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Urban Management in Asia:
Issues, Priorities and Opportunities

VAT News Vol.3/2000 (July-September 2000)

Prof. Brian Roberts
Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute
Queensland University of Technology

By 2025 the United Nations estimate a further 1.4 billion people will live in urban settlements in Asia. The rapid growth of Asian cities will place great pressure on financial markets to raise capital for infrastructure, housing, community and other investments to support the economic and social needs of people living and working in cities, and to ameliorate serious environmental problems already experienced in many cities. In 1997, Asia cities experienced a major financial crisis, from which it has been slow to recover. Asian Cities are heading for a new crisis in urban management. This paper examines some key issues related to urbanisation and management of Asian cities, and discusses some priorities and future opportunities involving partnerships for urban management.
        The enormity of the problems facing Asia cities, now and in the future, leads to the inevitable question: is it possible for the urbanisation and growth in Asian cities to be made more sustainable? The answer to this is yes, but it requires greatly improved approaches to urban management. The problems being experienced with the rapid urbanisation in Asia cities have their parallels in 19th Century Europe. Fredrick Engles (1848) description of environmental pollution in Salford in Manchester could apply equally to some of the conditions experienced in many modern Asian Cities - with the exception of motor cars. It was not until local governments were empowered to address environmental issues through massive local and city wide infrastructure programs, tightening and enforcing of regulations and minimum development standards related to the built environment, improvements to local tax and revenue collection systems and land reforms that some of the horrendous environmental conditions prevailing in European for almost a century were finally eliminated. With improved environmental and social conditions came greater prosperity to local and national economies.
        The situation in Asia is more difficult. Few cities in Europe had populations exceeding 1 million. Resources for the development of major public works programs drew from the wealth of vast colonial trading companies headquartered in Europe. Resources and economic growth were thought to be limitless. This is not the case today, in Asia or any other part of the world. Resources are becoming finite, with world oil reserves expected to be depleted within 50 years. New technology will play a major role in addressing management issues, but ultimately it is the mobilisation of local communities, backed by government and large corporate investments that will solve the problems of Asian cities. Current forms of urban governance have failed. The highly centralised, powerful autocratic bureaucracies that control public and private sector investments are no longer sufficiently flexible to meet with the requirements of managing cities in a global economy.
        The future development of Asian cities, indeed all cities, lies in multiple levels of partnerships between governments, business, communities and many other types of organisations, enterprises and individuals. Such partnerships range from land development, provision and operation of municipal services and other public utilities, and the development of local capital markets. Partnerships offer flexible systems of governance, ensuring a rapid response to change and change factors. A key to urban management issues for the future is the integration and coordination of multiple systems of partnership to achieve positive and sustainable outcomes for urban and economic growth. Economic development in Asia can no longer be sustained on the basis of absorbing the full environmental costs of production. The role of urban management must be to place all forms of development: economic, social and physical, on a more sustainable footing. International assistance and regulation will be essential to stop unnecessary transfers of environmental production costs to lesser-developed nations in Asia in the future.
        The demand for urban management services presents major business opportunities for the developed nations of Asia and the Pacific. Unless Asian cities are managed more efficiently and effectively, the more advanced economic countries are at risk from a global deterioration in air and water quality, and epidemics which are no longer confined to national boundaries, and over which there is little control. Improved urban management in Asia will require increased international assistance to develop new partnerships and twinning structures. It will also require innovation on behalf of governments at all levels in Asia to develop competitive alternatives. Governments will need to enlist business and communities to supply and manage basic services and facilities for the poorest communities. It has been done in the past in Europe and America, it can be done in the future in Asia. However, it requires much smarter and more sustainable approaches to urban development and urban management than that practiced over the last century.

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