1. Built environment
June 2, 2015updated 31 Mar 2023 1:17pm

Urbanisation is the best route out of poverty – but it needs to be sustainable

By Julia Brickell

Mention urbanisation, and people are quick to list the potential downsides: pollution, overcrowding, unsafe construction and the rise of slums.

The challenges of urbanisation can be immense, especially when vast numbers of people move to cities within a short period of time. However, the opportunities available to help build sustainable cities are numerous and the positive gains of doing so are compelling. Urbanisation is among the most powerful mechanisms we have to fight poverty.

That’s because cities have a competitive advantage over rural areas to move the most people out of poverty. According to the World Bank’s Urban Development Overview 2015, more than 80 per cent of the world’s GDP is generated in cities. McKinsey calculates that 600 of the world’s fastest growing cities are set to generate more than 60 percent of global growth by 2025. Meanwhile, China’s 225 fastest growing cities will contribute an estimated 30 percent to global GDP growth within the next 10 years.

Cities not only contribute the most towards national growth, they also to more to reduce poverty. The Asian Development Bank found that, between 1990 and 2008, the number of rural poor in East Asia Pacific fell 69 per cent, from 734 million to 227 million. Meanwhile, the number of urban poor dropped 73 per cent from 137 million to 37 million. And that happened despite a doubling of the urban population over the same period.

In other words, Asia’s cities proved to be adaptable and resilient by absorbing huge numbers, without the new arrivals sliding into urban poverty.

Urban dwellers benefit from proximity and economies of scale that cut their commuting time, reduces energy demand for transport, encourages productivity and allows easier access to health and education services. With reliable infrastructure, sustainable buildings and green supply chains, big cities attract talented workers with higher incomes and more private sector investment. In turn, this generates strong growth and better tools and platforms to help tackle poverty.

However, urban investments need to embrace sustainable practices. 66 million people in the developing world are migrating to urban areas each year, and the World Bank expects the world’s population to reach 60 per cent by 2030, rising to 70 per cent by 2050. To meet the huge demand developing for food and energy, expanding cities should invest in efficient and sustainable global supply chains that boost demand for food and goods from suppliers in poorer countries. This supply chain expansion holds the potential to alleviate poverty in local rural areas as well as across borders.

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Asia is leading the global urbanisation boom, and its rapidly growing cities offer exciting opportunities for sustainable development. The United Nations Economic & Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimates that about 120,000 people in Asia are migrating to cities every day. Of the world’s 28 megacities – cities with populations over 10 million – 17 are found in Asia. By 2050, the proportion of people living in Asia’s cities is expected to rise to 63 per cent, creating an urban population of 3.3bn people. In China alone, McKinsey estimates, 1bn people will live in urban areas by 2030.

This concentration of urbanisation persuaded the International Finance Corporation to launch its EDGE program in East Asia Pacific on Monday 8 June (just before the New Cities Summit in Jakarta). EDGE – Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies – is a simple-to-use software tool designed as a low-cost way to improve energy efficiency in new buildings. EDGE aims to reduce the utilisation of energy, water and materials by at least 20 per cent each.

Nam Long Investment Corp, the developer of the Bridge View Apartment building in Ho Chi Minh City, says adopting EDGE added about 2 per cent to the construction bill; but that cost was offset by ongoing savings of at least 20 per cent in residents’ water and electricity bills. This was achieved by installing features that included energy efficient lighting, reflective paint for the outdoor walls and roof, high thermal performance glass and low-flow faucets .

The IFC estimates that about 50 per cent of buildings in Asian cities will be replaced by new ones by 2050. Smart and efficient building could translate into energy savings of 10 per cent for an entire city. With cities across Asia being built at an unparalleled speed and size, initiatives like EDGE can help these cities develop sustainably and bring prosperity to their populations.

Julia Brickell is program leader for Cities in East Asia Pacific at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. Her role is to work with the private sector to finance sustainable development, contributing to the World Bank’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity.

Brickell will be speaking at the New Cities Summit, to be held in Jakarta on 9-11 June. This post was originally published on the New Cities Foundation’s blog.


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