Urbanisation: When green is the colour of exclusion

Catherine Wong Mei Ling, For The Straits Times 7 Jul 10;

AS POLICYMAKERS and industry players gathered last week at the 2010 World Cities Summit in Singapore to discuss making the world's cities eco-friendly, one question is becoming more apparent: Is the green city a project by the elite, for the elite?

In the attempt to adjust to the impact of climate change, have we allowed environmental sustainability to eclipse social sustainability? And what checks do we have in place to ensure that the new green city will not be an exclusive prerogative of the urban rich and new green-collar workers?

Cities today are already characterised by stark inequalities: The richest 20 per cent of the population in developing countries control more than 80 per cent of the resources, while the poorest fifth control less than 1.4 per cent.

The latest United Nations Habitat 2010 report estimates that the world's slum population will grow by six million a year to hit 889 million by 2020. South-east Asia's slum population of 88.9 million may seem small compared to East Asia's 189.6 million, but the share of South-east Asia's urban population living in slums is higher than that of East Asia: 31 per cent compared to East Asia's 28.2 per cent.

Many of Asia's largest cities stand to be severely affected by climate change. This is in part due to their location near coastal areas. Naturally, the most vulnerable segment among Asia's urban population to the consequences of climate change is its urban poor.

The mortality rate of children under five in urbanised South Asia is 120 per 1,000 children, compared to 50 per 1,000 children in urbanised industrialised countries. The death rates from infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, measles and tuberculosis among urban poor children in developing countries can be up to 100 times higher than those in industrialised countries.

Yet most green city plans are targeted at the urban, white-collar rich who are willing and able to pay a premium for ecological infrastructure, energy-saving utilities and green landscaping. While it is a positive change that urban planning today is giving greater credence to the environment, it is also important that these new green city models do not result in greater spatial and economic exclusion of the urban poor.

Many of the new eco-city proposals - from the Light Water Front development in Penang, Malaysia, to the Nanhu Eco-city project in China - highlight the lifestyle benefits, complete with high-end residential apartments, boutique malls, retail services and integrated transport systems all tailored to the upper segment of urbanites.

Job creation in such urban projects as the Tianjin Eco-city also focuses on 'high-quality', green-collar jobs to attract skilled, educated and higher income residents who can then afford the equally high-priced apartments.

Eco-cities also tend to be located in areas that are already well developed, wealthy and resilient to the impact of climate change. Tianjin, where the Sino-Singapore Eco-city development is located, was ranked sixth in China in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) last year. Compared to the other top five Chinese cities - Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Suzhou - Tianjin had the highest GDP growth at 16.5 per cent. A more recent eco-city development, in Tangshan, also boasts one of China's highest per capita incomes.

Meanwhile, poorer cities in the central and northern parts of China are neglected. Likewise, many of South-east Asia's most vulnerable and polluted cities like Jakarta and Manila have yet to attract investments to develop eco-cities amid their urban sprawl.

Considering the immense resources and expensive green technology involved in developing an eco-city, the cost of living in one is, needless to say, also quite high. The price of a residential unit in the Tangshan development, for example, will be about 20 per cent higher than the average apartment there.

The creation of green cities led overwhelmingly by business interests will not be the answer to a sustainable future. A development that is environmentally sustainable but socially exclusive will still not be sustainable.

The role of the government in such projects is therefore crucial to ensure the green cities do not become a project by the urban elite, for the urban elite. Governments should ensure the spatial segregation of the urban poor is not exacerbated in the process of re-modelling cities. Governments need to consider the interests of all stakeholders, not just the private sector.

Environmental sustainability that does not support social sustainability will only fuel instability, which can do greater and more immediate damage than climate change.

The writer is a research associate at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.