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January 19, 2011

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Hard truths and choices of Asia's urbanization explored in Japan meet

JOURNALISTS from several big Asian cities recently gathered in Fukuoka, Japan, to discuss problems of deteriorating environment caused by urbanization.

The 5th Asian City Journalist Conference was organized by the UN-HABITAT Fukuoka Office and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism of Japan, and supported by the Nishinippon Newspaper.

Eight journalists spoke frankly about urban problems in their countries. They share common problems such as traffic congestion, overpopulation, pollution of air, water and soil. Some cities are seriously troubled by the lack of basic services, soaring home prices, and aging population.

Hence the challenge of achieving "balanced urbanization."

In his keynote speech, Fumihiko Seta, associate professor from Osaka City University, believed that urban and environmental concerns are often given low priority in actual policies.

Seta also cited depopulation and aging in Japan, warning that aging is to become a serious issue in many Asian countries, among them China.

Sharing know-how

And unlike Japan, which tackled (or is tackling) various of its urban and environmental problems gradually during economic progress, many Asian countries have to solve various problems simultaneously, while still aspiring to economic growth.

Here arises the importance of information-sharing among Asian countries in solving their problems.

For instance, the City of Kitakyushu suffered serious pollution during Japan's growth in the 1960s, and it has since undertaken an all-out effort to fight pollution on the part of residents, private enterprises, research institutes and the government.

The technology and knowledge gained in this process can be useful to other Asian cities.

In his presentation independent journalist and author Arun Katiyar from India analyzed the impact of traffic congestion in Mumbai and proposed greater walkability as a way to alleviate the problem.

Among the advantages of improved walkability are improved social equality, lower pressure on public and personal transport, environmental sustainability, and improved health for residents.

In a subsequent chat with Katiyar I found the journalist himself was not only a great walker, but also a great cyclist, who owns five bicycles and sometimes pedals hundreds of kilometers in a single day.

Looking back

In my presentation, I pointed out that it is tempting to look forward to new technologies, but it is also important to occasionally look backwards.

While ordinary residents actually living in a big city are chronically frustrated with long commutes, noise, bad air, and worsening water quality, policy makers still regard a sprawling city dominated by high rises as the ideal.

One reason may be that urban life is heavily based on consumption, and consumption can lead to high growth.

But a city's primary function is to serve the daily needs of its residents, not to impress others.

For a resident, a local library, a neighborhood park, a corner shop or a breakfast stall can mean more than the glitter of the neon lights and brand shops.

A rational way of living evolves historically, as a result of gradual adaptations to local climate, geography, and culture.

The traditional Chinese dwelling is characterized by greater emphasis on harmony with its natural surroundings, and relatively little emphasis on personal comforts. It is a low-carbon way of living.

As cities grow, traditional extended families are also becoming obsolete. One of the most affected segments of the population is the elderly, many of whom are now cared for by institutions, rather than their children.

Hopefully these explorations can help us tackle the problems confronting us.


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