Rowan Fraser

In 2015, ASEAN will launch the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).  The AEC, according  to ASEAN has four main objectives, namely to create a:

  • single market and production base
  • highly competitive economic region
  • region of equitable economic development
  • region fully integrated into the global economy

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Talking of economic development without talking of cities?

Since 1997, ASEAN has been actively working towards increased economic integration and in 2003, the objective of the AEC was publicly formulated.  In 2007, the Secretariat released the AEC Blueprint.  This document, signed by the relevant heads of state, was intended to guide the realization of the ‘end goal’ of economic integration (PDF, p. 5) – ie. the AEC.  And while substantial components of the Blueprint have been implemented, recent studies (see below), suggest that it’s unlikely ASEAN will fully complete the Blueprint by 2015.

One analysis by the Asian Development Bank Institute, for example, found that as of Oct. 2013, ASEAN member countries had completed 67 per cent of the projects set out in the Blueprint. The study summarizes (PDF, p. 3):

…the AEC has come a long way, but it has fallen short of the high standard and time frame it has set for itself. ASEAN has to find the political will and management capability to fulfil all goals in the AEC Blueprint and embark on further liberalization, rationalization, and integration to seize the opportunities and successfully meet the economic challenges of the 21st century.

The Blueprint tackles many sectors, but it doesn’t discuss cities or urban development, other than indirectly – through sectors such as infrastructure, for instance.  I would argue that if the ASEAN bloc wants to fully ‘seize the opportunities and successfully meet the economic challenges of the 21st century’, beyond the immediate creation of the AEC, a more direct consideration of urban issues is required.

The bloc’s policies and agendas tend to overlook the role of cities.  There is, for example, a working group and Ministerial Meeting on rural development and poverty eradication within the ASEAN Secretariat – but there is not one for urban development.  Maybe in 1997 combining rural development and poverty made sense, given the structure of ASEAN economies at that time. But things have changed substantially – poverty, for example, is increasingly an urban affair, and cities just matter more: economically, socially and environmentally.

Cities are central to ASEAN’s long-term sustainable development

The quality of long-term sustainable growth in ASEAN will be closely linked to the quality of its urban development.

  • Cities are drivers of economic growth – Cities in ASEAN are the primary sources of wealth: they generate approximately 80 per cent of the bloc’s total GDP.   Further to this, McKinsey estimates that secondary or middleweight cities in emerging markets (of which ASEAN has several) are expected to deliver 40 per cent of global growth through to 2025 (PDF, p. ).
  • Cities as home to an increasing share of the region’s population – Many countries in ASEAN are urbanizing rapidly – Lao PDR is urbanizing at a rate of 5.6 per cent per year, Cambodia 4.6 per cent, Myanmar 3.9 per cent, Indonesia 3.3 per cent etc.  Some countries are urbanizing at slower rates (e.g Thailand) and some are already urbanized (e.g. Singapore).  Further to that, the five dominant mega urban regions in ASEAN (Bangkok, KL-Klang, Singapore, Java and Manila) will hold 66 per cent of its entire urban population.
  • Cities as solution providers for shared challenges and problems – Much of current urbanization is unplanned and many cities suffer from under-provision of basic services and critical facilities, traffic congestion and pollution.  However, despite challenges, its largely in cities that solutions are being sought.  Innovative, ‘ASEAN way’ practices abound in many spheres – social, economic and environmental and urban.
  • Cities as emblems of social and cultural identity – ASEAN cities are closely linked to the region’s cultural and social heritage. The bloc has a long history of urban splendor from Ayutthaya and the Khmer kingdoms through to the courts of Mataram and Taruma further south.  Similarly, ASEAN’s contemporary identity is increasingly urban with many of the unofficial emblems of ASEAN’s member states belonging to their cities (palaces, temples, skyscrapers, statues).  Social and cultural development will continue to take place mainly in ASEAN cities.

The challenge and the opportunity

The growth of cities across ASEAN means great opportunity, as well as pressing challenges.

There are rising problems related to the speed of urbanization, population growth, economic structural change, exclusion and poverty, uneven decentralization, environmental degradation, political corruption, informal housing, crime and traffic congestion. And while many cities and national governments, some with the help of external partners, are seeking to address these issues and making headway against them, there is a growing need for a coherent, ASEAN-wide response.

It should be noted that many of these challenges and opportunities exist in other regions.  The European Union, to whose Single Market the AEC is often (erroneously – PDF p. 11) compared, has been confronting some of these challenges over past decades since the Single Market was launched.  In order to directly and coherently tackle urban affairs, and in order to advance integration and social and economic cohesion across the EU bloc, the Commission released a statement on an EU urban agenda as early as 1997 – though this wasn’t formalized into a full EU urban policy until 2011.  ASEAN could explore the EU’s experience in this area.

Parameters of a shared urban vision for ASEAN

Such an agenda could take many forms and would of course require a great amount of reflection and analysis.  My aim in this post is more to raise the idea of the need for an urban agenda for ASEAN, rather than to propose what that agenda might be.  Nonetheless, here’s a few possible points:

  • Boosting competitiveness in the global economy (one of the pillars of the AEC) should be balanced against sustainable local development in which urban economies and industries are specific and based on local competencies.
  • Meeting fundamental infrastructure, basic services and critical facilities requirements in a way which considers the city as a hole, as well as the social and environmental needs and capacities of the city.
  • Generally improving policy implementation mechanisms and associated tools for better quality construction.
  • Addressing the mega urban regions in ASEAN and ensuring that fundamental components of the urban system are operational.
  • Achieving urban inclusiveness means that some norms of urban development in ASEAN will need to change – greater planning and policies for building socially inclusive economies is one, but overall spatial segregation must be addressed.
  • Further to this, taking a holistic view of cities, and especially the environmental aspects of cities for green and resilient urban development.
  • Maximizing diversity across the bloc and protecting cultural heritage in cities as a source of innovation for ASEAN economies.
  • Boosting technical and financial support to secondary cities as the places where the most growth will be experienced over upcoming decades.  ASEAN funds and policy should seek to guide growth in these areas towards sustainability.
  • Improving decentralization across ASEAN to a comparable level so that cities can increasingly operate in accordance with local needs, and in response to the local context using democratic processes and solid civil society engagement.

Within each of these areas, excellent examples exist from across ASEAN and in this way, member countries could provide ASEAN-native solutions and guidance.  The ASEAN Secretariat could look to these for the development of an ASEAN urban agenda.

Photos by Gunawan Kartapranata

Photo 2 by Hafiz343

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Categories: Governance, Housing, Infrastructure, Migration, Transportation