Making cities more livable

Updated at Monday, 11 Feb 2019, 08:08
The Hanoitimes - Sasank Vemuri, Urban Development Specialist, Asia Development Bank, talks with Hanoitimes on criteria of livable cities.
Urbanization trends and challenges

Urban areas are home to almost half of Asia’s population. The urban populations in Asia and Pacific region have grown from a proportion of about 20% in the 1950s to around 48% in 2018. By 2030, urban areas are expected to have 55% of the region’s population, or about 2.5 billion people. The scale, speed and density of urban population in Vietnam are growing along this trend.
Sasank Vemuri, Urban Development Specialist, Asia Development Bank.
Sasank Vemuri, Urban Development Specialist, Asia Development Bank.
Rapid urbanization is often linked to improved economic opportunities, better access to health and education services, and better living conditions. However, the rate of urbanization and uncontrolled urban development can also exacerbate existing challenges of environmental degradation, disaster risks, and massive shortfalls in urban infrastructure which must be addressed.

Rapid urbanization in Vietnam presents many challenges. Urbanization is placing growing environmental strains on cities, such as air and water pollution, traffic congestion, inadequate solid waste management and wastewater treatment. In Ha Noi, for example, each family owns three to four motorbikes, and many of Ha Noi’s motorbike users are switching to cars as their incomes increase. With this trend, coupled with Ha Noi’s population expansion from six to eight million people by 2025, the traffic conditions will continue to worsen, and the city has to face with more critical transportation problem such as traffic congestion, air pollution and traffic safety.

Rapid and often poorly managed urbanization intensifies climate change risks and amplifies its impacts on infrastructure and people’s lives. Studies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) shown that Asian cities are especially vulnerable to the hazards caused by climate change. Cities in Vietnam, particularly those in low-lying areas along the coastline are highly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change and natural disaster risks. The risks will be further exacerbated by climate change impacts such as sea level rise, increased and erratic rainfall, and increased occurrence of extreme weather events.

Cities generate about 80% of Asia’s GDP, and economies in the region often depend on them to drive economic growth. While cities are engines of economic growth, poverty and disparities are increasing. Rapid urbanization also means the urbanization of poverty. Large disparities have emerged in urban areas. The poor and near-poor are the most vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks, and they are expected to be hit first and hardest by the effect of climate change.

Making cities more livable

ADB’s Strategy 2030 identified ‘Making Cities More Livable’ as one of the seven operational priorities. ADB’s Live Able Cities Operational Priority Plan sets out the direction and approach for ADB to help its developing member countries (DMCs) build livable cities.

Livability is a term often used to describe high quality of life and community wellbeing supported by strong governance systems and access to urban services. Whereas precise definitions vary, a livable city is thought to have a diverse and inclusive local economy, robust and complete neighborhoods, accessible and sustainable mobility, vibrant public spaces, affordability and resilience urban services, and cohesive communities.

Notwithstanding the above definition, there is neither universal roadmap for cities to become ‘livable’, nor a generic global template for cities to replicate. Each city, in collaboration with its citizens, must create its own model to reflect its own challenges and priorities. ADB will help cities in its DMCs to understand their challenges and opportunities to develop such a model.

Moreover, ADB recognizes that cities are key to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the global climate goals. Several SDGs call for actions mainly in urban areas where most economic activities and investments take place. In other words, cities are where much of the climate mitigation and adaptation action will have to take place.

Priorities for action

To address the challenges of urbanization, including poverty, environmental strain and climate related disasters among others, we must focus on building inclusive, green, and resilient cities.

First, inclusive growth is key to reduce poverty. Building inclusive cities means improving access for the urban poor and near-poor to basic services such as primary health care, education, adequate housing and affordable water and transport. Inclusive cities should also expand quality job opportunities for the poor.

In addition, the use of technology and intelligent systems can help improve urban services for the poor, including sanitation and affordable transportation. There is no doubt that urban planning and design can contribute to improving health by providing appropriate transport and housing choices, reducing wastewater overflows and pollution and improving both physical and mental health.

Second, to make cities greener, they must become denser, more energy and resource efficient through promotion of low carbon development and smart use of land and water. Cities need encourage more compact development, which promotes resource efficiency, as well as to invest more in mass transport systems and better waste and wastewater management. Urban transport systems need to be better integrated.

For example, in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, ADB, in collaboration and cooperation with other development partners, is supporting development of mass public transport systems including the metros in an integrated access to other urban transport systems. In this way, people can easily switch from one mode of transport to another, and more importantly, less dependent on private vehicles to meet transport needs.

Third, to make cities more resilient, decision makers should always consider natural hazards and climate change risks when planning and designing cities as well as urban infrastructure. It is proved that relatively small up-front investment can save lives and avoid large scale infrastructure rebuilding and rehabilitation cost later. Particularly, cities in Vietnam need to invest more in climate resilient infrastructure including enlarged drainage systems, elevated roads as needed, and bigger storm-water retention reservoirs to accommodate variations in rainfall.

Here, I want to mention the ADB-supported Secondary Green Cities Development Project that help make urban centers of Hue, Vinh Yen and Ha Giang become more livable, environmentally friendly, and climate-resilient, while enhancing their economic competitiveness. About 116,000 households in these cities will benefit from the project. With support from the Global Environment Facility and the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund, ADB is working with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to mainstream a green and resilient city development approach across government agencies through policy advice and capacity building, as well as replicate the approach in other cities in Vietnam.

Fourth, livability in cities can be further improved by using smart digital technologies such as Internet-of-Things to improve energy efficient in street lighting, Artificial Intelligent for traffic modelling, Blockchain for protecting citizen data, GIS and earth observations for resilience planning, Fintech for paying for urban services, etc.. technology can not only to meet specific needs of various groups but also to deliver more efficient and responsive services to the people living in the cities.

It is worth to note that a commonly used working definition of a ‘smart city’ is a city that makes efficient and effective use of data, technologies and available resources to improve core functions of city planning, management and efficient service delivery, to engage more effectively with citizens and the private sector, and to strengthen inclusion and accountability.

Fifth, making cities more livable cannot be done without a huge investment in infrastructure. At national level, we need to examine how government can set the right financial and legislative frameworks for financing urban infrastructure that is more inclusive and sustainable. At the city level, it is important to identify the types of investment and appropriate policy instruments that have worked to alleviate congestion and environmental pollution, while improving living and working conditions and safety of its citizens.Municipal authorities have often been given responsibility for providing urban infrastructure. However, they have not been given corresponding decentralized stable revenue resources. Cities, therefore, also need additional funding beyond traditional sources.

It is important to develop mechanisms, regulatory frameworks to enable the private sector to take greater role and participate effectively in investment and leverage government resources. Municipal authority should consider appropriate business model that allow the private sector to actively participate in project design and delivery, including PPPs and greater involvement of non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations.

Finally, inclusive, green and resilient cities need better governance and more effective institutions. Better use of integrated cities planning, smart use of land and timely investments in sustainable infrastructure are all important.

Tackling the challenges of urban development will require city governments to integrate social and environmental considerations into locally customized economic development plans. The implementation of the plan of making cities more livable requires strong coordination between multiple government agencies, the private sector and communities. It also requires an innovative management approach easily adaptable to project monitoring, data analysis and citizen feedback.

ADB’s financial and intellectual support

ADB recognizes building livable cities as transformative opportunity. We have been working closely with DMCs’ governments and development partners as well as developing new partnerships to foster competitive, inclusive, and green cities to improve their economic, equity, and environmental sustainability.

ADB will help governments of DMCs better access finance not only for new urban infrastructure and services but also for operating, maintaining, and rehabilitating existing infrastructure for sustainable urban development. ADB also helps the city authorities bridge the gap between city development planning and infrastructure project preparation.

We are aware that making livable cities needs not only finance but also knowledge solutions. ADB stands ready to provide knowledge and financial support to further develop competitive, inclusive and green cities in Vietnam.
Sasank Vemuri