East Asia’s Urbanization Problem

The fast growth of Asia’s cities is chaotic and rife with problems. But that is not unusual.

It’ll still be an Asian century, no matter the global recession. With China leading the way and neighboring economies boasting growth rates that make Europe’s pale in comparison, there seems little reason to doubt that proposition.

Kevin Brown is worried, though. There is a big problem to overcome “and it is not the flashpoints in North Korea, the Taiwan Straits and Kashmir,” he writes in the Financial Times. It is the region’s dangerous pace of population growth, “and the health, environmental and security problems caused by urbanization on a scale unique in human history.”

The United Nations is forecasting that the world’s population will rise by more than 40 percent to 9.3 billion by 2050, with the proportion living in cities increasing to 70 percent from slightly more than 50 percent today. But the impact will be concentrated in Asia, where two-thirds of the world’s population lives and where rapid economic growth is accelerating the natural process of urbanization. While Europe is dealing with the problems of ageing, Asia (excluding Japan) will be trying to cope with a rush to the cities estimated at nearly 140,000 people a day.

How well the Asian economies handle this rapid urbanization process “will have a huge impact on whether this really does turn out to be the Asian century,” according to Brown.

The signs, he’s afraid, are ominous. It is hard to imagine, after all, watching sprawling slums encroaching upon the otherwise very Western-looking metropoles of the East, that anything other than social upheaval and ultimately economic decline can come of it.

Yet the East Asian experience is hardly new. Chaotic urbanization has always accompanied fast growth and inspired concerns like Brown’s. Eventually, as economies mature, living conditions improve, along with people’s health, the city environment and security.

Brown would do well to remember that we broke out of the Malthusian Trap two hundred years ago. There is no reason to think Asia can’t do better.