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Asia’s Urban Century

Emerging Trends

Rakesh Mohan

May 2007, English

Urban development has been exhibiting very different patterns around the world. Rakesh Mohan presents his observations of the urbanization patterns in Asia during the twentieth century and projects the challenges that selected Asian countries may face in the future.

According to the UN figures cited by Mohan, only 29.8 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 1950. By 2000 that percentage had increased to 47.2, representing a nearly threefold increase in the urban population, from 751 million to 2.9 billion over the 50-year period. The increase in the Asian urbanization rate was even more striking. From 1950 to 2000, the urban population of Asia grew from 244 million to 1.4 billion. By 2030 an estimated 54 percent of Asians (2.7 billion) will be living in urban areas, which is almost twice the number for 2000.

Of the ten most populous countries in the world, six are in Asia, with China and India at the top of the list. Although only two cities worldwide, New York and Tokyo, had over 10 million residents in 1950, by 2000 the number of megacities had expanded to 18. By 2015 the number of megacities is estimated to reach 22, with 12 of them in Asia. All these figures point to the fact that Asian countries have been rapidly urbanizing over the past decades, and this trend will continue over the next 30 years.

In the face of rapid urbanization, what challenges lie ahead for city governments in Asia? Mohan suggests that, first, under conditions of increasing globalization and higher incomes, city dwellers will have high expectations about both the quantity and the quality of local services. But will the fiscal resources be available to finance urban services and infrastructure? Second, because of changes in global competition, the demand for labor has increasingly veered toward the more highly skilled workers. Thus, in addition to providing the traditional infrastructure such as roads, water, and sewers, local government officials also must consider other public investments, including higher education, research, and telecommunications technology. Third, managing rural-urban migration will be a daunting task. Planners will have to ensure that densely populated urban areas have an adequate supply of land for housing development and transportation networks. And, fourth, local governments must find ways to develop the financial markets in Asia in order to channel domestic and international savings toward financing urban infrastructure.

This paper was presented at the Lincoln Institute’s annual Land Policy Conference in 2006 and is Chapter 10 of the book Land Policies and Their Outcomes.