Cities: love them or hate them, they are likely to be the future for most of our children. Developed well, they can provide high quality of life and convenience – and huge environmental efficiencies. But developed poorly, they create a blight that will take decades to eradicate.
Today, 55 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities – and that population is growing by 1.4 million people a week. Already cities account for 80 per cent of global GDP.
The developing world is home to most of these cities – China alone is in the process of building more than 40 new cities of more than one million people between now and 2030, and developing-world cities are expected to account for 93 per cent of all future urban growth. But more than 30 per cent of our urban residents are currently living in slums. So planning cities right is a need that presses urgently on us.
The “Building Better Cities” forum organized by the Philippines for the APEC meetings in Cebu last week homed in keenly of the challenges we face. Mayors from across the Philippines were brought together to ruminate over the challenges they face, and the mistakes they had made. And let’s just say that the Philippines, from Manila down, is not well-renowned for intelligent city planning.
But let’s not point the finger at the Philippines. Governments across the world face massive challenges both practical and political in building better cities. Very often, the democratic political process does not help: when a Philippine mayor faces re-election every three years, he or she is ill-placed to focus on costly infrastructure-building that may take decades to bear fruit.
Difficult as the challenge may be, the problem is not going to go away: with 1.4 million people a week arriving in cities, the price of policy failure is slums, squalor, and a colossal waste of human potential.
The first message in research coordinated for the forum by PwC was that cities need to be viewed as economic drivers, and must from the very beginning be people-centred. It is estimated that US$50 trillion will be needed between now and 2050 to build the infrastructure we need to provide satisfactory living environments for our future urban generations, and this can either be regarded as a cost, or an investment.
Summarising research based on 28 cities in Asia, the PwC team pointed the spotlight on success stories and catastrophes. Their messages were clear: the simple density of urban clusters makes careful management an imperative. Coordinated master planning is essential. People-centric plans need to build on the unique “DNA” of a city, and they need to take keen note of sustainability.
Fascinating case studies of the gigantic potential for cities to create waste provided painful insights into what can happen if focus on sustainability is lost. Just one glimpse into the scale of future waste challenges: it was claimed that by 2030, without mitigation, there will be one tonne of plastic waste in the ocean for every three tonnes of fish.
For officials who argued that the money was not there to do a proper job, the retort from financiers in the room was: “Not true”. They talked of the need to give priority to PPPs – not public private partnerships, but “Properly Prepared Projects”. In short, if city planners can prepare articulate urban plans, funds are available.
In a robust debate over the role of the private sector in building better cities – with PwC perhaps logically claiming that the private sector could play a massive role – the majority view seemed to be that government officials could not shirk a pivotal responsibility to plan and shape the better cities of the future. Carefully planned urban infrastructure therefore has to be seen as a public good, and a legitimate destination for significant taxpayer funding. This seemed particularly true as cities wallowed at a “survival” or “basic” level.
So what does all this have to do with Hong Kong, home to some of the most intelligent urban planning in the world? PwC would respond that “better” cities must be dynamic economic machines. They must be creative and fun, projecting a powerful and distinctive DNA.
At Hong Kong’s level of development, intelligent planning is closely linked with economic competitiveness. Failure to plan and invest intelligently and proactively in infrastructure as a core public good will cost us dear.
Hong Kong’s reputation as “Asia’s world city” has been hard earned, but will only be retained with visionary government leadership. The decades it now takes us to develop infrastructure – from an extension to the airport runway, to the development of the cruise terminal, or the Central Police Station or the West Kowloon Cultural district or a high-speed rail link to Beijing – suggests that visionary conviction is dangerously lacking. Is our mantle as “Asia’s World City” not vulnerable?
David Dodwell is executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group