Sustainable Urbanization

Sustainable Urbanization


    Cities serve as drivers of economic progress and innovation as well as centers of culture, research, knowledge and development. The way in which Asian and the Pacific cities urbanize and develop will have great impacts across all three pillars of sustainable development and therefore the future sustainability of the planet. Current patterns of rapid, sprawling and unplanned urbanization are fundamentally unsustainable.  From management of resource consumption to meeting housing and infrastructure needs to enhancing resilience to shocks and slow-onset changes, cities in the region face significant challenges.  However, if integrated and well-planned, urbanization offers significant opportunities to drive transformational change that will lead cities towards greater sustainability. 

    Recent global development agendas have recognized the importance of urban areas and cities in sustainable development. Many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development have an urban dimension requiring local action, and SDG 11 specifically calls to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. The Paris Agreement encourages cities to scale up efforts and support actions to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change effects. In the same way, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, recognizes the role of local governments in risk reduction and tackling disasters in urban areas. Finally, the New Urban Agenda (NUA) serves as a guideline for urban planning and encourages cities to become engines of social prosperity while protecting the environment.



    In 2016, more than half the global urban population lived in Asia and the Pacific[1]. Urbanization in Asia and the Pacific is advancing at an unprecedented scale, pace and complexity. Over the last 30 years, the region’s cities grew by around one billion people and projections show that one billion more will be added by 2040[2].  Much of this will be due to natural population growth in cities and reclassification rather than rural to urban migration. While Asia is home to 19 of the world’s 31 “mega cities” (i.e. cities with more than 10 million inhabitants) and mega-urban regions of tens of millions of people, the majority of the region’s urbanites lives in medium and small cities. 40 per cent of the urban population live in settlements below 300,000 inhabitants. Moreover, the fastest urbanization today is experienced by less urbanized, developing countries such as Lao PDR or Nepal. Dramatic changes are experienced in such places that are least equipped to deal with them.

    Cities in Asia and the Pacific generate an estimated 80 percent of the region’s economic output[3]. Having contributed to lifting millions of people out of poverty in the region, cities have become substantial assets of national economies. One of the mega urban trends for the next decades is the dramatic rise of the middle class which is estimated to reach 3.2 billion people by 2030 - representing 80 percent of the world’s total[4]. However, basic needs, such as infrastructure and services, housing, and security, remain unmet for hundreds of millions of urban dwellers subjected to multidimensional poverty. 440 million people in Asia and the Pacific or 26.9 per cent live in slums and informal settlements – with absolute numbers still on the rise. An urbanizing region also goes hand-in-hand with changes in social structure – from more personal freedom and opportunity in education and professional life to changing family structures and population aging – all impacting cities’ physical form and creating demands for new social services. However, much more needs to be done to make cities more inclusive and accessible for different social groups such as women and girls or persons with disabilities. This includes improving safety and availability of public transport or street lighting.

    Changes in production and consumption patterns, waste and pollution have a significant impact on natural resources and ecosystems, as well as human wellbeing. Under a business as usual scenario, many of the region’s cities faces a future of water scarcity, while use of resources has not only been unsustainable but has actually substantially increased with trends pointing in the wrong direction. The amount of solid waste generated in cities is estimated to more than double between now and 2025 to 2.65 million tons per day. Air pollution, meanwhile, continues to rise at an alarming rate, especially in the region’s low-income cities where concentrations of ambient particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) are well above World Health Organization (WHO) recommended standards[5].

    The Asia Pacific region is also vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. Disaster related damage and losses are high, especially for coastal cities in Asia and the Pacific. Among the 10 cities that are projected to have the highest average annual loss from floods by 2050, six are located in the region[6]. Further concerted action is required to make cities more resilient. Integrated responses and concrete and coordinated national and municipal policies need to be implemented at a local level in order to build a resource-efficient and resilient future in which good practices can be replicated and multiplied.

    The different economic, social and environmental transformations in the region’s cities reflect their complexity and dynamism. Urbanization challenges can only be addressed through coherent policies, strategies and innovative frameworks, which address the financing and capacity gaps of local and central governments. Cities are made of infrastructure and socioeconomic networks in which different stakeholders, including national and local government, businesses and civil society interact at a formal and informal level. In order to face the complex challenges of rapidly growing urban areas, effective multilevel and collaborative governance systems must be further developed.


    [2] P. 11


    [4] ESCAP 73rd Commission Session, Commission Paper

    [5] World Health Organization (2016), WHO Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database, available from

    [6] S. Hallegatte et. al (2013). Future flood losses in major coastal cities. Nature Climate Change (Vol 3): 802-806, available from

    Urban Resource Management
    • Sustainable Solutions for Asian Cities through Innovative and Integrated Resource Management: The Urban Nexus

    To respond to the challenges of natural resource scarcity, increasing waste and sanitation problems, and growing inequality, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH has been implementing the project “Integrated resource management in Asian Cities: the urban nexus” since 2013, in partnership with ESCAP and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) and with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (BMZ). The overarching goal is to increase uptake of urban nexus approaches in selected cities and by relevant stakeholders. The project objective is to enhance the capacity of national and local governments in developing countries in Asia-Pacific to formulate and implement integrated policies, plans and initiatives for the sustainable management of natural resources in urban areas focusing on water, energy, solid waste and wastewater. The project assists selected cities in identifying opportunities for introducing a nexus approach and developing concrete project ideas, while establishing a dialogue between national and local governments to identify and remove policy barriers to promote integrated resource management in cities.

    urban nexus



    • Localizing an SDG Sub-set on Sustainable Urban Resource Management in Cities of Asia Pacific

    Local governments are vital to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They need to be ready to plan and implement the SDGs in their cities and to review progress at local level – or in other words, they need to be enabled to effectively participate in the “localisation of the SDGs”. ESCAP jointly with UN-Habitat and partners is starting a new initiative to assist city governments and other key urban stakeholders in adapting their local development plans and in implementing linked activities in line with a thematic subset of SDGs on sustainable management of natural resources and sustainable consumption and production (SCP). The project defines this thematic SDG subset as consisting of SDGs: 6 (clean water and sanitation) 7 (affordable and clean energy), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 12 (responsible consumption and production), and 17 (partnerships for the goals) and refers to it collectively as “urban resource management”. The project will develop regional training and reference materials and assist several pilot cities with strengthening a) multi-stakeholder partnerships, b) evidence-based policy-making, and c) systems based approaches to urban planning and action.


    • Closing the Loop: Unlocking the informal economy to recover plastic waste and reduce marine pollution as part of an inclusive circular economy approach

    A new project from ESCAP aims to strengthen the capacity of policy makers to improve urban waste management systems and reduce pollution by understanding the possible intersection of formal and informal waste processes as one building block of a larger circular economy approach that maximizes social, economic and environmental impacts (SDGs 11, 12, 14 and 17). ESCAP is in a unique position to facilitate this process through its regional network and expertise in resource efficiency, circular economy and integrated municipal solid waste management.


    • Integrated Resource Recovery Centers and Sustainable Development in Small Cities in Asia-Pacific  

    Since 2009, ESCAP, Waste Concern and their partners have been promoting a waste-to-resource approach to sustainable solid waste management in towns and cities across the region. The project has helped local actors to deploy inclusive programs and strategies for adopting 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycling) practices and establish Integrated Resource Recovery Centers (IRRCs). Under this approach, rather than view waste as a problem and burden, it is a valuable resource, one that can be managed to produce sustainable benefits for a range of actors. The project has now come to an end, but tools and lessons learned can be accessed here:




    • Valuing Waste, Transforming Cities

    A waste crisis is emerging in the Asia and Pacific region, fueled by rising quantities of waste, on the one hand, and poor regulation and management, on the other. This crisis threatens to overwhelm the resources and capacity of local governments and communities alike. Within this crisis, however, is a significant and largely untapped opportunity for transformative change. The waste-to-resource approach promotes a paradigm shift in the management of solid waste.

    valuing waste,


    • Valuing the Sustainable Development Co-benefits of Climate Change Mitigation Actions

    The paper uses the case of the waste sector to illustrate the co-benefits associated with certain typologies of climate change mitigation projects, provide suggestions for their quantification and monetization, and draw recommendations for the design of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), including the role of government.



    • Wastewater Management and Sanitation in Urban and Peri-Urban Areas

    The course on Wastewater Management and Sanitation has an emphasis on Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems (DEWATS) policies and is based on the corresponding Policy Guidance Manual. The course focuses on developing policies to promote wastewater management and sanitation to ensure water security in South-East Asia, using the integrated water resource management (IWRM) approach.

    wastewater management course


    • Policy Guidance Manual on Wastewater Management with a Special Emphasis on Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems

    Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems (DEWATS), which is packaging enabling policy and technology, are outlined to be the most effective solution to these issues in the region. This manual provides a step-by-step guide to developing and implementing DEWATS with a set of financial schemes, market opportunities, investment and potential impacts. ESCAP and UN-Habitat jointly implemented the project outlined in this manual to address wastewater and sanitation issues in developing countries of South-East Asia.

    policy guidance

    Urban Governance and Municipal
    • Empowering cities to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the New Urban Agenda: Mobilizing municipal finance for sustainable infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region

    ESCAP/EDD has produced new analytical research for city and national governments to improve the institutional enabling environments for local governments to leverage their resources through longer tenor debt, equity and land based financing of urban infrastructure. A new paper draws on experiences from industrialised and developing countries in raising private debt, equity and land based financing for urban infrastructure and identifies appropriate policy actions for a typology of financing situations in the Asia-Pacific region.


    • Working Paper on Water Markets in Asia and the Pacific: An overview of Trends, Opportunities, Risks and Policies

    The purpose of this study is to provide an assessment of investment trends, and opportunities of water and sanitation markets in the Asia-Pacific region. It also highlights risks and key policies that are important to stimulate water markets and investments in the region. The study indicates increased investments in water infrastructure with the main drivers being regulatory and legislative conditions, and environmental protection initiatives.

    working paper on water markets


    • Working Paper on Development Financing for Tangible Results. A Paradigm Shift to Impact Investing and Outcome Models: The Case of Sanitation Asia

    Traditionally, government, corporate and civil society cultivated their own approaches to financing or delivering sanitations systems which has proven to be inefficient. This report challenges these three groups to work together, and create a new financing paradigm. By identifying a number of opportunities to engage large-scale capital pools that should be tapped, the global sanitation issue can be addressed.

    working paper on development financing


    • Enabling Policies for Financing Water Related Sustainable Development Goals 

    This discussion paper is focused on exploring policies, actions, and strategies to attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by improving the resilience of water systems and infrastructure. This requires strategic mobilization of public resources and augmenting the opportunities for private investment. 

    Enabling Policies for Financing Water-Related Sustainable Development Goals

    • Publication link: 

    • A Better World Vol. 5 

    A Better World: Volume 5 outlines the concept, the main elements and the current international framework for assessing the progress towards SDG11. It proposes a stepwise approach to further tailor national requirements with the overall goal of making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The following articles discuss the progress and challenges in this essential topic, highlighting good practices in a wide variety of societies and disciplines.

    A Better World

    • Pacific Urban Update 2020

    This report by the Asian Development Bank highlights a number 0f urban operations in the Pacific, primarily concerning water and sanitation and disaster resilience. 

    Report Cover

    Urban Resilience
    • Quick Guide for Policy Makers on Pro-poor Urban Climate Resilience in Asia and the Pacific

    The Quick Guide for Policy Makers on Pro-Poor Urban Climate Resilience in Asia and the Pacific focuses on the need to enhance understanding of the region’s key urban stakeholders on climate change, discusses how it affects efforts to realize sustainable urban development, and explores what actions can be taken to synergize continued commitments to poverty reduction alongside urban climate resilience.

    quick guide for policy makers


    • Mainstreaming Climate Change into National Urban Policy

    Under a joint initiative of UN-Habitat and ESCAP, ESCAP is leading the development of a regional guide on mainstreaming climate change related actions into national level urban related policies. This guide is the culmination of multi-year project interventions of UN-Habitat in a number of countries in Asia and the Pacific and brings together lessons learned and proposals on how to move forward. A link to this publication and related training materials will be available soon.


    • Ocean Cities: Supporting Pacific island developing States to adapt sustainable urban development to island systems

    A new project from ESCAP/EDD will strengthen the capacity of SIDS member States to develop and apply an integrated policy approach for oceans-friendly and climate-responsive urban development adapted to island systems. ESCAP is in a unique position to build the capacity of SIDS in developing an integrated approach and to sharing knowledge in and beyond the region. With multidisciplinary expertise and an office on the ground, ESCAP can fill the current vacuum of regional urban development partners in the Pacific and act as a catalyst to develop an integrated ‘ocean cities action framework’, facilitate South-South cooperation and knowledge sharing, and assist strengthening a regional voice of SIDS in a fragmented landscape of sustainable development agendas. With adequate regional cooperation and support, SIDS have the potential to pioneer a climate-smart ocean-centered framework for resilient urban development that can break this vicious cycle of interlinked challenges.   

    Tools and Methodologies
    • Regional Report on Mainstreaming Leave No One Behind in National Urban Policies and Programmes in South Asia

    Over the past few decades, the Asia-Pacific region has witnessed significant social development driven by economic growth, which has generated new jobs, increased labour incomes, strengthened social protection systems, and improved access to basic services and other amenities. Nevertheless, South Asian countries continue to face a wide range of systemic challenges that undermine inclusive and sustainable development. For example, the devastating social and economic impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to plague the subregion in the near future. In addition, widening inequalities continue to drive social divides and disproportionately impact the most discriminated and marginalized individuals and communities in society.

    For the Asia-Pacific region, it is critical that "Leave No One Behind" should be integrated into all areas of sustainable development, particularly because the region is not on track to achieve any of the 17 SDGs, by 2030, and may achieve less than 10 per cent of the SDG targets if it continues to follow on the current trajectory of progress. Furthermore, SDG 11, which requires making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, is also amongst the SDGs that have registered the least progress since 2000. Only 50 per cent of targets could be measured under SDG 11, and the region is likely to miss all targets, by 2030, if it continues on this current trajectory. This lack of progress has resulted in a number of development challenges, particularly in the rapidly urbanizing cities.

    Report Cover


    • Ocean Cities: Regional Policy Guide

    The Ocean Cities concept is an integrated policy approach for ocean-focused and climate-responsive urban development strategies, with a focus on urban areas in Pacific island developing States. Ocean Cities are where urban landscapes and seascapes meet, where built and natural environments near coastlines interface and where human behaviour and urban development have profound impacts on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Ocean Cities are at the forefront of the climate change consequences, the urbanization challenges and other development pressures. Within the context of ongoing urbanization processes in Pacific island developing States, the guide recognizes the important links between the impacts of urban growth and development, climate change impacts, ocean health and coastal systems, and the effect these factors have on the development and resilience of Ocean Cities.



    • Ocean Cities: Snapshot for Policy-makers

    This Snapshot provides an Executive Summary of the Ocean Cities concept, the context, challenges and opportunities of Ocean Cities, and outlines several policy recommendations for the implementation of solutions for simultaneously achieving urban climate resilience, improved sustainability of ocean resources and better integration of landscape and seascape planning. Interested parties are encouraged to refer to the Regional Policy Guide document (also available on the Urban Development Resources webpage) for additional in-depth content.

    ocean cities policy snapshot


    • The Future of Asian and Pacific Cities 2019

    The Future of Asian and Pacific Cities 2019 is the third report, jointly developed by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme in partnership with the Asian Development Bank, Centre for Livable Cities Singapore, the European Union, The Rockefeller Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme.

    The report explores important policy pathways to guide urban stakeholders towards a future vision of inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities within the region. It makes the case for four priorities and four approaches to realize a sustainable urban future in Asia and the Pacific.Getting these essentials right in Asian and Pacific cities today is vital in order to adapt to the demands of tomorrow and to deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the New Urban Agenda.

    Future of Asia-Pacific Cities
    Publication link: The Future of Asian and Pacific Cities 2019 


    • State of Asia Pacific Cities Report

    The State of Asian and Pacific Cities Report (SoAPCR) is a recurring publication of ESCAP, UN-Habitat and other partners that comprehensively captures the region’s rapid urban transformation. The 2015 SoAPCR highlighted the growing gaps between current urbanization patterns and what is needed to shift to a more inclusive and sustainable urban future, in which the region’s cities are unquestionably tied to national, regional and global development prospects. The next report, The Future of Asian and Pacific Cities, planned for 2019 intends to focus more strongly on the region’s urbanizations trends.

    state of asian pacific cities report


    • Asia Pacific Urban Forum

    Every four to five years, ESCAP also convenes the multi-stakeholder Asia Pacific Urban Forums, often in conjunction with other major events, such as the regional preparatory meeting for Habitat III in 2015 in Jakarta, Indonesia. The objective is for multiple stakeholders to exchange views on persistent and emerging issues, generate new ideas, provide guidance to ongoing processes and initiatives, and to coordinate development responses.



    APUF 7


    • Urban SDG Knowledge Platform

    ESCAP, together with CityNet and the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) has initiated the “Urban SDG Knowledge Platform” with the aim to facilitate knowledge sharing and cooperation to support urban practitioners in localising the SDGs and implementing the NUA. Central to the Platform is a repository of city-level good practices, policies and initiatives. It also aims to provide think pieces and update on news and events.

    urban sdg knowledge platform

    Sustainable Urbanization