Smaller Cities in Asia: What, How Many and What to Do about it?
As we look at the city of George Town, with a population of some 750,000 living with the city limits of ca. 120 sq/km (roughly the size of the city of Paris), one of the things that comes most immediately to mind is that, despite the significant challenges posed by the current transportation arrangements, it is certainly not an example of a major Asian megalopolis, or even a “large city” by Asian standards. And even if we take into account the entire George Town Conurbation, the total population is just a bit more than 2.2 million.
So what can we call it? What about a smaller Asian city?
This article has been written as what will hopefully be the first step in a process of getting together with other colleagues across Asia who share this interest in order to see if we can define a collaborative project that will address the considerable challenges (and opportunities) of transport policy and practice in smaller cities across the region. It is anticipated that these ideas will take better shape as more colleagues join the discussions.
This is interesting to the extent that it would seem that there is a special problematique when it comes to planning for sustainability in general and for sustainable transport in particular in smaller and medium-sized Asian cities. At least that is our thesis, and one to which we intend to give attention in the context of the Penang project.
” Medium-sized cities don’t get the same attention and resources that the large megacities do, but they face the same issues.” – Stephen Tyler, Institute for Social and Environmental Transition in Vietnam
But what in fact is a Smaller Asian city?
To get a feel for this we carried out some back of the envelope calculation drawing on a quick survey of UN and other recognized statistical sources. We came up with these numbers which, though admittedly rough and conceptual, are certainly not without meaning.
Here’s how the rough numbers work: If we take half a million people as our lower size limit, we can see there are on the order of 400 cities in Asia with populations of about 500,000 or more.
Of these there are a rough dozen megalopolis or megaregions of more than 10 million, and another dozen of more than 5 Million. In addition there are about thirty more with populations of more than ca. 2.5 million (most of these in China). These large and mega cities have their own problematiques and issues which set them apart from the rest.
If we take this as our rough limits — i.e., populations of greater than half a million but less than 2.5 million — we are looking at something on the order of 300 cities that fall into this roughly defined group.
Certainly cities similar in many ways to George Town — Kaohsiung in Taiwan (1.8 million), Suwon in Korea (1.1 million), Semarang in Indonesia (1.5 million), Vientiane in Laos (650,0000), Cebu City in the Philippines (900,000) or Chiang Rai in Thailand (1.2 Million) — just to take a first handful of quick examples — have their own problems when it comes to transport and quality of life more generally. But they also have a number of potential advantages when compared to their larger and more congested sister cities. Their challenge being to find ways to take advantage of their assets. And this for most of them is far from a hopeless task.
Against this background, here is our question: Do these cities have enough in common when it comes to the transport and related issues to warrant thinking about them as a category worthy of analysis, not only as individual cities but as members of a larger group?
Proposal for 2015
Let us look into organizing an international conference on Sustainable Transport Strategies in Smaller Asian Cities in 2015. We have a hot topic, we have a defined group of needful cities, we have an Agenda (the New Mobility Agenda) and we have helped organize international conferences and events on similar topics in many parts of the world. Now all we have to find is a sponsor.
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