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Is the Rapid Rate of Southeast Asia's Urbanization Sustainable?

Currently, over half of the world's population lives in urban areas, and that number is expected to continue to grow. The United Nations predicts that by 2050 over two-thirds of people will live in cities.

Urbanization has been a trend for a while in Europe and North America, but the shift is just beginning to take place in Asia and Africa. 90 percent of the increase in urban populations through 2050 is expected to come from those two continents.

Such a major shift (almost 1.5 million people a week) is bound to have major consequences. Are we prepared for such a momentous change in the way the world's population lives, especially with climate changing already posing such pressing issues?

Sustainable Urbanization Initiatives

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is attempting to figure that out. ASEAN recently convened the eighth East Asian Summit (EAS) Seminar on Sustainable Cities in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The United Nations (UN) is also endeavoring to do its part. In October, the UN held United Nations Conferences on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador. The outcome of the conferences was the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, a plan for achieving sustainable urban development and housing during the next two decades through both public and private sector efforts.

Environment Effect

Global climate change is already a major concern. For ASEAN countries, continuing to develop and urbanize sustainably is a huge challenge. In order to confront this challenge in 25 quickly growing cities, ASEAN created the ASEAN Initiative on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (ESC).

ESC prioritizes low-carbon technologies and encourages cities to strive for a carbon-neutral economy. It also promotes responsible use of natural resources and waste-to-energy initiatives.

Private companies and city governments have come up with lots of creative solutions. In Thailand, waste is being used to make art. More developed countries like China use green roofs. South Korea operates electric buses.

If Southeast Asian cities are going to make the urbanization trend environmentally sustainable, businesses, citizens, and the government will have to continue to work together to come up with innovative solutions.

Economic Impact

Urbanization typically means economic growth and a growing middle class. Some fear that this new wave of urbanization may come without the usual economic development.

One analysis found that while Southeast Asian economies usually grew along with urbanization, the amount of the increase varied significantly across the region. Singapore, for example, is the fourth most advanced city on the planet with an economic output of $66,864 per person. Indonesia's capital Jakarta, however, has an output of $9,984 per person, which is still larger than in the rest of the country.

The largest property developer in Southeast Asia, CapitaLand, reported significant revenue increases in 2016. Most of that revenue growth, however, came from residential property. Business and office rentals and development, it found, was lacking. This is causing the company to worry about an uncertain future.

While urbanization is leading to economic growth in ASEAN countries, that growth is markedly uneven across the region. Economic growth, too, comes with its own challenges, such as increased carbon emissions.


This large increase in urban population leads naturally to an amplified need for infrastructure in cities. This can pose challenges to local governments who are strapped for cash. More infrastructure can create more environmental problems as well.

Jakarta and several other ASEAN cities have only recently begun to develop adequate public transportation systems. This was possible mostly through donations from other countries and financial institutions.

Transportation systems don't come cheap. Jakarta's Sustainable Development Plan for its Metro Manila cost around 52 billion U.S. dollars. The plan is ambitious, though, and will provide numerous benefits for the city's citizens including reduced traffic jamming, reduced emissions, and improved living conditions.

This is why more and more Southeast Asian governments are deciding to legalize ridesharing. Supportive governmental policies promote ridesharing as a way to decrease energy consumption. The long commute times and the high cost of car ownership, paired with the region's high smartphone penetration makes the market promising.

But environmental issues sometimes create additional challenges for infrastructure development. For example, ground subsidence, a settling or sinking of the Earth's surface due to removal of groundwater and other materials, has caused damage to infrastructure and buildings, as well as flooding.

As the populations of cities increase so does the need for infrastructure. This is an expensive but necessary investment that growing cities have to make.


Another major issue for fast-developing cities is housing.

The UN's New Urban Agenda (NUA) attempts to address this need by promoting homeownership, as well as other tenancy options, such as cohousing. Housing policies, the NUA says, should be based on inclusion, environmental protection, and economic usefulness.

The public and private sectors must work together to provide adequate housing, according to the NUA. The government's role should be to remove supply constraints, such as vague land titles or a lack of developable property.

ASEAN countries must create realistic and responsible housing policies if they are to take advantage of urbanization while doing so sustainably. They must ensure there is adequate access to land and housing that is also safe and environmentally conscious.

Social Changes

A less concrete effect of urbanization is social change. The daily lives of urban dwellers and the culture of the nation as a whole will be altered by the move to cities.

How this aspect of the shift develops may have a significant but difficult to observe the effect on whether urbanization can be achieved successfully, safely and sustainably in ASEAN.

As the trend continues to move toward urbanization in Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN cities will face significant challenges in completing the transition sustainably. It remains to be seen exactly how this shift plays out, but the outcome will be extremely important for the world's population and for the environment.