Beyond Metropolis: Governing Asia's Mega-Cities

Spotlight on Aprodicio Laquian, Wilson Center Fellow

Dec 01, 2002

In today's world, 28 cities have populations of 10 million or more. Half of them are in Asia. These mega-cities are growing rapidly, presenting an array of challenges for political leaders and urban planners who must devise new strategies for planning and managing them.

Wilson Center Fellow Aprodicio Laquian is exploring this phenomenon as he works to complete his newest book on the planning and governance of Asia's mega-urban regions, the culmination of more than a decade of research. Laquian, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, has written and edited numerous books and articles on metropolitan planning and the problems of large cities.

Born in a poor Philippine village and raised in Manila's slums, Laquian experienced firsthand the many hardships the populace confronted daily due to poverty, congestion, pollution, crime, and lack of urban services. It is no wonder he has dedicated his entire adult life to urban and regional planning, having developed an avid interest in, and commitment to, poverty alleviation, community-based activism, and urban management reform.

Around the world, mega-cities have expanded into mega-urban regions. In Asia, the Tokyo metropolitan region has grown to encompass Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, and Nagoya. Similar mega-urban regions have developed around Beijing, Shanghai, Calcutta, Seoul, Jakarta, and Karachi, among others. And, said Laquian, the peripheries are growing fast, stimulated by globalization. Migration, information technology, free trade, and the expansion of global markets all have encouraged urban expansion.

Some Asian countries have tried to control the growth of mega-cities, but these attempts largely have failed. China and Vietnam had implemented internal passport systems to restrict movement. Indonesia tried using an urban identification system. The Philippines limited services to urban residents to curb the massive migration from rural areas. Laquian said that the rural population used a "Rice and Roads" approach. "They became self-sufficient on rice and then took to the roads and moved to the city."

But, said Laquian, urban sprawl creates problems that have intensified over the years. Urban poverty is pervasive, leading to growing numbers of slums and squatter colonies. Environmental pollution—air, water, land, noise—and sanitation and sewage problems have worsened. Other growing problems include traffic gridlock and crime. Impeding the solution, said Laquian, is the political and administrative fragmentation that has reduced the capacity of officials to address these problems.

To help alleviate these problems, Laquian recommends area-wide planning, in the form of unified governance. He recommends assigning specific functions, such as traffic control and public transit, to regional authorities. But an alliance of local units, he said, will facilitate the pooling of authority and resources.

Such unified governance will yield better delivery of services and the opportunity to create more streamlined governmental structures. In addition, financial capacity would increase due to the larger tax base and the potential for greater investment in area-wide services. At the crux of Lacquian's research is the growing influence of civil society groups in mega-urban regions, which he contends is necessary to help democracy take root.

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