Environment : Warning: All Roads Lead to Asian Cities : Population growth is fouling the air, blocking the traffic and impoverishing the region’s urban areas.


The classic image of Asia is rural: A peasant in straw hat stooped over in a verdant green checkerboard of rice paddies. But the bucolic vision of Asia is being rapidly transformed.

By the year 2020, according to projections by the United Nations, most of Asia’s population will live in cities. The new image of Asia is a slum dweller, living without such necessities as sanitation and fresh water and commuting to a factory job through increasingly gridlocked traffic.

According to the study, prepared by the U.N.'s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the urban population of the continent is expected to swell from the present 990 million to 2.44 billion in 30 years.

Most of the urban growth will take place in China and India, the world’s most populous countries, but the trend stretches from Bangkok to Jakarta and includes such low-income countries as Pakistan and Bangladesh.


“It’s a very big problem because the authorities in most cities simply can’t cope,” said Jens Overgaard, head of the U.N. commission’s human settlements office. “The large cities in most of these countries have simply been overwhelmed.”

Some cities in China have such bad air pollution that they are no longer visible when photographed from satellites circling above. In Manila, the city is so impoverished that 12,000 people live in a garbage dump called Smokey Mountain.

As jobs dry up in the countryside, millions of rural migrants have been lured by the prospect of relatively well paying factory jobs in the cities. As Overgaard notes, if you chart a country’s economic performance and the rate of urbanization, they rise together.

The problems have arisen because most of Asia’s economic growth has taken place in the last two decades, and governments have been slow in planning and paying for the kind of development a large city needs--highways, mass transit, sewage treatment plants, even electricity generating capacity. There is little regulation, and what rules exist are often ignored.


Consider Thailand’s predicament, which is fairly typical of the Asian experience. A nation of 58 million people, it has climbed from among the world’s poorest 20 years ago to the middle class of industrial nations--not rich, perhaps, but getting wealthier.

Many of Thailand’s poor villages in the north and northeast seem eerily deserted because they are inhabited only by children and old people. Virtually every able-bodied adult has gone to Bangkok to find work.

Mechai Viravaidya, who heads a community development group, said that since most land in Thailand is not irrigated, workers, on average, earn 12 times more in non-agricultural jobs than they do on the land.

“The attraction of the cities is employment,” Mechai said. “They are bringing bodies to meet machines.”

Bangkok’s population grew at an annual rate of 4.12% between 1970 and 1990, and today it stands at about 8 million. The greater metropolitan area already extends in a radius of 60 miles from the center, and Utis Kaotien, a government urban planner, reckons the population will grow to 15 million by early next century.

“Because of a lack of planning, the city is sprawling,” Utis said. “It’s very expensive to serve this kind of development pattern. We recognize that hardship is increasing at a great rate.” Only in the past few years have Thai officials awakened to the seriousness of the problem.

Traffic in Bangkok has become legendary. Cross-town trips of four and five hours have become commonplace, and buses collect children for school at 5:30 a.m. Last month, one of Bangkok’s overworked traffic police officers became a national hero when he went mad at a crowded intersection, turned all the lights to green and danced a jig in the snarled traffic.

Largely because of the traffic, there has been a sharp rise in respiratory problems and lead poisoning, which can affect a child’s development. Businesses complain that their employees arrive at work exhausted and barely able to stay awake.


“Everybody is at the scream level,” said Joe Maier, a Roman Catholic priest who runs an organization working to help the city’s slum dwellers.

Despite the country’s booming economy--growing by 8% a year for a decade--the number of people in Bangkok living below the poverty line also continues to increase. According to 1991 statistics, the city’s poor have nearly doubled in number in the last 30 years, with 35% of the population now living in slums.

According to Maier, real estate speculation has eaten up a third of the slum land formerly used by the poor for housing. Now, three families may occupy the same space as one family did a decade ago.

Bangkok is not alone. According to the U.N. study, 54% of city dwellers in Indonesia live in squatter settlements, compared with 47% in Bangladesh, 36% in India and 28% in the Philippines. Overall, a third of Asia’s urban dwellers are estimated to be squatters or slum dwellers.

“Politically, the urban poor are often legally denied access to land, infrastructure and services necessary for constructing livable habitats,” the U.N. study commented.

Bangkok also suffers from being the country’s only major city--a situation common in Asia and dubbed by sociologists “the primate city” problem. Others include Jakarta and Manila. India is so big it has two--Calcutta and Bombay.

Primate cities force people to one urban area at the expense of all others. Bangkok, for example, is not only a source of factory jobs but also the locale for the nation’s best schools and hospitals, the port, most government offices, the royal palaces, the financial district and stock market.

“If all the good schools are in Bangkok, people will want to live in Bangkok no matter what the government does to encourage people to diversify,” said Overgaard. As a result, Bangkok is 12 times larger than its nearest rival, Chiang Mai.



Another factor in the development of Asian cities is the relatively sudden escalation in property prices. Rice farmers on the outskirts of cities are becoming overnight millionaires. In one recent period in Bangkok, 182 high-rise buildings were being constructed at the same time.

High land prices and tax policies that did not penalize property owners for keeping land vacant are frequently blamed for the urban sprawl. Speculators just keep reselling land rather than putting it to a useful purpose, forcing housing and commercial development to move farther away.

Overgaard believes that cities in Asia are suffering in part because prestige and pay have always been higher for civil servants in the central government than in city hall, meaning the best talent was never available to plan municipal expansion.

Another problem is that while urban planners are frequently well meaning, they have no authority to implement their plans. Thailand has had highways and ring roads on the drawing boards for years but has never had the political will to see them through to construction.

Some solutions are beginning to appear, however. A number of mass transit plans are being implemented for Bangkok, and a multibillion-dollar subway system has just opened in Taipei.

More importantly, Asian governments appear to have received the message that cities need to diversify if they are to avoid the kind of pitfalls now being experienced.

Thailand’s government has drawn up plans, for example, to industrialize the now tiny city of Saraburi, 60 miles north of Bangkok. The city will receive spending for water, roads and electricity in hopes of luring new factories away from the crowded Bangkok corridor.

A pilot program launched by Mechai’s Population and Community Development Assn. has succeeded in attracting a number of low-wage factories to the rural areas. A program of “rural industrialization” is also under way in China.

“We’ve reached a crisis,” said city planner Utis. “When there is a crisis, that’s when the government begins to act.”

Urban Explosion

Populations of some Asian cities are forecast to grow three or four times faster than Los Angeles. Tokyo stands out as an exception. Average Annual Growth Rate (percent):

Urban Area Country 1970-1990 1990-2010* Dacca Bangladesh 7.38 4.91 Karachi Pakistan 4.67 3.81 Bombay India 3.72 3.45 New Delhi India 4.20 .23 Jakarta Indonesia 4.27 3.13 Manila Philippines 4.61 2.96 Bangkok Thailand 4.12 2.93 Beijing China 1.48 2.51 Shanghai China 0.93 2.39 Calcutta India 2.20 1.90 Seoul South Korea 3.63 1.13 Tokyo Japan 2.09 0.73 Los Angeles United States 1.56 0.97

*Projected Source: World Urbanization Prospects, 1992, a U.N publication

Quick Shifts

What a difference 50 years can make! Here are the world’s 10 largest cities in 1950 and in projections for 2000. Most dropouts are from more developed nations; most newcomers from less developed. *1950

Rank Urban Area Country Population (millions) 1 New York United States 12.3 2 London Britain 8.7 3 Tokyo Japan 6.9 4 Paris France 5.4 5 Moscow Soviet Union 5.4 6 Shanghai China 5.3 7 Essen Germany 5.3 8 Buenos Aires Argentina 5.0 9 Chicago United States 4.9 10 Calcutta India 4.4


Rank Urban Area Country Population (millions, projected) 1 Tokyo Japan 28.0 2 Sao Paulo Brazil 22.6 3 Bombay India 18.1 4 Shanghai China 17.4 5 New York United States 16.6 6 Mexico City Mexico 16.2 7 Beijing China 14.4 8 Lagos Nigeria 13.5 9 Jakarta Indonesia 13.4 10 Los Angeles United States 13.2

Source: World Urbanization Prospects, 1992, a U.N publication