Postcard from Thailand: deconstructing urbanisation
11 July 2013
Dr Paul Jones writes from Thailand about how urbanisation is unfolding in a diverse and increasingly interconnected Asia Pacific region.
At the end of June I found myself in Chang Rai, Thailand, meeting with other urban planning experts to work on a UN report on the state of urbanisation across the Asia-Pacific region. The report, the latest of which is called the State of the Asia-Pacific Cities Report 2014-2015, is produced every three to four years. The UN appointed me to the Expert Advisory Group reviewing the draft version of the report because of my background as an urban planning practitioner in both Australia and the Pacific and, more recently, my work as a researcher in urban studies.
Chang Rai is located some 600 plus kilometers north of Bangkok and is Thailand's northernmost city. It has a population of approximately 70,000 and is only an hours' drive to Thailand's border with Myanmar to the north, and Laos to the east. With China only two hours' drive to the north through Laos, it is a region dominated by complex border issues, including illegal migration and drug trafficking.
Chang Rai is also fortunate in having a university, Mae Fah Luang University, catering to some 10,000 students. The affordability of university study in Chang Rai compared to Bangkok, combined with its strategic northern border location, means Mae Fah Luang University can attract students from neighboring countries, including nearby China.
The UN chose Chang Rai as the location for our work, in part because the city received a UN-Habitat 'Good Practice' award for urban biodiversity conservation in 2011: we were able to witness firsthand its initiatives in water recycling, urban agriculture and environmental management. The other key reason for the location is that some 70 percent of the word's urbanisation growth is now being generated in small- to medium-sized towns and cities such as Chang Rai.
These small towns and centres, often located in rural hinterlands as part of larger sub-regional entities, are engines of growth for local processing and production of niche goods and services. They therefore play a major role in supporting informal economic activities and reducing rural and urban poverty levels. The importance of supporting and understanding the role of small towns and cities is often overlooked in the urbanisation debate, with much research focused on the complexities of the dominant cities and their mega urban regions.
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP), the organisation that commissions the report, includes in its definition of the Asia Pacific region the central Asian republics (former Russian states such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan), the economic powerhouses of central Asia such as China and India, and Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and the Pacific. The latter includes Australia, New Zealand and some 7,500 islands scattered across the Pacific Ocean.
The entire region is expected to include 2.7 billion people living in urban centers by 2015 - more than half (56.5 per cent) of the region's total population of 4.8 billion.
The Asia Pacific region is becoming increasingly urbanised. Populations in the Asia Pacific's urban centers are growing faster than populations in national and regional centres. The pattern of urbanisation takes varying forms across the region, from the handful of major cities characterising Australia's urban patterns, to megacities such as Tokyo, Delhi and Shanghai (each with more than 20 million residents in their urban regions and urban agglomerations) to small Pacific Islands with 50 per cent or more of their populations in urban centres that still retain an urban character.
My role on the UN's Expert Advisory Group was twofold. Firstly, my task was to ensure the publication provides an accurate and balanced coverage of current urban trends in Australia and the wider Pacific sub-region. Secondly, with other team members I had to identify issues which are common across all sub-regions and countries, as well as the issues where there are differences.
China, for example, has a household registration system (hukou) which controls population movement and determines who can and who cannot access urban employment and services, including housing. Australia on the other hand is far less dense and compact than its Asian counterparts, resulting in big issues around access to basic infrastructure, services and employment in middle and outer suburbs or urban areas. Access to the privileges of a city is far from equally distributed in all towns and cities in the Asia Pacific region.
As urbanisation unfolds, a key recurring consequence is that urban poverty remains widespread, whether it is the form of homelessness in Australia, or the slums, squatter and informal settlements that continue to grow in both number and density throughout the region, including our own often neglected backyard, the neighbouring Pacific Islands.
The message is clear: it is not urbanisation in itself that reduces urban poverty. Economic growth and other policies must allow the benefits of growth to be distributed to all in the form of clean water supply, education, sanitation, housing, land and inclusion in basic democratic processes to allow human development opportunities to be maximised for all.
Paul Jones is Associate Professor and Program Director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, a board member of the University of Sydney's recently established Sydney Southeast Asia Centre and a member of the University's Pacific Regional Advisory Group.
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