Sustainable Urban Development is the Key to the Continual Success of Southeast Asia Region

By Zeng Han Jun (hjzeng@alumni.harvard.edu)

The sudden emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the way that many of us perceived issues like working arrangements, commute options, housing needs amongst others. Still, the fundamental needs for affordable housing, environmental, social and governance (ESG) awareness and actions remain part and parcel of modern life in and beyond the cities. Governments, together with the Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and private sector must embrace an open and collaborative approach to tackle some of the most challenging issues of our times, for example, the provision of a sustainable urban environment that allows for healthy socio-economics dynamics. 

From what I have seen, learnt and discussed with various organisations, I firmly believe that two important foundations were put into action during the Covid-19 period that could empower collaborative actions towards sustainable urban development and growth in the Southeast Asia region.  

First, the Southeast Asian countries came together and signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is a free trade agreement between the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its six Free Trade Agreement partners i.e. Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and Republic of Korea . ASEAN comprises countries like Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The RCEP marks ASEAN’s biggest free trade pact to date, covering a market of 2.2 billion people with a combined size of US$26.2 trillion or 30% of the world’s GDP. While it is largely being perceived as an economic partnership, studies have shown that the economy does affect the environment to a certain extent, which is why there are growing interests in promoting and activating the circular economy model to enable more sustainable and environmentally-friendly growth. 

With the RCEP, quotas and tariffs would be eliminated in over 65% of goods traded and this might improve market access. Business dealings would be made predictable with common rules of origin and transparent regulations which is always one of the top concerns for any potential investors. Apart from this, it also presents an opportunity to shape business policies to be more in line with environmentally-friendly practices and equitable social growth. A more holistic approach would encourage more firms to invest more in the region, including building resilient supply chains and services that could mitigate ESG-related risks and generating jobs that are grounded on strong meritocratic principles. 

Second, city mayors are stepping up with their experiences in working with international organisations on ESG-related projects. For example, Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto from the Philippines, stepped up to initiate the ‘mobile market’ where city residents could purchase fresh goods right from their vicinity. This initiative encouraged people to stay home as the ‘mobile market’ is accessible. This reduced logistics transportation thereby reducing carbon emission and also helped in activating the local market. These upcoming mayors are well-positioned to understand the benefits of responding to global trends and commitments such as climate change, changing human behaviors and other ESG-related issues. 

Some of the more progressive countries within the Southeast Asia region, have emphasised on underpinning their forward policies with the sustainable development pillars. Cities must continually keep up and work towards creating a place to live, work and play and this has clearly become an even more important concept during the Covid-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, many already observed that global talents can continue to contribute productively from anywhere in the world therefore, do not really have the need to seek out places for work. To attract global talents, the main differentiator would be to create an environment that has high quality of life and also be climate-risks resilient. 

Apart from this, the attention is also once more again on urban areas and the mixed-use planning of these locations. Studies have also shown that people’s travelling behavior has changed under the lockdowns that were imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Demand for travel has reduced and that people will travel less by public transport. Walking and cycling can be important ways to maintain satisfactory levels of health and well-being. This will change the way urban planning is traditionally planned and unfolded. This entails a discussion with urban planning professionals and other stakeholders on urban density, open spaces and the demand for affordable housing.

My work with planners and finance firms from the region and beyond, revealed that there is a growing interest in the terms “Resilience” and “Climate Risk” and it is mainly driven by issues stemming from climate change. One common topic is to develop strategies to sustain the functioning of urban communities, business operations, supply chain operations amid stresses and disruptions that might occur due to climate change. A good number of cities around the globe are improving in this area and more Southeast Asian cities should certainly do more in this area too.  

Sustainable urban development is no easy task. Execution requires coordinating and communicating with stakeholders who sometimes do not see eye-to-eye on certain issues and it calls for a lot of skill and persistence to pull projects through. This is especially so for places where the administration has to take into consideration the rural areas and smaller communities, and how these communities seamlessly integrate with the changes of the urban and major cities.  

Keeping sustainable urban development on track entails setting out clear guidelines with hawkish monitoring. The mantra is to adopt a Whole-of-system approach whereby all arms of urban development work hand-in-hand and not against one another, while keeping the big picture in mind. Uninterrupted lateral and vertical communication is one of the key enablers to actualising the Whole-of-system approach, with proper mechanisms in place to review and adapt to new information. New information may sometimes require novel adaptation and is absolutely critical to fostering a city that flourishes.  

Sustainable urban development is not the only option moving forward but with many environmental indicators trending south at the moment, it could be the only logical pathway to Southeast Asia region’s future. 

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References

(n.d.). Retrieved from ASEAN hits historic milestone with signing of RCEP. (2020, November 26). Retrieved from Morais, L. H., Pinto, D. C., & Cruz-Jesus, F. (2021). Circular economy engagement: Altruism, status, and cultural orientation as drivers for sustainable consumption. Sustainable Production and Consumption, 27, 523-533. doi:10.1016/j.spc.2021.01.019

UNUniversity. (n.d.). How Cities in South-East Asia Are Acting on the SDGs Ahead of Their National Governments. Retrieved from Vos, J. D. (2020). The effect of COVID-19 and subsequent social distancing on travel behavior. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, 5, 100121. doi:10.1016/j.trip.2020.100121

Copyright © 2021 Zeng Han Jun. All Rights Reserved.

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