inclusive approach. As well as thinking about infrastructure, they’re thinking about the institutions and systems that will support the infrastructure. For example, they’ve created mixed tribunals, so in a trade dispute, people put their case to a panel that’s 50% Chinese and 50% foreign.