Urbanization in East Asia is a transformational phenomenon that can help improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people during the coming decades. Urban policy makers and planners have an important role to play in ensuring that urban expansion, and the economic growth it brings, is efficient and inclusive. Once cities are built, their urban form and land use patterns are locked in for generations, making it critical for cities to get their urban form right today, or spend decades and large sums of money trying to undo their mistakes.
Urbanization is a key process in ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity. In the coming decades, urban areas will be where millions of East Asians will have the chance to leave extreme poverty behind and to prosper. The findings in this study reinforce the connection between economic growth and urbanization. However, although the growth of urban areas provides opportunities for the poor, urban expansion, if not well planned, can also exacerbate inequality in access to services, employment, and housing.
This study uses a consistent approach to measuring urbanization across East Asia. Urban leaders, policy makers, and researchers trying to understand or respond to urbanization have been hampered by the lack of internationally comparable data, given that each country defines urban areas and populations differently. This study uses satellite imagery and other data to expand the knowledge of urbanization by defining and measuring the physical extent of urban areas and their populations in a consistent manner, across East Asia, for 2000 and 2010.
The EAP region underwent rapid urban expansion and urban population growth between 2000 and 2010. East Asia had 869 urban areas with more than 100,000 people in 2010; 600 of these urban areas were in China. Although new urban expansion was remarkable (spanning more than 28,000 square kilometers), urban populations grew even faster than urban land. If the region’s new urban population from 2000 to 2010, nearly 200 million people, were a country unto itself, it would be the world’s sixth largest. However, despite the region’s large urban population, only 36 percent of its total population lives in urban areas, suggesting more decades of urban growth to come. Lower-middle-income countries had the fastest urban population growth, whereas upper-middle-income countries had the fastest spatial growth. Despite the visibility of “megacities,” there was more urban land and population, as well as more growth, in small and mediumsized urban areas.
Urban population densities in the region were high, on average, and are increasing. Despite appearances, urban expansion in EAP has been relatively spatially efficient. Most urban areas outside China became denser. Although many Chinese urban areas declined in population density, the country’s overall average urban population density remained stable.
Hundreds of urban areas in the region now cross local administrative boundaries. About 350 urban areas in East Asia spill over local administrative boundaries. In 135 of these urban areas, no single jurisdiction encompasses even half of the total urban area.
Policy makers at the national and municipal levels have important roles to play in ensuring that urbanization proceeds in an economically efficient, sustainable, and inclusive manner. Governments, particularly in lower middle-income countries with rapid urban population growth, can prepare for future spatial expansion by facilitating the supply of urban land. National governments can help foster the economic benefits of urbanization through national urbanization strategies and by supporting investment in small and medium-sized cities, where the largest amount of urban growth is occurring.
Spatial planning can help reduce inequality in access to urban opportunities and amenities. The pattern of urban form is one of many factors that affect the ability of the urban poor to access economic opportunities in their cities. Ensuring a spatial match between jobs, affordable retail, public transportation, health and education services, recreational areas, and affordable housing is one of the means of fostering such access. Land acquisition for urban expansion can be disruptive, but it can also help bring opportunities to peri-urban residents and allow them to benefit from urban growth. Addressing the vulnerabilities of recent rural-to-urban migrants can also help ensure that the advantages of rapid urbanization are inclusive.
The environmental benefits of high urban population densities can be boosted by ensuring that density is well coordinated, located, and designed. Sufficiently high urban densities can contribute to sustainability. The benefits of East Asia’s already high urban densities can be maximized if density is allowed to locate where there is demand for it; if it is supported by the coordinated location of jobs, services, and public transportation; and if it is designed so that it produces a walkable, livable urban environment. Risk-sensitive land use planning can ensure that urban growth does not expose the urban poor to natural disasters.
The future prosperity of East Asia’s urban areas will depend in large measure on tackling the challenge of governing multijurisdictional urban regions effectively. Many of the region’s urban areas cannot be effectively served by local governments acting independently. International experience suggests that regional government authorities and other mechanisms can help coordinate urban service provision across municipal boundaries. Overcoming issues related to metropolitan fragmentation requires considering tradeoffs between localized and centralized administrative authority.
The data produced as part of this study can benefit future research. A wealth of spatial and other data generated by this study is being released publicly online, along with interactive online maps. Combined with other sources of data at various scales, such data can help further the understanding of urbanization in East Asia.