This year’s Sustainable Cities Index reported the top 10 sustainable cities of 2015. The Index provided an overview of 50 of the world’s cities and what their performance rankings were in relation to the factors of people, planet and profit – the three pillars of the triple bottom line. Europe dominated the top 10 overall rankings, holding seven of the 10 places. And with good reason: Europe has developed an impressive environmental legislation over the past 40 years. They have continuously demonstrated how improving the environment could drive innovation and job creation, while improving the quality of life for everyone.
But seeing those European cities on the list isn’t what impressed me. I was more fascinated by the fact that the remaining three rankings were held by Asian cities. While no American city made the top 10 list (with Boston holding 15th place), three cities proved that global sustainability is becoming increasingly dependent on the implementation of effective environmental policies in the developed cities of Asia.
Here are the sustainable cities in Asia that were successful in finding a better equilibrium in terms of development and progress:
Seoul: Ranked No. 7
Over the past 60 years, South Korea has grown from a war-torn nation to a major world power, becoming the 13th largest economy in terms GDP. This is quite impressive for a nation with a population of only 50 million. The capital and largest city, Seoul, is the product of this rapid economic growth. With over 25.6 million people living in the metropolitan area, Seoul shares the same problems as other large cities, including detrimental impact on the environment. It seemed the citizens of Seoul faced the choice between an improved quality of life and helping the environment… Or did they?
Forward-thinkers look to the idealized notion of the “ubiquitous city” in order to strive toward becoming a more sustainable city. The key to the ubiquitous city concept is technology. Seoul is a world leader in terms of digital governance and open data. This includes an extensive high-speed Internet network. In a ubiquitous city, the free flow of data allows citizens to understand their impact on the environment, as well as the best steps to take in order to reduce their negative effect. The idea is that, by improving technology infrastructure, urban residents can shape their lifestyles in an eco-friendly manner. An example of this in action is the Personal Travel Assistant system. This system delivers real-time information of the public transportation network. It allows the user to access information on carbon emissions and other green transportation options.
South Korea has taken this idea a step further by initiating a project on a huge scale, with the purpose of building the “smart city” Songdo. This city lies near the Seoul airport and has a future projected population of 2 million. This “city on a hill” has the technology and green space to live up to this moniker. It will successfully sustain an underground system of tubes for disposing of waste, universal broadband, integrated sensor networks, and green buildings to truly make it the “city of the future.”
Songdo may soon become the benchmark that the rest of Seoul will work toward, for achieving both a high quality of living and a sustainable city.
Hong Kong: Ranked No. 8
Hong Kong rose to international prominence in the late 1970s, acting as a trading hub between China and the rest of the world. This led Hong Kong to become one of the world’s financial centers that boasts a high GDP and quality of living. This rapid growth, however, also brought about the age-old problems that go hand in hand with urbanization: pollution and environmental degradation. Hong Kong has thus taken steps to curb these negative effects.
Hong Kong has a Council for Sustainable Development, which operates the Sustainable Development Fund. This fund of $100 million is provided to act as financial support for initiatives that will promote awareness for sustainable development, as well as initiatives that encourage sustainable practices. This promotes the active involvement of the citizenry through nonprofit organizations and educational institutions. Leadership in Hong Kong seems to take the view that individual efforts and policy changes will lead to sustainable growth.
Technology has also played an important role in Hong Kong’s sustainability. Citizens of Hong Kong extensively utilize non-motorized and public transit. The Octopus Smart Card makes it easy for users to pay for public transit as well as parking. The smart card can also be used for grocery stores and vending machines. This convenience and usability makes public transit a more desirable option. There are also laws preventing certain types of personal behavior, such as spitting in public, littering, and consuming food or drinks on any public transportation.
Singapore: Ranked No. 10
Singapore has made tremendous progress since its independence in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister, wanted Singapore to outshine other developed countries in areas of cleanliness and efficient transport systems. Singapore’s famouschewing gum ban is one of the many successful environmentally-friendly initiatives that are enforced through the legal system. You’re even legally required to flush public toilets in Singapore. It’s interesting to note that Hong Kong is one of Singapore’s biggest admirers in terms of imposing bans and penalties on certain types of “rude” behavior.
Singapore also has something called the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint, which outlines a cohesive plan of action for all citizens to follow in order to create a more sustainable city. It targets green and blue spaces, transportation, resource sustainability, air quality, drainage, and community stewardship. Much like Hong Kong and Seoul, Singapore relies on advanced technology and a robust public transportation network.
However, Singapore was able to take on a problem unique to its city — the need to import potable water from Malaysia — and turned it into an economic strength. Singaporean policies supporting innovation to solve this problem lead to over 100 companies developing a profitable niche industry in collecting rainwater and recycling water. Their technologies have spread around the globe.
Singapore not only relies on technology, but also on its own citizens. The Sustainable Singapore Blueprint emphasizes community involvement in conserving resources and preserving green spaces.
The future of urbanization
It seems that these three cities have some significant similarities:
- Robust and convenient public transportation
- Relatively recent economic growth
- Utilization of advanced technology
- High GDP per capita ($30,000+ GDP per capita)
- Space limitations
Space limitations may be the driving force for these advanced Asian cities and their environmentally friendly innovations. Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul are all small areas that have space restrictions, and thus high population densities. Where in other places, people can simply spread out (see Los Angeles), these cities cannot. Singapore is a city-state; Hong Kong was historically bordered by not-so-friendly China; and the Seoul metro area is slowly taking over South Korea, with half of the country’s population, 25 million people, living in the Seoul metro. Everyone feels the need to live in these cities, even when there is a severe lack of space.
With space constraints, pollution gets worse; there is less green space, more litter and a higher demand for resources. This led these three cities to deal with the sustainability issue in similar ways, which all boil down to infrastructure. Since each city has the wealth to deal with the problem, they do, using technology to improve infrastructure. Infrastructure means more communication between citizens, better recycling efforts, better public transit, better waste disposal and better emissions management.
Anum Yoon is a writer who is passionate about personal finance and sustainability. As a regular contributor to the Presidio Graduate School’s blog, she often looks for ways she can incorporate money management with environmental awareness. You can read her updates on Current on Currency.