February 23, 2017 10:00 am JST
Tea Leaves

Asia's cities must not lose their heads in the clouds

Urban planners must bear in mind community, resilience and sustainability

CURTIS S. CHIN

Bamboo scaffolding surrounds a new building rising in Bhutan's capital, Thimphu. (Photo by Curtis S. Chin)

Walking through the capital of the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, I was struck not by the panoramic view of distant mountain peaks but by the growing thicket of bamboo scaffolding and multistory buildings within the city.

Unlike many Asian cities, Thimphu is not awash in skyscrapers -- thanks largely to height restrictions that have kept new buildings to five stories or less in Asia's highest capital.

Still, a challenge remains, here and across the region. Urban developers are in danger of forgetting the communities that exist at street level as technology and new resources make taller buildings feasible.

"Even in Bhutan, as the capital city goes higher, efforts must be made to maintain the traditions and the culture that keep the communities strong," said Dhamey Tenzing Norgay.

When it comes to heights, Norgay and his family are in the know. Norgay is the son of pioneering mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, who first reached the peak of Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. Drawn to the mountains like his father before him, he now runs a boutique adventure travel business, The Noble Traveller, in Bhutan. "Bigger, taller cities must not become impersonal, disconnected cities," he says.

But Asia, particularly China, and the Middle East dominate rankings of the world's tallest buildings. Southeast Asia, too, is literally on the rise.

Five of the top 12 countries as ranked by the number of completed buildings taller than 150 meters are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. The nonprofit organization headquartered in Chicago -- site of the world's first skyscraper -- maintains The Skyscraper Center, a database of the world's tallest buildings.

It says Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia now have some of the tallest buildings. Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Twin Towers, at 451.9 meters; the Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower at 329 meters; and Bangkok's MahaNakhon tower, at 314 meters, are the tallest in Southeast Asia.

Asian cities are changing at breakneck speed. And Asia's construction boom is set to continue, with the World Bank in 2015 forecasting decades of urban growth to come. This despite nearly 200 million people having already moved to Asia's cities in the first decade of the 21st century.

Three steps forward

But livable cities need more than tall buildings. The people, the street life and the neighborhoods must not be lost in their shadows. Asian cities must keep three key benchmarks for livability in mind: community, resilience and sustainability.

First, communities must be at the heart of Asia's urban development. Planners must consider not only the impact of a city's design and new construction on traffic and parking, but also on fundamental values such as social equality.

Amid the rush to maximize real estate returns, cities and their developers must also incorporate public, open spaces to build a sense of community, cultivate street life and encourage social interaction. Such fostering of community spirit should span all walks of life and income levels.

Second, Asia's cities must build in resilience. A city that is socially inclusive and has strong community bonds is a resilient city. An initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation, "100 Resilient Cities," defines urban resilience as the capacity to survive, adapt and grow, no matter the stresses or shocks a city might experience.

This is all the more important in Asia, a region prone to natural disasters, from earthquakes to flooding. Beyond skyscrapers, Asia's cities must develop more comprehensive security, effective public health systems, inclusive housing and labor policies and diverse transport networks, as well as efficient delivery of emergency services.

Here, the private sector, including insurance and reinsurance companies, must play an important role, alongside government policies to encourage an enabling environment.

Third, Asia's cities need to grow in an environmentally sustainable manner. With more people moving into cities, environmental challenges are increasingly an urban concern. Incorporating innovations and technologies in areas such as infrastructure, energy and transport will be essential to building smarter cities, if not "smart cities." The contribution of the public, private and nonprofit sectors will be vital.

Livable, dynamic and vibrant cities are a greater testament to a country's prosperity and policy successes than any number of skyscrapers, no matter how big or how tall. That is as true in tiny Thimphu as it is in a city like Shanghai or Tokyo. As Asia builds high, it is what is sustained below that will matter most.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group.

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