Do Asia’s leaders have the vision to transform their cities?

by Aabha Gandhi

A BBC report shows that by 2025 seven of the world’s 10 megacities will be based in Asia. The world is urbanising more quickly than ever before and this brings with it challenges, such as urban migration, sanitation, transportation and housing, on an unprecedented scale. Do city leaders have the vision and leadership to tackle these issues and build better cities?

Traffic in Bangkok
Traffic congestion in Bangkok. Image © Fabio Achilli

“A city is not an accident
but the result of coherent visions and aims.”
- Leon Krier, The Architecture of Community

Cities must articulate vision and leadership to be successful. “Many cities are stuck in cycles of dividing their resources to deal with various, complex and sometimes interrelated problems,” says Dr. Alfonso Vegara, President Fundacion Metropoli, a Spanish foundation dedicated to developing urban innovations. This piecemeal approach to urban planning means many cities lack a strong overarching blueprint to define priorities or aspirations.

Yet, when civil authorities do show leadership, Dr. Joan Clos, Under-Secretary-General, United Nations, believes they can “generate economies of scale, enhance productivity, facilitate the exchange of ideas, and spur innovation.”

The need for leadership
Cities today are more than places of residence and employment. Dr. Vegara argues that the most liveable cities today exist to offer their residents an array of economic and employment prospects, recreational opportunities, choices of lifestyle, political diversity, and a range of mobility and transport options.

Whether cities in emerging economies have been able to provide this level of choice to their residents is debatable. Some such as Ahmedabad in India offer greater educational and employment prospects for a growing and aspirational middle class, or – like China’s second-tier cities – present opportunities for lower-income people to move up the socio-economic scale, but many cities struggle to offer better diversity of urban functionality.

This is made more difficult when cities lack effective leadership. “Cities in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, in the Indian subcontinent and in Latin America could be described as ‘developing’, but are hardly developing at all,” says Sir Peter Hall, Professor of Planning at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning. These cities have the physical trappings of urbanisation, but do not have a sustainable wealth generation model to support it. “They are urbanising without a proper urban economic base, says Sir Hall, “and this is storing up economic and social problems for the future.”

Economic growth vs. quality of life
Given the limited resources of most public sector bodies, prioritising critical sectors is essential. Economic growth, as one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and improving quality of life, is often considered paramount. However, Dr. Cheong Koon Hean, CEO of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board counsels against focusing solely on growing the economy.

“If you do, many cities may compromise and just bring in polluting industries to generate the jobs,” says Dr. Cheong. She acknowledges that it is the easiest approach for most cities to take, but argues that urban planners have a duty to take a more integrated approach. “You have to consider the environment and consider social issues, so that [urban development] is holistic and balanced.”

The municipal governments of Scandinavian cities, such as Malmö and Copenhagen, have arguably best-married economic sustainability with quality of life. “These cities demonstrate that strong physical planning control is compatible with a dynamic urban economy,” argues Sir Hall. In instances where urban planners must choose between social, environmental or economic considerations, cities need good leadership. “And good leadership is about strong political will and having a vision,” says Dr. Cheong.

Good governance
Good leadership can mean making decisions that go against popular sentiment. The biggest failure of many South East Asian cities, says Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, has been their inability to control car populations. The resulting massive traffic jams impact on both residents’ quality of life and a city’s economic development.

Public reaction to congestion pricing is often negative. However, Professor Mahbubani argues that the region’s cities should implement an automated electronic toll system like Singapore’s Electronic Road Pricing scheme. “Once people see the traffic moving, they will be happier,” he says.

Pushing through unpopular measures requires political will, especially where leaders are democratically accountable to their public. In 2009, Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of the City of New York announced that parts of midtown New York, including Times Square and Broadway, would be pedestrianised to ease traffic congestion and reduce pollution. The move was initially vociferously opposed by local businesses, which feared a drop in customers.

“One reason why Michael Bloomberg and New York won the 2012 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize was that he was strong enough to push through these unpopular measures,” says Professor Mahbubani. After initial misgivings, the pedestrianisation now has over 60% support from both the public and businesses owners.

Bloomberg was able to use the public support and political capital gained to further push his policy of urban pedestrianisation, arguing: “In this day and age, all the great cities have already tried to reduce the number of cars on their streets.”

New York Times Square
Times Square New York. Image © NYC DOT

Public-private-partnership
One constant of successful urban planning is collaborations between the public and the private sector. As Peter Ho, Chairman of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority says, “by working with the private sector, urban planners can tap into insights and experiences that can help them to develop new tools and strategies that are mutually beneficial.”

In Singapore, both public and private sector have a long track record of collaboration. In the city-state’s northern suburb of Punggol, Panasonic is working with local authorities to test bed and develop an integrated energy system and is providing energy-producing solar panels as an alternative source of power generation.

“Working in partnership helps to align the government, private sector and the community,” says Ho. However, it is a process that requires the city authorities to take the lead in forging partnerships, and also show willingness to listen to the needs of local communities and the private sector. “It is about commitment, political will, strong leadership, and being open to new ideas that contribute to a successful partnership,” says Ho.

Local engagement
Public-private-partnerships bring direction, capital and expertise. However, to accomplish sustainable change, city leaders must engage with local communities. Without city residents’ buy-in, top-down initiatives will struggle to succeed.

In 2000, the New Delhi city government initiated the Bhagidari (Partnership in Hindi) system initiative to improve civic services, including water and power shortages, sewage disposal and poorly maintained roads. NGOs and citizen groups, such as resident welfare associations, were brought in to advise on improving the delivery of public services. From 20-citizen groups in 2000, the Bhagidari system now incorporates more than 2,300 citizen groups with over 5 million people.1

Curitiba, a southern Brazilian city of 1.8 million people2, has also engaged with local communities to enact urban regeneration. Its former mayor, Jamie Lerner, developed innovative, economically efficient developmental policies that placed people at their heart. Local communities bought into radical waste management solutions. To encourage recycling, residents' rubbish was exchanged for bus tickets, football tickets and shows, and people were offered further incentives to separate organic and non-organic waste and keep their neighbourhoods clean.

Lerner has described this as ‘urban acupuncture’: choosing those projects with the greatest impact and least disturbance or cost. Today, Curitiba is often described as one of the most liveable and environmentally friendly cities in the world and its GDP per capita in Curitiba is 60% higher than the average in Brazil.

Both Curitiba and New Delhi achieved change without vast assets or budgets. As Dr. Cheong says, “I think you have to be quite clever, to work within the resources you have.”

Transformative change
Cities face complex problems. Leaders must possess the vision to both recognise challenges and provide sustainable solutions. To achieve this, they must be equipped with the necessary skill sets. “Most urban planners have very few of the skills needed for planning and building successful, sustainable eco-towns,” says Sir Hall. He believes governments need to offer broad-based planning education and training, and develop multi-disciplinary teams.

“We can build better cities,” says Dr. Vegara. But doing so requires that city leaders demonstrate the necessary leadership and political will. Going against popular opinion for the greater good, bringing together private, public and community sectors, and developing and implementing visionary solutions is not easy. However, it is the only way that cities can effectively counter the massive and complex challenges they tackle. “Even the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize is not a prize to the best cities,” says Dr. Vegara, “it is a prize to the best transformational strategies.” O

This article was first published in April 2013. All images contained within this page are used with license and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.


  1. Cities in Transformation (Editions Didier Millet, 2012), 112
  2. Cities in Transformation (Editions Didier Millet, 2012), 105

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