World Cities Summit 2010

29 June 2010, Singapore

Your Royal Highness Crown Prince of the Netherlands, Minister Mah, Minister Jacob, Professor Koh, Excellencies, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen,

Speakers before me have talked about cities from global, and national perspectives. As the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the regional arm of the United Nations, I will present the Asia Pacific perspective. If we get it right in Asia Pacific, we get it right for two-thirds of humanity.

I see four key urban challenges in Asia and the Pacific. The first challenge is the sheer scope and pace of urbanization. Our cities are already home to 1.6 billion people. By 2025 urban population in Asia and the Pacific will be 2.3 billion people. Just to put this number in perspective: we need to provide jobs, housing, water, energy, transport, education, health and cultural infrastructure for an additional 120,000 people – every day – for the next 15 years! This is a daunting challenge considering that many governments are finding it difficult to meet even the needs of existing urban populations. It is made more complex by unplanned urban growth, on the periphery of cities, along transport corridors that cross local and provincial government boundaries turning cities and towns into urban regions.

This brings me to the second challenge facing cities of Asia and the Pacific and that is unsustainable development. As a region, we have achieved spectacular economic growth, social progress and poverty reduction. Producing over 80 percent of the region’s GDP, cities have been at the forefront of this economic growth. The per capita GDP of Ho Chi Minh City for example is almost three times higher than the per capita GDP of the whole of Vietnam. Bombay, Singapore and Shanghai are centres of international trade and commerce and hubs for regional and international connectivity.

However, this growth first strategy has come at a cost. We have externalized the environmental and social costs of rapid economic. The ecological footprints of some of our cities are 3 to 5 times higher than the global per capita average. Our cities account for 67 percent of all our energy use, 71 percent of all our green house gas emissions and generate 300 million tons of solid wastes per year. Many suffer from congested roads, energy and water shortages. Urban waterways in some cities are polluted to an extent that no life can survive in them.

If we continue with business as usual the impact of providing for 2.3 billion urban residents by 2025 would be environmentally, economically and socially devastating.

While we are trying to cope with the impacts of unsustainable urban development and lifestyles, we are faced with the third challenge: that of climate change. Over 50 percent of Asia-Pacific’s urban residents live in low lying areas and are at risk from extreme weather events such as floods and typhoons that can wipe out years of development and poverty reduction in a matter of days. The frequency and intensity of these and other climate related disasters will increase — affecting our energy, water and food security. We simply do not have the luxury of growing first and cleaning up later.

While natural disasters affect both the rich and the poor it is the poor who suffer most because they do not have the assets to cope with risks and vulnerabilities. This brings me to the fourth challenge: the urbanization of poverty, which is manifested by slums and squatter settlements. According to estimates around 35 to 40 percent of urban residents of the region live in slums. Urban Asia reveals persistent disparities in income as well as in access to services and opportunities. If not addressed, these disparities can lead to grievances that can be mobilized for crime, violence and social unrest.

Given our existing and future urban development needs we need to rethink our development paradigm and lifestyles. We at ESCAP are articulating a holistic vision for cities of Asia and the Pacific. What can our future cities look like? By 2030, when a majority of this region’s population will live in urban areas we want to see cities that are economically productive, environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive and just, participatory in decision making, culturally vibrant, internationally and regionally connected, and resilient to climate change and other crises.

To achieve this vision, what do we need to do? We need to adopt inclusive, low-carbon, green growth strategies.

We need to reform urban planning and infrastructure design to make our cities compact and eco-efficient. We need to maximize the benefits of mass transit and public transport systems. We need to invest in eco-efficient buildings and infrastructure, clean water, improved sanitation, better waste management and smart energy grids.

Increasing the efficiency of how we use our resources will reduce green house gas emissions and make our societies more resilient to shocks such as the volatility in fuel and food prices.

We need to engage civil society and businesses to promote more sustainable life-styles and reduce the levels of consumption that increasingly appear to define our cities. Our private sector needs to embrace the well-being of people and our planet, while generating profit. We can encourage markets to adopt this agenda by providing the right fiscal and regulatory incentives. We need to start internalizing the real costs of using natural resources, particularly energy and water. At present, we unnecessarily subsidize the rich and middle classes by providing water and energy at below their environmental cost. This encourages inefficient use of resources. The poor, on the other hand, end up paying three to five times as much for these services in the informal market. Improved regulatory frameworks and targeted subsidies would increase the access of the poor to formal markets. Moreover, upscaling of innovative low-tech, green infrastructure and services would not only improve the lives of the poor, it could also turn them into pioneers of low-carbon and low-cost infrastructure solutions.

Our cities and communities, particularly the poor, need to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change. We need to map the vulnerable areas in our cities and integrate disaster preparedness in urban planning and management. We need to ensure that the poor have access to safer and more secure housing and strengthen their ability to recover from disasters through strategies such as community-based finance and micro-insurance schemes.

Adopting such inclusive and sustainable development strategies will not be easy. It will require transforming the way we plan, manage and govern our cities and towns. It is time to move away from sectoral, piecemeal planning and management towards inclusive and integrated approaches that view urban and rural areas as part of a continuous system. Such approaches should enable us to coordinate efforts of national and local governments with those of civil society and communities, particularly the poor and the excluded.

Our governance systems should foster constant learning from not only our own experiences but those of other countries facing similar issues. Our institutions must be flexible enough to respond to changes and new vulnerabilities. In other words, our institutions must be inclusive, integrated and adaptive.

We at ESCAP, stand ready to work with our Member States to promote holistic and integrated approaches to urban governance and development. Let us make our cities livable places of shared prosperity, social progress, cultural vibrancy and knowledge and ecological sustainability. Only then can our children inherit a promising future.

I thank you.