Intermediary cities in Asia: Sustainability and experimentation are key

Intermediary cities in Asia are at the forefront of urbanisation and witnessing significant population growth and expansion of their physical and ecological footprints.

The footprint and the associated environmental impacts of intermediary Asian cities extend far beyond their boundaries. These impacts range from the urbanisation and conversion of natural areas, to the mining of mineral resources for construction materials, and pollution from transportation

intermediary cities
An Air Asia aircraft descends towards Chiang Mai International Airport amid high levels of air pollution in Chiang Mai in April. The government has launched a green building programme, promoting the use of sustainable building materials and energy-efficient design to tackle pollution. (Photo by Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images)

Around 50% to 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by cities, both directly and indirectly. Pollution and other environmental stresses in turn affect the health and happiness of people who live in cities

In contrast, well-planned and sustainable cities will have benefits for their residents, such as through the construction and preservation of urban green spaces that provide urban ecosystem services, which represent the benefits of nature to people; for example, the provision of parks for green exercise

However, sustainable development can be challenging in low and middle-income Asian countries because governments commonly focus on development and the basic needs of the residents, such as infrastructure, before sustainable approaches.

Equitable and sustainable design

Rapid urbanisation in Asia has impacted the environment due to unplanned development, the nature of urbanisation, and the very high population densities, putting pressure on blue-green infrastructure as they are lost to make room for development. 

Asian cities are the world’s factories, with heavily degraded brownfields on a scale and with forms of pollution that have never been seen before. Asia is also particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, with an increase in hydrometeorological hazards such as typhoons, flooding and drought, in addition to rising sea levels and coastal erosion, and therefore adapting to climate change needs to be a critical factor of any future urban development.

In parallel to the unique environmental challenges in Asia, the inequitable distribution of benefits from sustainable infrastructure, such as public transport and green spaces, is a huge challenge for spatial justice, particularly in larger cities. 

Strategies to improve urban liveability in metropolitan areas, including green space restoration, encouraged by gentrification, have been shown to promote inequality, with more affluent citizens benefiting most as housing located near more liveable areas is often the most expensive. Urban areas that are more prone to disasters such as flooding and have greater pollution are commonly found in socially deprived communities.

Content from our partners
The key role of heat network integration in creating one of London’s most sustainable buildings
The role of green bonds in financing the urban energy transition
The need to grow London's EV infrastructure at speed and scale

A particular pattern in larger cities in Asia is the densification of informal settlements along marginal areas, by riverbanks, and in open spaces, which are exacerbated by migration from rural areas to urban areas.

There are great opportunities in smaller, intermediary Asian cities to address the challenges compared with large cities, as they are often earlier in their development trajectories and have a greater capacity for change. While populations are fast growing in intermediary cities, their densities are not as great as they are in metropolitan centres, green spaces remain intact, and the scale of pollution may not be as great. 

There is also a greater opportunity to support social cohesion in smaller, less fragmented, and more compact cities. Prioritising the last remaining natural spaces in the urban matrix, protecting ecosystem services, and promoting equitable social development are critical opportunities for sustainable urban development, as unplanned infrastructure can lock in unsustainable practices for decades. 

Experimentation and innovation

Intermediary cities and towns across Asia are becoming hubs of dynamic environmental, social, and cultural innovation and entrepreneurship. Among the most promising of these experiments are those focused on decentralised technologies, agropolitan and minapolitan development, environmental management and community-based tourism:

  • Resilient buildings: programmes that aim to improve structural stability, reduce energy use, and improve the environmental performance of buildings have been developed. In the city of Chiang Mai in Thailand, the government has launched a green building programme, promoting the use of sustainable building materials and energy-efficient design, while remote regions in Indonesia (Sumba Island, East Nusa Tenggara) are benefiting from solar energy generation.
  • Waste management: innovative systems, including waste-to-energy programmes and composting, are critical for supporting the circular economy. In the town of San Fernando in the Philippines, the government has implemented a waste segregation and composting programme, reducing waste sent to landfills and promoting soil health, while the Sampah Masyarakat Bank in Gresik, East Java has reduced waste by 50%.
  • Green infrastructure: this involves using natural systems to manage stormwater, improve air quality and reduce heat. For example, in Bogor, the city has implemented a green roof programme, where building owners are encouraged to install green roofs to reduce heat and stormwater runoff.
  • Sustainable transportation: systems, including cycling infrastructure and public transportation, have been developing rapidly. In the town of Sengkang in Indonesia, a bike-sharing programme has been implemented, reducing the use of cars and promoting healthy lifestyles, while many cities (Hoi An, Vigan and Luang Prabang) are experimenting with pedestrianisation, electrified trishaw and bus rapid transit systems.
  • Sustainable agriculture: this will likely remain an important part of the livelihoods of intermediate cities. To promote sustainable agriculture practices, the provincial government of West Java has launched programmes like the Sustainable Agriculture Network, which helps farmers adopt sustainable farming techniques like crop rotation, intercropping, and organic farming.
  • Community-based tourism: these programmes promote sustainable tourism practices that benefit the local community. For example, in Batu, East Java, a community-based tourism programme called Jodipan has transformed a slum area into a tourist attraction, providing economic benefits to the local community. In the town of Luang Prabang in Laos, a community-based tourism programme is providing economic benefits to the local community and promoting cultural preservation.

With these initiatives in mind, intermediary cities must maximise the opportunity to fix long-standing injustices and practices that aren’t sustainable by taking a planned approach to long-term design, investment, policy and strategy.

This article by Stephen Cairns, professor urban design, Alex Lechner, professor urban design, Alyas Widita, assistant professor urban design, Diego Ramírez-Lovering, professor of architecture of the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture, and Eka Permanasari, associate professor urban design, architecture and South East Asian studies, all of Monash University, Indonesia, is part of a series on intermediary cities in Asia.

The first part focused on Autonomy and integration and Citizen and community well-being, with the final part focusing on a Diverse economic base and Vision, leadership and sound governance.

Topics in this article :
Websites in our network