PENANG: Urban planners in rapidly expanding Asian cities must involve the poorest residents in decision-making and include informal spaces if they are serious about tackling inequality, development experts said on Wednesday.
More than 2.3 billion people in Asia-Pacific live in cities, and that number is expected to reach 3.5 billion in 2050, according to the UN.
But one-third of urban dwellers live in slums or slum-like conditions and are under constant threat of eviction as planners and authorities look to modernize cities, said Elisa Sutanudjaja at the Rujak Center for Urban Studies, a Jakarta think tank.
“Cities in Asia are largely a mix of formality and informality, but urban planning is never neutral: It’s all formal vs informal, legal vs illegal,” she said.
“But the right to city is far more than freedom to access urban resources and livelihoods; it is also about informality and community.”
This year, a majority of Asia-Pacific’s population for the first time became urban, with more than half living in cities, according to a new UN report.
With growing pressure on resources, the region is struggling to make “effective planning systems a cornerstone of national policy,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of UN-Habitat, the settlements agency.
Cities in the region that are ranked high for liveability, including Singapore, and those in Australia, Japan and South Korea have co-produced solutions with citizens, she said.
“Bridging the digital divide, engaging the urban poor, and building climate resilience must be a priority. We have to ensure equitable distribution of resources,” said Sharif, a former town planner and mayor of Penang island, off Malaysia’s west coast.
But increasingly, planners are ignoring the poorest residents, including slum dwellers and street vendors, said Renu Khosla, director of the Center for Urban & Regional Excellence in New Delhi. “Our cities are not being planned for the poor. But when cities are planned without people in mind, you get more informal settlements and inequality.”