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Asia-Pacific's Path to a Sustainable Urban Future

World Cities Day, an annual United Nations observance day held on the 31st of October, is intended to stimulate the international community’s interest in global urbanization and promote future cooperation between countries to address the challenges of urbanization and contribute to sustainable urban development. Urban transformation in Asia and the Pacific has unfolded at an unprecedented pace over the past few decades. According to ESCAP, the region's urban population is projected to increase from approximately 2.48 billion in 2023 to 3.38 billion in 2050, representing an additional 970 million urban residents during this period. However, as we stand at the midpoint of the crucial decade for climate action and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, the region's progress in sustainable urban development remains significantly off-track. ESCAP identifies four fundamental pillars: urban and territorial planning, climate action, digital transformation, and urban finance, which collectively form a comprehensive approach to address the challenges and uncertainties arising from rapid urbanization.


The rapid and unplanned urbanization in our region has presented significant challenges, such as poverty, inequalities, and environmental degradation. To address these challenges, it is imperative that we prioritize urban and territorial planning as the foundation for how our cities are developed and managed, ensuring the creation of safe, sustainable, and livable urban areas. Tokyo's example serves as a model of efficient land use and transit-oriented development, resulting in mixed-use neighborhoods that offer residents easy access to essential amenities, reduce the need for long commutes, and alleviate congestion.


Amidst the ongoing climate emergency and the increasingly severe impacts it brings, our cities must take the lead in transitioning to low-carbon and resilient development pathways. This requires a critical shift toward low-carbon energy sources and transformative adaptation. Cities must also harness nature-based solutions to address the climate, clean air, and biodiversity crises. In densely populated areas with limited land, initiatives like Hong Kong's Rooftop Greening Initiatives play a pivotal role in enhancing both the quality of life and environmental sustainability. These initiatives repurpose rooftops into green spaces, resulting in improved air quality and increased community engagement. By expanding the availability of green spaces and urban tree canopies, we can create a more sustainable and livable urban environment.


Cities should leverage digital innovations alongside inclusive urban governance policies to enhance their resilience and bridge the digital divide. The urgency of this has been underscored by the pandemic, highlighting the need to ensure that every individual and every corner of our cities is not left behind in urban digital transformations. Digital innovations are fundamental to improving urban governance and services, where smart city initiatives and data-driven decision-making play pivotal roles in this transformative process. It is of paramount importance to consider diverse conditions and tailor digital solutions to the specific needs of different age and gender groups. For example, a review in South Korea's Sejong Smart City found that active safety systems, designed to prevent and respond to potential threats or emergencies, offer greater benefits for women's safety compared to extensive closed-circuit television (CCTV) coverage. These safety systems include features such as panic buttons, safety apps, and smart devices, providing women with effective means to signal distress or request assistance when they feel threatened.


Urban financing is of utmost importance in the current climate, given the scarcity of domestic and international funding. To ensure a climate-responsive urban economic recovery, it is crucial to explore innovative funding models and foster public-private partnerships. This requires a comprehensive approach involving the expansion of local revenue sources, the enhancement of transparency in municipal finance systems, the utilization of land-based financing, and the incentivization of private sector investments. For example, the pandemic disrupted economic activities, resulting in a slowdown in land transactions and sales, which in turn made investors more cautious about long-term investments. Furthermore, reduced demand for commercial real estate impacted land sales, potentially necessitating a shift in land value capture mechanisms to prioritize social and environmental considerations. Drawing from the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) project in Hong Kong, which effectively employed land value capture financing through property-related operations, it becomes evident that involving private developers who bear development costs and commercialization risks significantly contributes to funding large-scale infrastructure projects. This showcases the potential of creative financing strategies, innovative funding models, and robust public-private partnerships to support urban development and sustainability while minimizing the financial burden on the government and taxpayers.

By addressing these four pillars, governments, policymakers, and stakeholders can work in close collaboration to tackle the complex challenges arising from the post COVID-19 recovery, social inclusion, economic revitalization, and the climate crisis. Such an approach requires swift, integrated action, the implementation of innovative digital solutions, and the adoption of participatory approaches to drive progress toward localizing the SDGs in the Asia-Pacific region, all while ensuring inclusivity at all levels.

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