From unlivable to livable: improving the urban environment of Asian cities

Written by Assela Pathirana & Emma Meurs, on 30 January 2015

The first phase of the MARE Asia project has concluded and phase two is about to begin. ‘Learning and action alliances’ have been set up in three cities in Indonesia in order to reach the goal of improving overall livability for people in cities by getting to understand urban water cycle challenges and going for ‘city-greening’. MARE Asia falls under the CDTA Green Cities programme of the Asian Development Bank. Assela Pathirana, Associate Professor of Integrated Urban Water Cycle Management at IHE Delft and project leader of MARE Asia shares his experiences.

Focus on secondary cities

"One of the main concerns in water cycle management is looking at the future livability and resilience of cities and people who live in them. When we talk about urbanization in the academic world or in international politics, mega cities (> 10 mln inhabitants) take front stage for good reasons: they are big, being capitals they have political recognition, their problems are seemingly bigger. However, if you look at the statistics, nearly 70% of the world’s urban populations live in cities up to 3 million people.

Cities with a population of 0.5 million to 3 million are called secondary cities. It is crucially important to address the issues of these cities. However, the focus of the traditional donor community was on mega cities, but this is now changing. Programmes are popping up everywhere focusing on secondary cities," explains Assela.

Sacrificing Environment and livability for economic development

The history of world’s urbanization shows a consistent pattern in terms of environmental degradation: As cities attain economic growth, the rate of environmental degradation (which relates strongly to liveability) increases rapidly. Many of today’s ‘old cities’ (e.g. Tokyo, Delft, London) have gone through a period of almost unbearable level of pollution and environmental degradation before action was taken to control it.

Secondary cities are considered very important when it comes to early intervention in this context. They have not destroyed the environment yet in a severe way, but they are about to do so. Now seems the time for them to propose different development trajectories that are less destructive on the environment and also to start taking action to address future pressures owing to urbanization or climate change.

In order to manage current water cycle issues and prevent these cities from becoming too polluted which badly affect the quality of life, MARE Asia works with stakeholders in three secondary cities in Indonesia: Kendari, Batam and Malang.

Greening cities from the bottom-up

Assela Pathirana: "When it comes to greening cities, there is no strict, prescribed methodology you can just follow, we need to look at the situation of each independent city to identify specific problems and find solutions that are appropriate to its (built) environment and people.

The side benefits of not having such a blue print is that we have to work with all the stakeholders from the beginning. The process of implementation has to be bottom-up in collaboration with all stakeholders concerned with urban issues. This applies vertically, such as governments but also horizontally by taking other fields of expertise into account.

You cannot isolate water issues and take it out of its context. For example, you need construction, transport and air quality departments as well. It's a challenge but I see it as very fortunate we can shape the project like this".

On the job learning

IHE Delft has developed Learning & Action Alliances in the past for cities in Europe like Dordrecht. The idea is that the Alliance consists of a broad stakeholder group, which is open to learning from history, from each other and from best practices around the world. Even though there are no blue prints for greening a city, there is a lot to learn from historical developments. The 'Action' refers to introducing tight cycles of learning and applying. Last year MARE Asia has initiated demonstration projects where urban challenges are tackled on a small scale. 

Assela Pathirana: "After the project has ended, the most important legacy is the active learning community (LAA) in each city who hopefully will continue to function and actively be involved in the water cycle management of the city.  Secondary cities usually don't have the capacity to do all by themselves; you need a critical mass to get things going. That's why the project tries to bring many secondary cities together by connecting their Learning & Action Alliances in a transnational learning network. The goal is to have an active, sustainable network of learning and action alliances that will continue after the project, livability, climate adaptation and resilience and greening by the end of 2015".

"When we organize events we invite people from all cities to come together. We also invite people who are not working with us yet. We need to cross fertilize the ideas; the challenge is that there are so many secondary cities; we simply cannot directly work with them all. A concrete example happened during the Asia Learning Week which IHE Delft hosted in June last year. We didn't work with Malang at first, but they heard about our work with the other cities during the Asia Learning Week. Malang then asked for their government to become part of the project due to good experiences shared by the city of Kendari.

Last year we organanized a large international workshop in the context of LAA’s in Can Tho city, Vietnam. All our partner cities in Indonesia (and Vietnam) participated; but we also invited a number of other cities that are not working with us to come and share experiences".

Pilot projects

MARE Asia aims to deliver a set of pilot projects in each of the cities in order to demonstrate how greening works in these cities. The pilot projects are seen as key to tackle the problem of scale; challenges become more manageable and they form the basis for up scaling in a later stage. In Kendari for example, the Bay is becoming more and more polluted. The city has plans to expand its area with a land reclamation project. This is considered a controversial project because of its environmental consequences.

Assela Pathirana: "Our goal is to match the political and economical aspirations of the Kendari on the one hand with the environment and livability of the people on the other hand. We put both of the groups together; NGOs should not only react but take responsibility as well. Why does the government want do this? What do the NGOs want? These kinds of questions should be raised in order to create synergy."

Need-based scientific assessment: one size does not fit all

In our style of work, innovation is the cake, not the icing, says Assela Pathirana. "At IHE Delft we usually do not follow the typical academic approach of first doing the research and then searching for applications and buy-in. We work with the people on the ground from day one. This is where we set ourselves apart from typical universities. By turning this around, we work intensively with stakeholders".

This year, the project is organizing a big workshop in one of the cities to share experiences. The research needs in the cities of Kendari and Batam have become clear now. Local experts are being involved and an alumnus of IHE Delft wants to work at government level on the Kendari Bay challenge.

"Our wish is to be there in the long whole, we are not going to abandon these cities after the project ends. Sometimes you need a lot of repetition to get something moving. What our legacy would be is 4-5 years down the road to see what the impact actually is. It's clearly long-term. The real lasting impact takes time."

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