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Painting the Town Green: Asia’s Smart City Revolution

January 9, 2013

For the past 30 years, Asia has been urbanizing at a faster rate than any other region in the world. In 2011, Asia was home to roughly 61 percent of the world’s population, or 4.2 billion people. More than 40 percent of them now live in urban areas. By 2025, Asia will have 21 of the world’s 37 megacities; over the next 30 years, another 1.1 billion Asians are expected to move to urban centers.

Seoul, South Korea

Some Asian city planners have realized the benefits of green growth and have chosen to aggressively embark on making sustainable investments in low-carbon transit systems, energy-efficient buildings, and climate change-resilient infrastructure.

Cities  – though they occupy just 2 percent of the world’s land – consume 75 percent of the planet’s resources and generate a similar percentage of waste. Therefore, “greening” cities can be a very efficient and impactful way to reduce resource use and help the environment. High population densities can make the process of supplying essential municipal services (such as energy, transport, and water) far more efficient and cost-effective. At the same time, if urban development is not sustainably managed, then the growth of cities can instead be a catalyst for sharp rises in air pollution, slum dwellings, widening economic and social inequalities, energy waste, and environmental degradation.

Unfortunately, the majority of Asia’s cities currently represent the latter development path. According to a recent Asian Development Bank report, half of the world’s most polluted cities are in Asia, mainly due to their high rates of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil-fuel powered vehicles and coal-fired power plants. More than three quarters of Asian cities (compared to 11 percent of non-Asian cities) fail to meet the European Union’s air quality standard for particulate matter, and air pollution in Asia leads to the death of 500,000 people each year. Between 2000 and 2008, average per capita GHG emissions in Asia increased by 97 percent (as opposed to only 18 percent for the rest of the world). If GHG emissions levels continue to rise unabated in the region, the impact on global health, climate change, and rising sea levels will be extremely detrimental.

The overall economic costs and risks to human security associated with environmental degradation, growing slum areas, and lack of investments in proper infrastructure – especially in coastal and large river basin areas – make Asia’s cities some of the most vulnerable to natural disasters in the world. Rising Asian urban populations mean that over 400 million people may be at risk of coastal flooding and roughly 350 million at risk of inland flooding by 2025 (with Bangkok, Dhaka, Manila, Jakarta, and Shanghai among the metropolises at highest risk).

By contrast, sustainable urban economic growth has the potential to improve living standards and bring millions out of poverty. Some Asian city planners have realized the benefits of green growth and have chosen to aggressively embark on making sustainable investments in low-carbon transit systems, energy-efficient buildings, and climate change-resilient infrastructure. By building on the science and technology advancements in other regions in the world and adapting it to their own urban development models, these new “smart cities” or “green cities” are beginning to crop up across the continent, employing innovations in renewable resources, green space, recycling, energy-saving buildings, and other environmentally friendly measures.

Songdo International Business District, 40 miles from South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is a prime example of a “smart city” that brings together the world’s best technologies, building design, and eco-friendly practices to create the ultimate green lifestyle and work experience. Songdo, which opened in 2009, was built over the last decade from scratch on reclaimed mudflat lands. Cisco Network and Gale International companies invested more than $40 billion in ICT networks that help regulate electricity and water use in all of the city’s buildings, curbing waste and cutting operating costs and reserving almost 40 percent of land for green space. About 125 miles southeast of Beijing, Caofeidian is another pilot “green city” currently being developed from the ground up by the Swedish firm SWECO with specific environmental goals, such as ensuring that 60 percent of all trips in the city are conducted through public transport, and that average water use is capped at 180 liters per person daily (in comparison to other Asian cities that use on average 278 liters per person of water per day).

Other, more nuanced illustrations of already existing green solutions in Asian cities (primarily to reduce air pollution and energy waste), include low-cost electric vehicles in the Philippines, urban metro rail systems in Vietnam, inland waterway transport in China, and bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in Bangladesh, China, and Mongolia. The BRT in Guangzhou, China, for example, has successfully increased bus speeds by 30 percent, saving about 6.63 minutes per trip, and customer satisfaction has risen by 36 percent. Singapore’s water conservation program demonstrates how a tiered tariff that charges heavy water users a higher rate and imposes a water conservation tax has managed to cut domestic water consumption from 165 liters a day per person in 2003 to 154 liters a day per person last year.

A rapid scaling up of investments in these types of green approaches are what’s needed to reduce energy use in cities, as well as other undesirable impacts associated with dirty energy production, and could prevent the region’s environment from further deterioration. Asia is in a unique position to take advantage of its “late-comer” developing economies status by embracing green technology transfers from countries that are pioneering sustainable urban growth and design, as well as fostering new technological innovations that are adapted to Asia-specific vulnerabilities. To achieve this, Asia must begin to more efficiently and effectively manage its urbanization process in terms of city form, design, development density, industry, and logistics systems.

In March, The Asia Foundation and the Korea Development Institute (KDI) will co-host the ongoing dialogue series on Asian Approaches to Development Cooperation, which will focus on providing essential knowledge exchange on climate change, low-carbon growth, and green urbanization in the region. Read more.

Kourtnii S. Brown is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at kbrown@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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