As Asia Pacific’s developing economies urbanise, investing in low-emissions and climate resilient infrastructure is essential to support sustainable development. But local priorities and pressure on timelines and budgets mean sustainability and resilience often get sidelined. In this thought leadership article, we discuss how to overcome this challenge. 

Rapid urbanisation is transforming the planet. Every week, three million people move into cities. The United Nations predicts that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas – making our cities home to an additional 2.5 billion residents. This rapid population growth will put pressure on the urban environment and could potentially degrade natural resources, amplifying the impact of disasters and a changing climate.

It’s never been more important to build resilient cities that can withstand future economic and environmental shocks. Yet, in many of Asia Pacific’s rapidly urbanising countries, building for sustainability and resilience is often low on the agenda. Understandably, if people are living in poverty, developing nations often prioritise economic growth.  

Many developing countries consider sustainable development to be a specialised field. Without local capabilities to execute sustainable projects, delivery can be a challenge. Add to that the difficulties of coordinating with national, regional and local planning authorities – not to mention the need to integrate different layers of urban development projects (land use, transport, utilities, etc.). It’s no wonder large-scale sustainable development projects frequently fail to get off the ground.  

Those that do succeed typically embrace certain key steps as part of the urban planning and development process.

Strategies to successfully build urban resilience

Early stakeholder involvement at all levels

It’s vital to engage with everyone, from politicians to the community, as early as possible. In most urban development cases, politics can’t be separated from the project, so politicians and bureaucrats become very important stakeholders. Politicians will often have their own agenda, and it is important to respect that because these are the people who are going to help make the project a reality.

That said, sustainability and resilience is about the betterment of society. Development projects can define how people will live for generations, so the main stakeholders should be the community. More often than not, it’s the local knowledge teased out at the community level that is critical to a project’s success – things planners and designers may not be aware of. For example, in some parts of south India there’s a belief in ‘vastu’ – similar to Feng Shui – which has specific requirements for developing masterplan layouts. It is important to give these local ideas due importance, otherwise they could become showstoppers for the project.

It is important to get the community and government to work together on the vision for the project. It can be a very tense conversation when all these people are in one room, but it is necessary to achieve an outcome that will eventually benefit the community as a whole – not just the politicians or developers. It takes patience and experience to effectively manage and synthesise inputs from different stakeholders. It’s a good idea to use local stakeholder engagement specialists – who know the culture and how things work on the ground – to help connect with and reach out to people in the community.  The whole project team needs to work together with all stakeholders to arrive at a balanced output – which can be a challenging and exciting process.

Multi-purpose solutions

Building sustainability and urban resilience is about striking a balance between the pillars of environmental, social and economic factors that define quality of life. Each project should aim to give due importance to each of these three pillars, with the aim of saving time, money and effort in the long-run. For example, in Laos, where I am supporting the World Bank, we are looking at how we can integrate flood risk infrastructure with elements of city planning and liveability strategies. River protection embankments and dykes take up considerable space, but we have an opportunity to turn them into public parks. These parks can be integrated with the larger city’s stormwater drainage network to also serve as flood management infrastructure. Proper lighting in these parks can improve city safety at night – and linking footpaths can help connect neighbourhoods and improve community cohesion. Finally, if the parks encourage people to exercise, it can benefit public health for the city as a whole. In this way, we can achieve multiple benefits from a single project.

Stakeholder education

It’s vital to demystify the process of sustainable development with local stakeholders. Many bureaucrats believe sustainable projects are more expensive. However, done well, they can actually save cities time and money, as well as future-proof them against economic or environmental shocks in the long run. Education is needed to ensure governments understand they don’t have to choose between economic progress and environmental sustainability – as long as they are prepared to think strategically about both goals up front. Often, the selling point is that by investing in sustainable infrastructure upfront, governments won’t need to find additional funding to manage future problems.

Rapid, relevant solutions

In many places, development pressure is so intense that consultants need to come up with solutions incredibly quickly. In countries like Myanmar, with growing population pressure and rapid urbanisation, by the time consultants and governments agree on solutions they are often out of date. The need for fast decisions must be balanced against the need for solid stakeholder consultation and lack of data. The city may be developing a masterplan for the first time, so it is important to be creative, as consultants and advisors, around the lack of data.

Developing countries can and should balance their need for economic growth with long-term goals around sustainability. But it takes a strategic approach by those experienced in urban resilience projects to create infrastructure that supports the many priorities of growing cities.