The battle for greener cities

The battle for greener cities

Last week, images of Delhi residents wearing green saris and scarves and hugging tree trunks wrapped with cloth banners that read "Save Me" spread across social media. Citizens by the thousands had united to halt a government plan to develop residential projects that would axe thousands of trees in a single neighbourhood.

Let's cheer their victory -- more than 16,000 trees were saved, the development plan was halted and the Delhi High Court issued a ban on uprooting trees in the capital.

The Delhi success story is one of many we are seeing in Asia, where more citizens and governments are getting actively involved in working to make their cities more liveable, sustainable, environmentally friendly and inclusive -- as opposed to a congested and polluted concrete jungles.

Delhi is already one of the most polluted cities in the world, but many green areas have been depleted in recent years owing to various construction projects to serve some 20 million inhabitants -- a trend not unusual in Asian countries.

Thailand, for instance, is losing 0.02% of its forest land, or 65,000 rai annually -- equivalent to 54 football fields every day. The amount of green space in the Bangkok is 3.3 square metres per person, according to a report by The Economist Intelligence Unit. It's an alarming figure compared with Hong Kong (105.3), Beijing (88.4), Singapore (66.2), Kuala Lumpur (43.9), Taipei (49.6) or even Delhi (18.8).

Cities today consume about 75% of global energy resources and emit about 60% of the world's total greenhouse gases despite covering only 2% of the Earth's surface, according to UN Habitat.

That said, cities are the key contributors to economic development and lifting people out of poverty. They generate about 80% of gross domestic product of countries in the region, according to the Asian Development Bank. However, if future development does not take sustainability into account, they will be prone to consequences such as floods, landslides and drought, with high economic costs.

Global urban population growth is expected to skyrocket by 2030, with 70% of people living in cities. The good news is that 60% of those urban areas are not yet built, so there is an opportunity to plan liveable, sustainable communities that still offer the economic benefits citizens need. This will require commitment and collaboration on a regional, national and local stage to deal with complexity and limitations in different countries.

Singapore is living proof that it can be done. Known for its scarce natural resources, it has become the second most sustainable city in the world, thanks to innovative urban planning. For decades, it has carefully managed land down to the very last hectare to ensure appropriate utilisation of space. Green spaces abound, allowing residents to feel closer to nature.

The Singaporean government offers various incentives to encourage developers to integrate green spaces with their projects. LUSH (Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises), for instance, was introduced in 2009 to encourage developers to add more farms, rooftop gardens and solar panels to buildings. It has contributed more than 130 hectares of greenery, equivalent to 210 football fields, and increased green coverage by 15% annually.

There are hopeful signs elsewhere in the region, even in Bangkok, which last year inaugurated CU Centenary Park, a 30-rai public space featuring extensive greenery to celebrate Chulalongkorn University's 100th anniversary. It is designed to showcase urban development that steps away from high-rises and commerce toward a better quality of life. A hub for technology and innovative startups, it features environmental innovations including a treatment system that generates zero wastewater discharge.

Big developers are also making a greater commitment to quality of life. One Bangkok, for example, will dedicate half of its 100-rai site at Rama IV and Wireless roads to green space. The Forestias by MQDC is a 300-rai project that offers sustainable living through eco-friendly design, innovation and technology with a forest pavilion, community space, a learning centre and an extensive natural ecosystem.

In China, the government has announced a plan to develop close to 300 new "eco-cities" that will be environmentally friendly, low-carbon or smart. However, sceptics say that putting an "eco-" prefix on a plan is no guarantee that it will be carried out properly, if at all. China already has its share of half-built or unoccupied planned cities.

For green and innovative urban development in Asia to take off, policymakers need to bring together global talents, working with the public and private sectors to develop standards and best practices. Tax incentives and other inducement could be considered for projects that benefit people, the economy and environment.

Tanyatorn Tongwaranan

Asia Focus Writer

Asia Focus Writer

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