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Planning the sustainable city in Asia and the Pacific

Photo credit: ESCAP/Omar Siddique

Where would you feel safer walking alone at night? A busy street, or a loosely populated section of a sprawling city? Most people would likely choose the former. Indeed, higher population densities can make city streets feel safer at all hours—while also fostering commercial activity and giving cities an attractive, bustling character.

Spatial and land-use plans rely on zoning as one of cities’ primary tools for the above issue by achieving desired population densities while avoiding overcrowding, protecting areas of significant cultural heritage, environmental services and supporting high quality services.  Zoning regulates specific areas of land and dictates how they can be used. If done strategically, they can also support urban regeneration efforts in underserved areas of the municipalities. Without zoning regulations and incentives, many developers will continue to build where it is most cost-efficient: outside of the city. Dense mixed-use cities are more efficient, equitable, and vibrant. City leaders should look to zoning tools to avoid sprawl and ensure compact, mixed use spatial development.

Despite their differences, municipalities in many Asian and Pacific countries share a common history and have inherited similar spatial patterns. The region includes a diverse group of countries, characterized by both growing and shrinking economies, and different demographic profiles. Their cities mirror this diversity and do sometimes lack well planned and adequate abundant public spaces and provision of basic services. While the inclusion aspect of affordable access to public services must be applauded, there are some challenges.

Across this region, capital cities, administrative centres and major cities continue to play the leading role in central economies. Imbalanced spatial development has led to the stagnation of small and medium human settlements. Often, the key problem of small and medium-sized cities derives from their focus on a single industry (also known as mono-cities), that goes back to the days of the planned economy. This has limited the capacity of present day municipal economies to adapt to new conditions and to transition to a market economy. Increasing cities’ competitiveness and investment attractiveness has put forward new requirements for spatial development.

At a national level, a spatial perspective to the management of cities and their surrounding regions helps to distribute jobs, develop economies of scale and balance demands for growth with the need to protect ecological assets. Urban and spatial planning provides the framework to manage land with the rational organization of limited resources such as water and energy. Planning allows for prioritization of national and municipal budgets by identifying the right kind of investments in infrastructure and services.

The good news is that we can see some positive trends and efforts. In many Asia-Pacific countries, current planning efforts towards regeneration and sustainable planning must be acknowledged for their innovation. Urban renewal and regeneration, particularly of inner industrial areas in cities such as Suwon, Republic of Korea, capture the result from well-planned and managed urbanization.

Despite the successes, challenges always remain. The principle of centralized management remains dominant in many Asia-Pacific countries as opposed to the principle of subsidiarity advocated by international planning principles. These principles maintain that planning should be decided at the lowest level of governance and involve all those who are affected. Several additional issues contribute to spatial planning challenges such as, limited capacities of planning bodies, no obligatory strategic document for the city or town, ill-defined spatial regulations, among others.

Spatial databases are also key to having realistic plans at the local level. While developing spatial plans, planning bodies collect necessary data however, this data is often not properly shared, stored and managed at the national level. Many individual municipalities have developed GIS databases which could be easily linked to a central level database with several layers available for the public to view. This would better inform spatially coherent regional planning decisions with national government and citizens.

What This Means for Multilateral Solutions

Globally, “Planning and managing urban spatial development” is one of the three pillars of effective implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Through a UN General Assembly Resolution following the outcomes of the 2016 UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), the New Urban Agenda is essentially an action blueprint for countries to achieve sustainable development using an urban perspective. 

At the first-ever Group of Seven (G7) Ministerial Meeting for Urban Development held in September 2022 in Potsdam, Germany, the Ministers responsible for urban development of the G7 took note of ESCAP’s urban and territorial planning guidelines promoted through the policy pathways of The Future of Asian and Pacific Cities Report.

ESCAP supports member States and their subnational authorities to engage with communities to identify the most appropriate policies on density, land use, public space, the layout of infrastructure and services for balanced territorial development across their urban and rural forms.

Knowing how to choose the spatial pattern that best delivers the needs of a city and its surrounding region is a necessary skill set successful national and local leaders must continue to enhance for the implementation and monitoring of the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Omar Siddique
Economic Affairs Officer
Environment and Development +66 2 288-1234 [email protected]