Dean Forbes

Asian CitIES

Dean Forbes
Flinders University
Paper for Sage Encyclopedia of Urban Studies
Publication in 2010

Asia extends from the Ural Mountains and Turkey eastwards to the Pacific Ocean, and includes the major island states along the western Pacific Rim.  Asian cities are diverse in many major characteristics.  The colonial era, particularly from the early 19th to mid 20th Century, gave a few common features to some larger cities.  Decolonization, beginning in the 1940s, created new states and imprinted on the larger urban areas.  The partition of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh impacted on the cities.  In Pacific Asia the emergence of socialist states in China, Vietnam and elsewhere shaped distinctive urban landuse patterns.  By the late 20th Century the escalating economic development of Asia had increased the recognizable international features to the majority of Asia’s cities, and accelerated the emergence of several giant megacities.

The City in History

Prior to World War II there was little analysis of Asian cities in English.  However, throughout history, travelers regularly published description of Asia’s towns and cities.  Marco Polo, the 13th Century Venetian trader wrote of the Mongolian and Chinese towns he visited, though some dispute whether his story is told firsthand, or based on travelers accounts.  He claimed to have visited Khanbaliq, present day Beijing, the home of the Kublai Khan and capital of the Yuan Dynasty. Italo Cavalo has written a modern fictionalized account of Polo’s journey. 

Max Weber’s writings in the first half of the 20th Century compared and contrasted the Occidental and the ‘Asiatic’ or ‘Oriental’ city.  His focus was mainly China, India and Japan.  The sociologist Gideon Sjoberg drew extensively on Indian and Chinese urban histories in his conceptualization of the ‘preindustrial city’.  However, in general Asian cities were marginal to the interest in the evolving 20th Century city. 

Published analytical writings about Asian cities increased significantly around the middle of the 20th Century.  The demise of colonialism and the emergence of new independent nations, including India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Vietnam saw an expansion of western interest in Asian cities.  Independence coincided with an escalation in the pace of urbanization, especially through the migration of rural residents to the emerging capital cities and the centers of commerce and trade.

The Dutch sociologist William Wertheim edited 19th Century Dutch writings on the Indonesian town, revealing the poor conditions of the cities, with their wealthy colonial enclaves, and the wretched village housing of the native Javanese.  Another growing source of writings on Asian cities were contained in major Asian regional geography texts.  Authors such as J. E. Spencer, included descriptive chapters on the populations and economies of Asian cities.

Historians writing about the emergence of cities in Asia began to emphasize the deep historical roots of some of Asia’s cities.  Anthony Reid drew attention to the significant urban history of Asia, highlighting a long urban tradition in a region that was generally seen as agriculture oriented, because of the interest in the wet rice cultivation systems.  A distinction existed between Asia’s ‘sacred’ and ‘market’ cities.  Sacred cities such as Kyoto and Yogyakarta were shaped by rulers and their cosmological beliefs.  Market cities including Singapore, Shanghai and Kolkata were a product of their locations on major trade routes, and hosted a cosmopolitan population of merchants and traders.

The Contemporary Asian City
Around two thirds of the world’s population live in Asia, which encompasses the two most populous nations, China and India.  Both have well in excess of one billion inhabitants.  Another four countries, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Japan, have populations over 100 million. 

Rapid decolonization, and the establishment of independent states followed the end of World War II.   Attention turned to the formation of new states trying to meet the challenges of recovering from the colonial experience and build new societies, economies and political infrastructure.  The process of urbanization and the challenges of the cities became an increasing focus.  By the last quarter of the 20th Century, the escalating integration of many parts of Asia into the world economy meant that contemporary aspects of globalization became a dominant thread in urban scholarship. In parallel, post colonial approaches and themes emerged as Asian writers became more prominent in exploring features of Asian cities.

Urbanization is an outcome of rural-urban migration, fertility levels in cities, and boundary changes as cities grow and encroach upon the surrounding rural areas.  Asian nations have urbanized at different rates.  Singapore is an urban city state, and the entire population of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is urban.  In general, the more economically developed nations have over half their populations living in cities.  These include the Pacific Asian countries of Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Mongolia, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.  Iran and Turkey also have more residents in urban than rural areas.

Less than half the people in China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Timor Leste and Vietnam live in urban areas.  Similarly cities account for under half the populations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The emergence of the Communist regime in Russia in 1917 influenced the shape and functions of Russian cities.  Communist and socialist ideas spread throughout the Asian region from the 1930s onwards.  Socialist regimes were established in China in 1949, and later in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and impacted on the city.

Asia’s socialist regimes tried to slow the rates of urbanization in the period until economic reforms commenced in earnest in the early 1990s.  By enforcing permit arrangements for moving to cities, such as the hukou in China, and controlling urban labor and housing markets, and access to subsidized food, countries such as China and Vietnam slowed rural-urban migration to rates well below neighboring countries with market economies.  However, the process was diluted when they embraced economic reform and became connected into the global economy, and rural-urban migration has increased in recent years.

Asia has hosted the growth of over half of the world’s megacities, or cities with populations of 10 million or more.  In 2005 Tokyo, Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai, Kolkata, Jakarta, Dhaka, Karachi, Osaka-Kobe, Beijing and Manila, comprised over half of the world’s 20 megacities. It is no coincidence that the megacities are located in countries with large populations: China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines respectively.  

There are several other large Asian cities that extend across formal urban boundaries and are, in effect, also of megacity size, including Istanbul, Bangkok and Chongqing.  Terry McGee has analyzed the growth of desakota or extended metropolitan regions in which large cities effectively encompass and urbanize rural settlements around the periphery of the city, creating distinctive urban regions of considerable significance.

The Economy
Asian economies span a significant range.  Japan, Singapore and Brunei, are in the high income range.  The two Koreas, Malaysia, Thailand the Philippines and a handful of western Asian countries, including Turkey, Iran and Kazakhstan are in the World Bank’s middle income band.  The remainder, including the largest countries of China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are low income countries.  The major cities have overall higher levels of income than the rural areas, and higher proportions of middle and upper income earners.  This results in urban-rural disparities, such as striking contrasts between the thriving cosmopolitan centre of modern Shanghai and the impoverished rural regions of western China.

With relatively few exceptions, Asian economies in the 1950s struggled to develop and bring benefits to people in both rural areas and the cities.  Many countries sought to establish new industries, initially based on models intending to replace imports with home produced goods.  Industries were encouraged to establish in the major cities where infrastructure and a potential labor-force were located.  This strategy of industrialization faltered, and countries such as Singapore shifted their orientation towards export-oriented industrialization. Contemporary industrial development has in most instances leapfrogged from inner city locations to the areas around the major cities.

Industrialization absorbed only a small proportion of the available labor force in cities in Asia’s less economically developed countries.  The vast majority of migrants to the city work in the ‘informal sector’, in micro-enterprises providing cheap goods and services.  Metropolitan authorities frequently sought to suppress micro-enterprises, viewing them as inefficient and disruptive to the city.  Others have pressed for more positive policy interventions, pointing out the need to provide employment for growing numbers of city workers, and the low cost of the services micro-enterprises provide.  At the instigation of the Bangladeshi economist Mohammad Yunus, and the support of organizations such as the Grameen Bank, and more recently the Asian Development Bank, policies promoting the availability of low-cost finance for micro-enterprises have become more common.

The Asian region is developing a number of world cities.  Their high order services in finance, management, law, and architecture, support the location of head offices of significant global companies, giving them an important role in the global economy.   Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore are the prime examples of Asian world cities.  Seoul is the next level down.  The third tier of world cities includes Jakarta, Osaka, Taipei, Bangkok, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and Shanghai. 

All the world cities are located in Pacific Asia.  No south or west Asian city features in the list.  The major cities of the Indian sub-continent have not yet acquired sufficient world city functions, because they are situated in economies with limited global links.  The consistent rates of economic growth of India means that Delhi, Mumbai and possibly Bangalore will be the most likely to achieve world city status within a decade.

Asian cities are developing strategies to strengthen their engagement in information industries.  With the slow down in the IT economy in the US many Indian IT workers returned to India, and especially to Bangalore, where they played a key role in stimulating industry. Bangalore is regarded as a center of hi-tech industry in India, and is diversifying into biotechnology and nanotechnology industries.  Kuala Lumpur is now connected to the Multimedia Supercorridor that extends south of the city to Kuala Lumpur International Airport at Sepang. 
Society and Environment
Islam is the main religion of many large Asian countries, including Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.  Some Middle East urbanists highlight the historical and contemporary influence of Islam on the evolution of the city, and attribute the problems of contemporary Islamic cities to the negative impact of colonialism.  Critics such as Yasser Elsheshtawy reject this ‘narrative of loss’ and highlighting the significance of globalization in shaping modern cities.

Assertive postcolonial voices on Asia’s cities have become prominent. Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk has written autobiographically about Istanbul, drawing inspiration from its long history as the centre of the Ottoman Empire.  Its pivotal location on the strategic Bosphorus Strait provides the backdrop for the juxtaposition within the contemporary city of evolving modernity and a fading past.  His family history provides a framework around which Istanbul’s story is told.

Suketu Mehta’s outstanding writing on Mumbai, the giant Indian city, explores the city’s history and its underbelly. Through extended biographical profiles of criminal ‘black-collar workers’, poets and makers of popular culture he fashions an eclectic picture of this sprawling metropolis.  

The social characteristics of Asian cities are varied.  Most cities have high proportions of the young.  Singapore and Japanese cities, in contrast, have ageing populations.  Youth in the cities are increasingly free of traditional constraints.  They are vulnerable to the scourge of western cities, the pockets of youth-centered urban drug cultures. However, the opportunities for progression through school and on into university study have increased faster than populations have grown.  A small but significant proportion of students go abroad to America, the UK and Australia to attend university and acquire the skills they hope will ensure them a place in the global knowledge economy.  The Chinese and Korean governments have led the way by strengthening local universities.  Singapore has also attracted significant foreign universities to establish small campuses and research centers in the city in order to build local skills, and attract foreign students to Singapore.  

Urban housing issues have attracted much attention.  Migration driven urbanization meant cities absorbed large numbers of rural workers and their families.  It produced spontaneous shantytowns and squatter settlements across many Asian cities.  Residents have generally built their own houses, often from second-hand or scavenged materials, and seldom have security over land.  There has been some softening of attitudes to settlements in the last few decades.  Where once they were considered fit for annihilation, there is greater recognition of the plight of their residents who have nowhere else to go.  

The escalating economic growth within Pacific Asia has seen the expansion of urban megaprojects that are transforming the cities in China, Japan and Singapore.  New middle and high income housing developments are generally intrinsic parts of new complexes of offices catering for the financial, producer services and hi-tech industries.  Transport developments featuring extensive freeways and rail developments have become common.  The magnetically levitating train that connects Pudong Airport with Shanghai at speeds of around 430 kilometers per hour is an eye-catching example of new forms of urban transport servicing Asian cities.

Urban environments are a significant concern throughout most of the Asian region. The Environmental Risk Transition spotlights the changing relationship between people and the environment as cities develop and incomes rise.  ‘Traditional' environmental risks decline over time, but 'modern' environmental risks increase.  Asian cities cluster in three locations across the model. In the most disadvantaged Asian cities the problems centre on water quality and management.  The most significant risk to human well-being is the lack of access to clean water for human consumption.  The low-lying delta cities of Bangladesh have the added risks of frequent flooding either caused by rainfall in the upper reaches of the Ganges River, or tidal and storm surges through the Bay of Bengal.

Planning and Management
Building urban management and planning frameworks has been challenged by the size and rapid growth of Asia’s principal cities, in addition to which so many are located in poor countries with limited financial and human resources. The problems being confronted range from the 2004 tsunami’s devastation of cities in coastal regions of Sumatra and Sri Lanka, to the need to preserve Hanoi’s architectural heritage in a period of rapid growth in urban investment. Looking forward, Asian urban planners will be at the cutting edge of urban change, as Shanghai’s fantastic growth continues, and the major cities along the Pacific Asian coast connect together into extensive mega urban regions.  As Asia’s urban population grows and the region’s economies, particularly China and India, rapidly expand, the Asian city will attract greater world attention.    

See also  Calcutta/Kolkata, Constantinople/Istanbul, Hong Kong, Islamic City, Megacity, Manila, Mumbai, New Delhi, Shanghai, Shantytown, Singapore, Socialist City, Squatter, Squatter Movements, Third World City, Tokyo, Urbanization, World City

Further Readings 
Calvino, Italo. 1978. Invisible Cities. New York: Harvest Books.
Committee on Population, National Research Council. 2003. Cities Transformed: Demographic Change and Its Implications in the Developing World. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.
Elsheshtawry, Yasser (Ed). 2004. Planning Middle Eastern Cities: An Urban Kaleidascope. London: Routledge.
Forbes, Dean. 1996. Asian Metropolis. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Mehta, Suketu. 2004. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. New Delhi: Penguin Books India.
Pahuk, Orhan. 2005. Istanbul: Memories of a City. Translated by Maureen Freely. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.