Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The State of Asian Cities 2010/11

I have been belatedly reading through the relatively new UN Habitat report titled The State of Asian Cities 2010/11. This is an excellent volume of 280 pages, beautifully produced, but available for free download. It is densely packed with ideas and information, and it will take a while for users to digest its contents, but even that task is aided by a thoughtful introduction (written by Bharat Dahiya) and several summaries.
The report is divided into five subsequent sections. The first provides an overview of ‘Urbanizing Asia’ and the wide disparities within the region. The second examines the ‘Economic Role of Asian Cities’, which is inextricably linked to the third discussion, namely the distribution of ‘Poverty and Inequality in Asian Cities’. The fourth section deals with ‘The Urban Environment and Climate Change’ while the last chapter covers ‘Urban Governance, Management and Finance in Asia’.
It is impossible to do justice to such a large report and one cannot do better than to repeat some of the key points and statistics produced by the researchers and editors, as follows:

There are some provocative statements here, and if this report needed any justification, it is to be found in bullet point #3.
There is in fact no question that the report is timely in every sense. Indeed, a caption to one photo in the management section reads “Tokyo, Japan. Urban management remains a day-to-day challenge even in well-managed cities”—an observation that might have seemed rather unexceptional at the beginning of the year, but which has, of course, taken on greater significance since the events of March 11 2011, which remind us that even properous cities can be extremely vulnerable once interlocking infrastructures begin to collapse.
As an academic enjoying the luxury of discussion (as opposed to the obligations of policy development or governance), there are some points in the report where I disagreed with positions that are presented as broad realities, even though that sits uneasily with the heterogeneity of ‘urban Asia’ that is so exhaustively presented at the outset of the report. To take a single example, the discussions that appear in the second section regarding urban density and the costs of ‘sprawl’ seem contradictory to me. It is claimed that “as a market response to land demand, high density results in more efficient use of space. It acts as a cure for urban sprawl as it makes cities more compact and hence more efficient from the perspective of infrastructure investment” (p 71). This is of course a received wisdom in the West (discussed for instance by Edward Glaeser in his recent book).  But dense cities are hard to maintain in the face of rapid population in-migration, as vertical cities demand high-quality construction (or apartments collapse, as happens spectacularly in Indian cities on a regular basis). High rents keep those with limited skills out of the housing market and thus guarantee the ‘enclaves of the poor’ about which the report rightly complains (p. 23). And it is open to empirical analysis that urban infrastructure is cheaper than ex-urban infrastructure: central cities with their high-rise buildings, busy streets and utility lines are a nightmare to maintain and retrofit, whereas lower-density development can be significantly cheaper, insofar as water and other connections are easy to make and maintain, and not all roads have to be paved.
This seems to me one of the benefits of this kind of report, namely that it can provide a context both for agreement and debate. It is clear that a vast amount of thought has gone into every aspect of this document and the excellence of The State of Asian Cities 2010/11 is evident throughout. The report represents a benchmark against which we could all measure our urban research.