[Urban Policy] ASEAN Context: National Urbanization and Ecological Protection Policies

by bushra

ASEAN Context: National Urbanization and Ecological Protection Policies

Hor Keomayourado

Creating sustainable cities in ASEAN will be crucial in narrowing existing development gaps, strengthening resilience, promoting innovation, improving well-being and connecting people from one region to another. Policy actions that national government authorities can implement to facilitate the organization of the general urban system and the larger national context in which each urban development takes shape.


“A key objective of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 is to raise the standards of living of the local peoples. Urbanization is considered as the heart of this process. Half of ASEAN peoples already live in urban areas and by 2025 a further 70 million people in this region will be city dwellers” (Dato Lim Jock Hoi, Secretary-General of ASEAN).

Cities are node and in the future they will still have been tied to the land, the suburbs and the countryside that surrounds them and provide them with Important ecological services. Thus, the National Authority is often well positioned to provide data and macro-level guidance to help ensure sustainable urbanization dynamics across the nation. National economic development and corridor planning across cities of different sizes and policy directives for urban-regional development authorities to established urban development boundaries to protect important ecological land. There are two key examples of national policy action that can help shape sustainable urban forms and economies.

Economic Development Planning Across Cities of Different Size

The growing population of most cities in ASEAN has put tremendous pressure on infrastructure development. Cities often face unsustainable rapid growth rates, resulting in inadequate infrastructure and slums, impoverishing poor migrant workers such as Manila 12.9 million (Philippine), Jakarta 10.3 million (Indonesia) and Bangkok 9.3 million (Thailand).

National urban planning can include policies that promote the growth of the urban industry, best suited for a specific city size and category. Such a plan should take into account the fact that the portfolio of economic and industrial activities best located to support the local urban economy will vary, at least based on the location, size and physical configuration of the city.

Large cities like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Jakarta (Indonesia), tend to be more economically efficient if they focus on services and high-technology manufacturing. Small and medium-sized cities tend to be more economically efficient when they specialize in lower-technology manufacturing and agriculture-related industries such as Vientiane (Lao), Siem Reap (Cambodia), Yangon (Myanmar) and Ho chi minh (Vietnam). By coordinating urban economic development policy at a national level and pursuing strategic inter-urban infrastructure connectivity investments, policy makers can help promote balanced urban growth and the development of industries that are the most appropriate in a given urban area. National urbanization plans should incorporate policies that promote the growth of industries best suited for the city size and include a portfolio of activities suited for larger cities, given the plans will need to adapt as the cities grow.

The ‘symbiotic’ relationship between Singapore and Johor is an example of cross border economic planning and coordination that takes advantages of the relative strengths that each urban area has to offer. National economic development authorities in Malaysia have invested in local industrial infrastructure and stronger linkages with nearby Singapore. Johor (A state of Malaysia) has benefitted from this proximity to Singapore and has attracted lower-wage electronics manufacturing functions that the substantially higher waged economy of Singapore is no longer well positioned to support. The two economies complement each other and form the basis of a strong global center of electronics development and manufacturing.

Singapore-Johor Causeway, a road and rail link that connects Woodlands at the northern part of Singapore to Johor Bahru at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula


National Ecological Preservation and Urban Boundary Setting Requirements

The World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It means sustainable developments are not just about the environment. It is also about ensuring a strong, healthy and just society that meets the diverse needs of all people in existing and future communities.

Within ASEAN, there is a growing realization that sustainable development should be a central tenet of ASEAN’s community integration efforts. The ASEAN Community Vision 2025 recognizes the complementarity of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with ASEAN’s community building efforts to uplift the standards of living of her peoples.

Unplanned urban growth and expansion beyond urban boundaries generally does damage to all residents of the urban area and the region, as it encourages sprawl and inefficient in resource distribution and application. National authorities can work to establish policy directives and place a national cap on the total area of land that can be urbanized. Regional or national caps on urbanization can then be coupled with individual urban development boundaries and limits implemented by urban-regional development authorities that correspond to the needs and conditions of specific urban areas. National policy makers can require that urban-regional authorities set urban boundaries and ecological red-lines, which can be powerful policy tools for promoting guided urban development at a macro scale.

Robust national databases of city and urban area-specific statistics regarding population growth, economic development, physical expansion patterns, surrounding high value lands and other data points can help inform a process of setting urban boundaries that strikes a balance between compact urbanization—thereby protecting agricultural and ecological lands—and allowing for necessary flexibility in terms of both accommodating population growth and economic development.


Urbanization vision of ASEAN Nations is projected to bring 205 million new residents to cities by 2050. Reconciling the demands for both growth and better environmental protection will not be easy and ways to do so are far from assured. The future of ASEAN cities will be very different from today. They will be transformed in their demographic composition, in their implementation of technology and in their wider ecological contexts. The challenges of building cities sustainable enough to meet the changing needs of the future will require new ways of thinking and working, as well as new kinds of multi-stakeholder initiatives and partnerships. A sustainable future occurs when urban and territorial planning lays a foundation, resilience guards against future risk, smart cities deploy the best technology for the job; and financing tools help pay for it all. Getting these essentials right in Asian and Pacific cities today is vital in order to adapt to the demands of tomorrow. The efforts should be made, not only between the different ASEAN governments, but also span across government authorities (the economic as much as the environmental agencies), between government and private sector corporations, up and down the production and value chains in different sectors and products.

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