Is Asia prepared for the challenges that come with rapid urbanisation?

It all boils down to how resilient the region is, says an urban planner and designer based in Manila

Cityscape of office buildings in Hong Kong. ESBProfessional/Shutterstock

The Geographical Association defines urbanisation as the rise in the number of people residing in cities and towns.

It occurs when residents from rural areas move to the city to pursue a better life, hoping that they could have access to the benefits of social services, better career opportunities, higher quality education, and even basic amenities that are not available in their hometowns.

Though the idea of urbanisation might look good on paper, accommodating the needs of the rapidly growing population can present a huge and complex problem for the cities.

Sylvester Wong, vice president of strategies and development at American multinational engineering firm AECOM and honourary chairperson of the PropertyGuru Asia Real Estate Summit 2019, shared his insights during the said event.

For a couple of decades, he worked as an urban planner and designer based in Hong Kong and then Manila, placing him in a unique position to understand how Asia can thrive in a more urbanised environment.


Sylvester Wong presenting his keynote address entitled “Global Vision: a look at the rapid growth of the Asian property market” at the PropertyGuru Asia Real Estate Summit 2019

The dawn of Asian urbanisation

Wong started off by sharing a study conducted by the Financial Times, which revealed a forecast that Asian economies will outpace the rest of the world combined by April 2020, marking the dawn of Asian urbanisation. Come 2050, the urban population in Asian cities will expand by 233 percent, more than the rest of the world’s cities combined.

To this date, half of the global population and half of the world’s middle-class (who spend more than any other region) call Asia their home.

In the Greater Bay Area, the gross domestic product (GDP) for a population of 70 million amounted to USD1.5 trillion. The hinterland, also known as the internet hardware capital of the world, surpassed the GDP of Hong Kong last year, with only 11 million people.

On the other hand, the Bangkok metropolitan area that caters to 60 million people and welcomes 40 million foreign visitors each year accumulated 44 percent of the GDP, ranking as the 6th highest GDP per capita in Asia after Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Osaka, and Seoul.

The underlying issues

Seeing that 13 out of the 20 most powerful cities are in this region, Wong posed this question to the audience, “Are we ready for the future?”

As a new year beckons, he encouraged leaders “to move forward from just accelerated growth to longterm stewardship of this progress,” as they have to deal with numerous technological and economic challenges that come with urbanisation.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Cities would also have to deal with the climate change crisis, such as the rising sea levels in Jakarta, the raging typhoons in the Philippines, and the major pollution problem in Beijing, to name a few.

For the entire span of his career, Wong mostly focused on congestion as an urban planner, sharing how much it can affect a country’s overall GDP. In Jakarta, for instance, they lose USD5 billion yearly to road congestion, while Manila loses seven percent of their annual GDP.

Rush hour traffic in Manila, Philippines. Aldarinho/Shutterstock

The quest for resiliency

Nowadays, resilience is described as a city’s readiness to bounce back from natural disasters and urban challenges, but Wong believes that we can do more than just recover.

“As torches are being passed from captains of industry to stewards of legacy, these are the themes that are emerging: a desire to develop a new measure of resilience, of future-readiness,” he added. “We are going to find new ways to be future-ready.”

Resiliency through diversity
“Its not just about infrastructure and connectivity, but [it’s more about] bringing nations together at the same time. This kind of diversity carves a unique cultural authenticity; the identity of place in nature; cross-border investments; a mixing of people, classes, aspirations to achieve that intangible software, which gives our properties and cities the buzz and the vibe that brings relevance and longevity,” clarified Wong.

Resiliency through inclusivity
For this solution, he set the New Clark City in the Philippines as an example, where they “adjusted housing and jobs in bouts, creating walkable cities and multi-polar economy that allows more people to be able to have access to jobs and clean parks, instead of commuting two and a half to three hours each way to get to the centre of the city.”

Resiliency through innovation
“This is all about being ready for the future, harnessing data, thinking through the objectives of what smart cities are about, making sure that the properties we are building are flexible to change to accommodate the unpredictable,” concluded Wong.

Urbanisation in Asia comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. As long as each city strives to be future-ready through resiliency, then they would not have to worry about any adversities.