Boys play football in a public park on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Boys play football in a public park on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Expanding populations have made Asian cities among the world’s most undesirable places, according to livability indexes, though the upside could be more investment in a swag of innovative solutions.

Tokyo (13), Osaka (14), Singapore (35) and Hong Kong (45) were the only Asian urban centers ranked in the top 50 in the latest livability survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Melbourne topped the rankings for a seventh consecutive year.

Fifteen cities in Asia were ranked in the bottom two-thirds of the 140 centers rated worldwide, including national hubs Bangkok (102), Manila (104), New Delhi (110), Jakarta (118), Hanoi (119) and Karachi (134). Dhaka (137) was the lowest-ranked Asian city.

Singapore is the only Asian city included in separate rankings by human resources firm Mercer and networking group InterNations, which name Vienna and Melbourne respectively as the best cities worldwide.

The annual studies evaluate the quality of a city’s infrastructure, personal safety – including political stability – healthcare, lifestyle and culture, education and environment. Asian cities are usually undone by their congestion, substandard services and pollution.

Motorists stuck in traffic at one of Jakarta's main roads. The largest infrastructure spending program in the capital city's history is expected to help but not solve massive traffic jams. Photo: AFP/ Bay Ismoyo
A Jakarta traffic jam. Photo: AFP/ Bay Ismoyo

About 2.4 billion Asians lived in towns or cities in 2016, comprising 60% of the world’s urban population. The United Nations has predicted another one billion will be joining them by 2040.

There are 17 megacities with populations of at least 10 million – including the world’s largest, Tokyo, New Delhi and Shanghai – and there will be five more by 2030, according to UN projections. Eventually these communities will absorb other cities and become sub-regional conurbations.

Tokyo and Yokohama have now almost joined up with Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto, and China’s Pearl River cities of Shenzhen, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Jiangmen, Huizhou, Zhuhai, Guangzhou and Foshan are closing fast, with Hong Kong not that far away.

A convergence is also taking place in the Yangtze River delta, which stretches from Ningbo to Shanghai and Nanjing, and also includes Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, Zhenjiang, Kunshan and Jiaxing.

Given these growth pressures, it is unsurprising that Asia is home to the world’s largest slum populations and has the most people living below the poverty line. Providing services is a big headache: only 12% of Manila’s 24 million people have access to sanitation, while 50% of water in Jakarta is lost through leakages in pipes.

Congested slums, shanty towns, or squatter areas in Manila, Philippines as seen from the air.
An aerial view of a Manila shanty town. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Twenty-three of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in Asia, based on an index compiled by research group Numbeo; 10 are located in India. Karachi, Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City, New Delhi, Beijing, Yangon, Manila and Guangzhou are high on the list.

Bangkok has the worst traffic congestion on the planet, according to TomTom’s annual survey. Jakarta is ranked the fourth-worst, followed by China’s Chongqing (6th), Zhuhai (9th), Guangzhou (11th), Shijiazhuang (12th), Shenzhen (13th) and Beijing (15th).

It isn’t going to get any easier, as two-thirds of Asians will be urbanized in 2050 if current rural-to-city migration patterns continue. At least 1.5 billion will be categorized as middle class, with consumption habits that will put even more strain on essential services.

Falling birth rates will ease growth pressures in nations like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, but swelling South Asian countries will need to look for better ways of running their cities.

Dhaka, Bangladesh - March 10, 2016: Boats were kept parked at the bank of river Buriganga waiting to depart with goods to the other end of the river.
Boats parked at the bank of Dhaka’s Buriganga River in Bangladesh. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

The good news is that rising incomes will also create a bigger pool of investment in lifestyle solutions, which has already occurred in more advanced cities.

Singapore was rated “well above average” for finding innovative technological responses in the Green Cities Index created by industrial group Siemens. Hong Kong, Osaka, Seoul, Taipei and Yokohama all had an “above average” response.

Mumbai, Hanoi, Bengaluru, Manila and Kolkata have “below average” solutions to lifestyle problems and Karachi is the only major city rated as having a “well below average” response. Bangkok, Shanghai, Jakarta, Delhi, Beijing, and Kuala Lumpur are among the cities that meet the average criteria for innovation.

Seoul gets high marks for creating the most extensive public transport network in Asia, covering 6.6 square kilometers, against a regional average of only 1.7 sq km. Tokyo established the first cap and trade system for carbon emissions in 2010. Singapore hopes to recycle 65% of its waste by 2020, up from 56% in 2008.

An urban mobility study by Singapore’s Center for Livable Cities identified Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea’s Suwon as setting the standard for moving large volumes of people around congested areas. Following their lead, Ho Chi Minh City, Bandung and Yangon have recently adopted similar sustainability policies.

Singapore - April 29, 2017: A view of people at gardens by the bay strolling along the 128 metre long aerial walkway, surrounded by panoramic vistas of the Gardens and Marina Bay skyline.
Singapore’s aerial walkway along along its Marina Bay skyline on April 29, 2017. Photo: iStock/Getty images

Navigant Research has forecast that global spending on smart city technologies will reach US$27.5 billion annually by 2023, up from US$12.1 billion in 2016. The spending will go mostly for traffic management systems, energy and water conservation, sustainable housing, waste management, tighter emission controls and better IT networks. Asian cities will dominate investment in almost every market.

Singapore, which aims to become the first city fully controlled by smart technologies, is wired with sensors that track everything from garbage services to traffic and will soon add smart lighting. India is creating 100 new smart cities and adapting designated portions of 500 existing centers; China has 285 smart city plans.

Asia will account for 47% of the market for smart power grids by 2019, mainly in China, India and Japan, but also in smaller nations.
China and India already lead the global demand for electric buses. It may be a while before Asian cities live up to global expectations of an ideal habitat, but there is plenty of change in the air.

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