Small steps, big impact

State of the art: New Clark City is designed to become the Philippines’ first smart and green metropolis with driverless cars, sprawling parks and disaster-proof infrastructure. — AECOM

DRIVERLESS cars, sprawling parks, a state-of-the-art railway and disaster-proof infrastructure. These are just some of the highly anticipated features of New Clark City, a flagship project in the US$180bil (RM750bil) “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure agenda of the Philippines. Located 100km north of Metro Manila, New Clark City is designed to become the country’s first smart and green metropolis – an antidote to the pollution and congestion of the hyper-dense capital region.

Across Asia, including in Asean, dozens of similar eco-cities are being built from the ground up.

There is Meikarta Satellite City, a mega residential township in the greater Jakarta region that has been dubbed Indonesia’s Silicon Valley. New Songdo City is a US$40bil (RM166.7bil) smart city built on 600ha of reclaimed land 56km south-west of Seoul. India alone will see the creation of multiple greenfield developments, as part of its quest to develop 100 smart cities by 2020.

That governments across the region are determined to alleviate rising congestion and create more sustainable and resilient communities is laudable. As Asia continues to grow and rapidly urbanise, it is critical to plan for how its cities will accommodate more people, and to be visionary in designing their futures. Urban sustainability is key to a thriving, Indo-Pacific region.

However, new city developments will not bring about meaningful change in the quality of life of everyday citizens unless there are concurrent improvements to the urban areas where people now live. And as global examples demonstrate, brand new cities cannot solve the woes of existing ones.

Proponents of new city developments espouse the benefits of building cities from scratch. Indeed, it is much easier to start from a blank slate than to work around the manifold challenges that plague cities today. These include tangible constraints, such as poorly maintained, or non-existent, infrastructure as well as intangible barriers, like poor land management and unequally enforced rules and regulations. Starting afresh allows governments, it is hoped, to avoid repeating previous missteps.

But building a city is not simply a matter of implementing a master plan.

When Songdo in South Korea was first conceived in 2001, it was touted as an urban utopia that would be free from the scourges of modern city life.

It was envisioned as a new kind of urban area, featuring all the amenities and technologies one would expect in a 21st-century smart city. Yet, almost two decades later, the city remains sparsely populated, home to only one third of its original goal of 300,000 residents.

From Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates to Binhai New Area in China, similar tales of urban reality clashing with master-plan dreams abound across Asia’s cities.

It is important not to fall into the trap of thinking that there is a single approach that every metropolis must follow, or that the adoption of technology is an end in itself. Solutions that are pursued should ultimately be anchored on the unique problems that cities and their inhabitants face.

This is not to say that new developments are inherently bad. As Asia’s urban population balloons to 64% of its total population by 2050 (from 48% in 2014), there will surely be a need for more and better-planned space.

Furthermore, not all master-planned cities are doomed to fail. Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad – as it stands today – took form only in the 1960s, its master plan crafted by the late Greek architect C.A. Doxiadis.

Today, while not without expected urban challenges, the city is Pakistan’s ninth largest and one of its most prosperous.

Despite Songdo’s underperformance against initial projections, some say it is too early to call the project a flop, as it is not yet complete.

Nevertheless, betting all and resting our hopes for a better, “smarter” future on mega-projects whose success is not guaranteed, and in any case will take years to materialise, would be less than prudent.

If the goal is to build more sustainable and resilient communities and urban areas, one also must consider the changes one could be making today, in places where communities already exist. After all, the spate of extreme weather in recent years – Typhoon Mangkhut, which killed nearly 100 people in the Philippines, being one of the more recent – and a changing climate are taking a toll on cities and people right now.

The good news is that changes need not be of the grandiose sort. The concept of a “smart metropolis” may conjure images of high-tech, futuristic cityscapes; but in developing cities in Asia where resources are scarce, the enforcement of effective policies and the adoption of simple digital technologies can go a long way in delivering better quality of life.

Take mobility, for example. While urban rail remains an important and efficient means of public transportation, it is not the only solution to urban congestion.

Walking and cycling are two of the most economical and environment-friendly modes of transport, and are many times more efficient than cars. A 3.5m-wide road can carry up to seven times more cyclists and over nine times the number of pedestrians per hour than automobiles.

Of course, citizens can only walk or cycle so much, and between Asia’s monsoon rain and its 40°C heatwaves, the weather in the region is not always ideal for these means of transport. But as cities around the world demonstrate, allocating more road space to a high-quality sidewalk is almost always a more effective solution to traffic than the addition of yet another automobile lane.

On a technological front, there are high-value, cost-effective smart city applications – defined by the McKinsey Global Institute as tools that make practical use of data and digital technologies to deliver infrastructure or services in the urban setting, so as to improve liveability, sustainability and productivity - that are ripe for deployment.

In fact, several cities across Asia have already begun to adopt some of these solutions.

In Vietnam’s coastal city of Da Nang and Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok, open flood risk maps for better flood preparedness and management are in the works as part of the broader resilience strategies of both cities. Importantly, these maps are available to low-income households, which are typically the most vulnerable to climate hazards.

Kampung Delek, a village in the Malaysian state of Selangor, made waves when it transformed itself from being one of the filthiest to being the cleanest in the state.

This transformation was made possible in part by an app called iClean Selangor, which enabled residents to file public waste-related complaints to the local waste management company via their mobile phones. This allowed the company to take action more promptly and efficiently.

These are just three examples of modest, practical approaches that cities across Asia can take and are already taking to enhance the liveability and adaptive capacity of their communities today. With the advent of collaborative platforms such as the Asean Smart Cities Network, it will hopefully be easier for cities in the region to share lessons and best practices with others that are facing similar challenges, constraints and priorities.

But it is important not to fall into the trap of thinking that there is a single approach that every metropolis must follow, or that the adoption of technology is an end in itself.

Solutions that are pursued should ultimately be anchored on the unique problems that cities and their inhabitants face.

As we plan for tomorrow, let us not lose sight of changes we can make in the cities of today. — The Straits Times/Asia News Network

¦ Raya Buensuceso is an analyst at Polestrom Consulting and a former Princeton in Asia fellow at the Milken Institute in Singapore. Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is the inaugural Asia Fellow at the Milken Institute.

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