Green Urbanization in Asia | Wilson Center
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On April 1, 2012, a Chinese woman on her way to work suddenly felt the earth beneath her crumble and, in an instant, found herself plunging into an abyss of scalding hot water. The woman had unknowingly stepped into one of the many sinkholes appearing in China’s megacities. The emergence of sinkholes in China is part of a larger set of environmental issues related to rapid urbanization taking place in the Asia-Pacific region overall.

In 2011, Asia was home to 3.9 billion people (or about 56 percent of the world’s population) with more than40 percent living in urban areas. As the region continues to grow economically, more people are moving to cities seeking opportunity. According to a new report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), one of the most notable challenges of this shift will be environmental. But a “green urbanization path” can help, and in a talk at the Wilson Center co-hosted with the ADB, Assistant Chief Economist Douglas Brooks argued that the unique features of urbanization in Asia allow the region to shape policies that can mitigate environmental challenges.

An Unprecedented Transition

One unique feature of Asian urbanization today is the speed at which it is taking place. According to the report, the Asia-Pacific region is on pace to transition from 10 percent of its population in urban areas to 50 percent urban by 2025, taking just 95 years. Compare this to the 210 years it took for Latin America and the Caribbean, 150 years for Europe, and 105 years in North America.

Indonesia, the People’s Republic of China, and Bhutan experienced this urban transition in 65, 61, and 55 years respectively. According to Brooks, Asia’s urban population growth is expected to outpace that of any other region, with an estimated one billion people forecasted to be city-dwellers in 2040.

Asia’s urban areas have become the world’s most densely populated too, with Mumbai, Kolkata, and Karachi taking the top 3 positions and 5 of the rest of the top 10 in Asia too.

In spite of the speed and density of recent urbanization, however, there remains a substantial rural population. Between 1970 and 2000, Asia was the least urbanized region in the world. By the turn of the millennium, 33.6 percent of Asians were living in urban areas. This was a substantial increase from 1960 (about 21 percent) but still paled in comparison to the world average (46 percent). In 2010, the rate had climbed to 43 percent, narrowing the gap between Asia and the rest of the world slightly (world average 52 percent), but there is still an enormous number of people living in rural areas.

Because of these trends, Brooks argues that this is only the beginning of urbanization in Asia and that it “has a long way to go.” He predicts not only the growth of the region’s largest existing cities, but the creation of many new megacities in the coming years as well.

Environmental Challenges

This “unprecedented urbanization” poses enormous challenges, including rising urban crime, the expansion of slums, and environmental degradation. With respect to the later specifically, Brooks points out that half of the world’s most polluted cities are in Asia. Sixty-seven percent of Asian cities (compared to 11 percent of non-Asian cities) fail to meet the European Union’s air quality standard for particulate matter, according to the report.

Compounding this (and related) is the rate at which Asian countries are emitting greenhouse gases. Between 2000 and 2008, average per capita emissions in Asia increased by 97 percent as opposed to only 18 percent for the rest of the world.

Much of Asia is also at risk of coastal and inland flooding as well. According to the ADB, over 300 millionurban dwellers in Asia were at risk of coastal flooding in 2010, and about 250 million of inland flooding.

Building in Solutions at the Start

As the region continues to develop (and it is expected to), environmental challenges will only get more difficult. There is however, a glimmer of hope amidst this bleak landscape. Urbanization, although part of the problem, can be part of the solution too. Brooks argues that because of the unique features highlighted above and the fact that the region is a “late comer” to urbanization, Asia can “learn from other players’ past mistakes.”

For instance, going forward, regional policymakers could incorporate environmental priorities in city planning, such as making renewables a primary energy source, employing “smart” electricity grids, or developing compact walkable satellite cities accessible to megacities by energy efficient train systems. Furthermore, Asian governments can build on the science and technology advancements made in the past and either advance or adapt such technologies to their own urban planning.

China, for example, has taken advantage of its late-comer status by not only embracing Western technology but working to foster new innovation on green technology specifically.

According to Brooks, time is on the region’s side in that this is only the beginning of urbanization. As such, Asian governments can and should judiciously introduce regulations, implement better financing policies, and promote transparency practices aimed at reducing the environmental impact of this trend. Specifically, Brooks recommends policymakers enact a carbon tax or cap and trade policies, make fiscal transfers conditional on local “green” performance, enhance the access of local governments to capital markets, and mandate disclosure of city government performance to the public.

The speed and intensity of Asia’s urbanization is unprecedented and unique in many ways, but Brooks contends that “urban agglomeration can help.” Urbanization promotes the service sector, which generally pollutes less than manufacturing; pushes traditional manufacturing away from major city centers; and facilitates innovation, especially green technology. Declining birth rates, a more educated population, and a robust middle class are also associated with urbanization and “can also have broadly beneficial impacts on resource use and the environment,” Brooks said.

Asian urbanization is a phenomenon we cannot stop, nor should we, he contends. It simply needs to be “steered onto a green path that exploits its own unique features.”

By Sandy Pho, Program Assistant, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States


  • Douglas Brooks

    Assistant Chief Economist, Asian Development Bank
  • Blair A. Ruble

    Distinguished Fellow
    Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)